SIGMA STAR SAGA
Publisher: Namco Hometek
Release Date: August 16, 2005
Buy 'SIGMA STAR SAGA': GBA
The scrolling shooter is an all but extinct genre; aside from a few recent gems like Ikaruga and Gradius V, it's a game mechanic rarely seen now days on any platform. Even less common is the 2D scroller; with the age of rendered sprites and polycounts, titles like R-Type and Raiden are a nostalgic memory of the 1990s, when the games saturated the market. Thus, when WayForward and Namco first put out screenshots of Sigma Star Saga for the Gameboy Advance, a shoot-'em-up with an RPG-like equipment and experience mechanic much like the old SNES game U.N. Squadron, fans of the genre like myself were left drooling all over ourselves. However, those expecting a solid shooter like U.N. Squadron will find the package not quite what they expected it to be.
Sigma Star Saga tells the tale of a longstanding war between Earth and a race of inexplicably sexy-yet-purple aliens called the Krill. You fill the shoes of Ian Recker, hotshot ace pilot and the last surviving pilot of the Sigma squadron after a particularly brutal attack on Earth. As such, your commanding officer calls you to his office, claiming to have a special infiltration mission for you. What he doesn't explain is that part of that mission involves him slipping Recker a mickey, leaving him for dead in a containment cell, and jettisoning him into space like so much unwanted garbage. When the hapless pilot awakens, he's been pulled aboard and being treated on a Krill vessel out in the middle of nowhere. Shortly after he gets "skinned" (a process involving fitting him with a symbiotic entity a la Stargate), he gets a transmission from his former CO via a wire installed in his ear. Turns out that the mission wasn't just an excuse to off him, but instead one to get him knocked out well enough for Earth to rather unceremoniously trick him out like a bad sports car.
From there, Recker works his way through the Krill ranks, helping his new teammate Psyme (whose name apparently rhymes with the word rhyme) explore strange new worlds, seek out new life, and generally do exactly what both the Krill High Command and his own buddies at Earth want him to do ... somehow. The plot of Sigma Star Saga is a little unclear, at times, but is full of twists and turns that leave our protagonist second-guessing everything he does, his reasons, and his very loyalties, just like an anime. The plot isn't the only thing anime-based, obviously. The artwork takes obvious inspiration from Japanese animation, with the Krill women wearing little more than spaghetti-strap bikinis and the symbiotes on their heads and the men looking decently muscular yet completely covered. The sprites convey this pretty well, both in and out of character portraits; the walkabout sprites take up roughly half of the screen, for better or worse.
Of course, to fully explain the ins and outs of how Sigma Star Saga plays, one has to understand exactly what they're getting into. Most of the game is spent wandering around starbases or exploring uncharted planets on foot, armed with little more than a peashooter with which to pop open odd creatures that look strangely like the head-crabs from Half-Life 2. It's in this mode that most of the game is (supposedly) spent, with Recker wandering about, solving puzzles, and breaking statues and enemies for health and bomb power-ups. In addition, he will occasionally find odd chips on these levels which contain gun data, allowing his ship's shot to be changed.
Well, I shouldn't say "his" ship. Apparently, every last ship in the Krill armada has a psychic link with the symbiotes, and any one of them can, at any time, call for a pilot to assist it in shooting threatening creatures. I can see the RPG fans in the background wincing right here and now, and unfortunately, I have to admit that yes, this is how Sigma Star Saga explains "random battles." Often the most maligned part of playing through an RPG, the player in such a game will be forced into a battle with a random assortment of generic beasties every three to four steps. Games from the prolific Final Fantasy to the incredibly cultish Shin Megami Tensei series employ this mechanic. Sigma Star Saga is no different, but in its defense, it does pull them off a little differently; instead of fighting with command menus and magic, each and every random encounter involves Recker teleporting onto a Krill vessel to blow up Geiger-esque enemies in the style of a Gradius game.
The ships he's teleported into range from tiny little things that look like moon-lander units to hulking behemoths that look like they could carry an entire army inside. Note that the levels have absolutely no bearing on the ship you're given because both are chosen at random from completely different tables. As such, there are quite a few times in later stages where you get a ship simply too big for the space you're allowed to maneuver and are forced to crash into walls until you finally explode like a piñata at a child's birthday party.
In addition, the frequency of the battles is horrendous. People who played through Suikoden IV or the Dreamcast version of Skies of Arcadia will go through sympathy pains as someone playing Sigma Star Saga gets into a random encounter every five seconds, thus shifting the focus of the game from exploration and experimentation to mindless, repetitive shooting. However, without these encounters, the game would simply fail altogether, since it's through the same psychic link that a pilot's experience will carry over from ship to ship. Each and every enemy you fell while in a ship will drop a small bauble of experience, and, like in many games, getting enough experience will cause you to "level up," getting a boost in firepower and ship defense. However, shooting and killing enemies in walkabout mode is almost totally worthless, as they drop no experience whatsoever. Thus, it's a bit of a confusing prospect that the only way to recover health or replenish bombs is in the walkabout mode.
The game isn't a total failure, however. Like many RPGs that have equipment for the heroes to equip, Sigma Star Saga gives Recker three slots for gun data: one for the type of shot, one for how the shot is aimed, and one for what the shot does on impact. This allows for massive customization, but seems to punish it at the same time. Recker can only have one setup at any given time, and if it's not suited for the present level, he's stuck with the bare bones "weakling shot." In addition, many of the most vital pieces of gun data come much later on in the game, such as the one that causes each enemy destroyed to count as two for the sake of finishing the battle (useful if you're getting sick of the frequency of battles), or the one that allows the ship to autofire if the button is pressed down (useful if you want to keep your thumb after the game is over, since one must hammer the "shoot" button throughout every encounter). Having these earlier on, or in the case of the latter, as a built-in option, would have been a smart move on the part of the developers.
In addition, the difficulty varies wildly. Near the end of each planet, you will find a story-based stage, and these are typically much more reminiscent of an old shooter, right down to the insane level of twitch gaming required to clear them. Sigma Star Saga starts out in one of these very stages, with Recker still in his squadron ship. It's jarring, then, to go from a stage difficult enough to garner looks from a hardcore twitch player straight into stages easy enough that a third grader could finish them. The former will chase off those expecting the game to let them by easily, and the latter will push away those expecting a challenging shoot-'em-up for their effort.
For such a lackluster game on the inside, however, it's certainly wrapped in a very pretty package. The graphics are a treat, for the most part; the walkabout sprites are a bit larger than they have to be, but are crisp and clear. The shooter mode, however, has even crisper sprites, and looks good enough even to rival classics such as Gradius III.
The music... well, in a perfect world, you could be told that Namco published this game, and would understand perfectly how the soundtrack works. Since this is far from a perfect world, however, all you need to know is that the track is that same brand of high-energy techno that is abundant in many, if not all, shoot-'em-ups, and that the only time it gets old is when the encounters as a whole are starting to grow stale. Seeing as that's not the fault of the soundtrack itself, I can't really fault it for that.
Sigma Star Saga is not the game that people were expecting. Instead of getting a shooter with RPG elements, like U.N. Squadron, the game is instead an RPG with shooter elements. Does that work? That depends on what you're looking for. If you want a compelling, complex storyline ripe with betrayal and confusion, go ahead and pick this one up. If you want something to whet your twitch appetite between Nanostray and whatever the next space shooter will be, then pass on this one, or try it before you buy it.
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