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Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action
Developer: Black Golem
Release Date: Jan. 26, 2016

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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PC Review - 'Nordenfelt'

by Brian Dumlao on May 2, 2016 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Nordenfelt is a vertical scrolling steampunk shoot-'em-up where you dodge hails of bullets and shred enemies to pieces while beefing up your weapons.

By their nature, bullet hell shooters are very difficult games. There are certainly many concessions made to give the newcomer or casual fan a chance to see all of the levels, whether it's done via screen-clearing bombs or infinite continues. While this may make these sorts of games soft on the surface, the diehard fans know that real skill comes from not depending on these things in the first place and toughing things out with as little help as possible. Nordenfelt adheres to this mentality by providing players with one of the tougher bullet hell shooters. At the same time, by catering exclusively to that hardcore shooter crowd, it alienates just about everyone else.

The first thing you'll notice about Nordenfelt is that it is pretty bare-bones. There's only one mode, and it doesn't bother to give you a setup or background for the tale. The options are rather limited, so while you can toggle v-sync and full-screen, everything else (like changing the resolution) is off the table. You can't even change the controls, though you can at least use a controller instead of a keyboard and mouse. The only amenity is that you have online leaderboards, and even then, there are fewer than 100 entries on there, making the competition a little less crowded than expected.

After entering your name, you're given a chance to select a secondary weapon. Your initial choices include a standard bomb, bullets that seek out enemies, and two extra drones that fight alongside you. As you progress through the five stages, you'll acquire more weapons, like a beam that cuts right through enemies, more drones, and an electrical beam.

Though you haven't even fired one shot against an enemy at this point, you'll discover the title's unforgiving nature on the secondary weapons screen. Unless you use your mouse pointer to highlight a weapon, you'll have no idea what any of those icons represent or what the weapon capabilities are. You'll also notice that those choices are permanent. If you choose the bomb and decide it isn't the weapon for you, you'll have to use another profile slot to start over or delete what you have and play again from the beginning. Finally, when you make your way to the second level, you'll learn that you can only take one of the secondary weapons with you at a time, so trying to outfit yourself with quad drones with seeking bullets isn't going to happen.

Once you get into gameplay, you'll find that the familiar traits of the genre are here in full force. Enemies are going to be completely grounded or flying at you from the top of the screen. All of the enemies tend to shoot at once with more than one shot, so there are only a few opportunities where the screen isn't filled with anything dangerous. Power-ups are limited to blue orbs that strengthen your primary weapon once you collect enough of them. Levels are of a decent length, and the bosses take on the typical pattern of unloading a ton of bullets and transforming constantly as their health gets depleted.

Nordenfelt does a few things different from other shooters that makes it more interesting. The secondary weapon system has different features depending on what you're using. For the most part, each weapon uses up the same meter that powers your primary weapon. While the bomb takes away a chunk of the meter, other things like the piercing omega beam deplete the meter at a slower pace. For items like the drones that don't use the meter at all, you can use the secondary weapon meter to change their firing direction from straight to a more focused firing range.

The blue orbs also factor into another interesting mechanic. While there are plenty of blue orbs to capture, the game doesn't want you to collect them. Instead, waiting for a few of them to pass rewards you with a much larger orb down the line. Considering the number of foes thrown at you, that can be difficult to do, but the amount of power provided by the larger orbs, it's enough to make the patience worthwhile.

The other mechanic is the variable difficulty level, and this is where things go off the rails. The game starts at a rather easy level but scales based on a number of factors, including firing guns, missing shots, collecting power-ups — and living. The only way to reset that is to die, a proposal that seems rather foolhardy since you only have three lives per stage with no way to gain more and no way to continue after you lose them all.

While there has been a trend recently about providing the player with some challenge, Nordenfelt takes things way too far. It can be argued that this hearkens back to a time when players weren't given so much leeway in beating a game, but that argument can be countered by the fact that shooters of yesteryear didn't have shots that fill up the screen in a split second. When that gameplay experience came home, some developers opted for a limited continue system, so players could feel like they had a shot at progressing if they built up their skills. What you have here is a game that practically shuns anyone who isn't already trying to get through the title with one credit, and unless you get lucky, the game quickly becomes more frustration than enjoyment.

There are only a few things the game does to prevent the experience from being completely inaccessible to anyone but the elite or masochistic. Your progress in unlocking levels is always saved, so death at the very last stage doesn't mean repeating all of the previous ones. Also, your stock of lives is always reset when you enter a new stage, so expending all of them at the end of one level doesn't mean that you'll lose the game if you're hit by the first enemy or bullet in the next stage.

As far as the presentation goes, it's serviceable but just barely. Aside from the squashed screen, the graphics work fine without being exciting. Colors feel a bit muted, and the enemy designs aren't particularly exciting. The game exhibits no slowdown, and bullets are very visible, which is more than can be said for enemies, who tend to hide behind the thick black smoke. As for the sound, the music is fine, as are the effects, which don't feel nearly as loud as they should, but the voice samples for powering up and graduating to a new difficulty level are so garbled that their absence wouldn't have affected the game either way.

Nordenfelt is a tough game to like. If you're still getting your feet wet in the bullet hell shooter genre or are more of a casual fan, the game does more to frustrate than entertain. The absolutely punishing mechanics are enough to make those players quit before they beat the first level. If you're a genre fan, the game forces you to constantly reset your progress until you get the correct loadouts at the correct time, adding to the difficulty in an almost unnecessary manner. Since it's lacking options that PC players have come to expect, Nordenfelt is a hard sell for fans unless they see it at a tremendous discount or grab it as part of a bundle.

Score: 5.0/10

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