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Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action
Developer: Augmented Irreality
Release Date: Oct. 20, 2020


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PC Review - 'DreadStar: The Quest for Revenge'

by Cody Medellin on April 23, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

A retro mix of a shoot 'em up gameplay with RPG elements, DreadStar offers fast-paced gameplay with a primary focus on gunplay, rather than bullet hell.

When name-dropping inspirations for a classic shoot-'em-up experience, arcade titles like Gradius and R-Type are the first to come to mind. People may cite console-only shooters like Blazing Lazers and Star Soldier. Very few recognize PC-only titles like Raptor: Call of the Shadows and Tyrian 2000, games that pushed the envelope on what was possible on the platform. DreadStar: The Quest for Revenge is a game that looks at classic DOS PC shooters for a blueprint of what to do, and if it weren't for some technical and design decisions, it would have succeeded.

While traveling through the stars, your cruiser is attacked by the forces of the evil DreadSkull. During the attack, your father had enough time to launch you in an escape pod before the ship blew up and everyone aboard perished. Ten years have elapsed, and your mind is set on getting revenge. To do that, you become a mercenary, ready to accept any job to survive and get you one step closer to finding DreadSkull to get some justice.

DreadStar starts off with a tutorial that explains some of the basics. Presented as a top-down shooter, the game goes with classic shoot-'em-up pacing rather than a modern "bullet hell" one. You have a primary fire that's set to auto, so there's no need to button-mash to get a steady stream of fire. You also have special guns firing from both your left and right wings, which also have automatic fire but generate heat, so you need to be conservative in their use so you aren't forced into a cooldown state. Gems can be collected to use in shops later, and you can also activate temporary shields and bombs once you obtain them. Lives are infinite, and your ship can take three hits before blowing up, but dying means being sent back to the beginning of the level, so players can't spam continues to see the end. Finally, the game gives you the chance to warp out instead of dying and losing gems.

All of the above has been introduced in shooters before, but DreadStar adds a twist by including an XP system. Whether you pass a level or die trying, you'll always gain XP, and leveling up grants a point that can be spent toward powering shields or guns. While the game is linear in nature, you can play any unlocked levels to gain more gems and XP, and you can replay levels at the same or higher difficulty.

The ability to grind is important, as your ship and firepower are weak enough that the first level will be a struggle the first time out. Even the most basic enemies take quite a few shots to take down, so it's unlikely that you'll make it through the first level on your first attempt. Considering that the game only sports six levels, having to grind seems like an artificial way of adding to the overall playtime. Making matters worse is the fact that the XP gains seem rather low, as do the gem drops when compared to the high prices of items in the shop. You can increase both the XP gain rate and the gem drop rate by 145%, and while it warns that the balance will be altered, you won't care since this is the only way to mitigate the painful grind.

Tolerating the grind is one thing, but DreadStar commits two cardinal sins that will gut anyone's interest almost immediately. The first has to do with performance. We're running the game on an Intel Core i5-7600k with 16GB RAM and a GeForce GTX 1070, far above the game's recommended specs that ask for an Intel Atom processor and a video card from over a decade ago. Despite all of this horsepower, the game suffers from constant stutters when flying through any level regardless of what's on screen. There's no option to tweak the graphics to alter performance, so it's concerning to see a retro game struggle like this.

The second issue has to do with the controls, which are both archaic and unreliable. You may be fine if you're using a keyboard and mouse, since you can use your mouse to navigate the menus, but if you're using a controller, you'll be using the left analog stick to control a mouse cursor, making for a fiddly way to navigate a system that should be snappier and more intuitive if stick movements or even the d-pad would lead you down menu hotspots. Worse yet, when using a controller, there are moments when stick movement gives up and you stop moving, forcing you to let go of the analog stick and press it again to regain control. This happens randomly and is perhaps the leading cause of you losing lives, since you know you could have dodged enemy or bullet collisions if your controls worked. However, the user reviews on Steam have no mention of this happening to players, so even though we had it happen far too often, your mileage may vary.

At the very least, the game's presentation brings back an absolutely retro experience. The music is reminiscent of the kind of stuff you'd hear on DOS or Amiga, where the tunes rock with a space flair that's perfect for shooters. The game sports no voice, but the effects sound very nice. Meanwhile, the graphics are presented with a classic 4:3 ratio with big sprites and a limited amount of color that evokes what you'd see in classic shareware titles. There aren't any overly fancy effects, but everything is readable, so you can't claim that anything is hidden when you get hit.

There are things that DreadStar: The Quest for Revenge does right. The actual shooting is quite good, with a nice enough enemy layout even though the levels feel rather long. It also nails the look of a classic late-era DOS game. However, the seemingly endless grind mixed with questionable design decisions and poor performance make it a chore to get through. Unless you get lucky and get a smooth experience with no loss in controls, DreadStar is probably one shoot-'em-up that should be approached with a heap of caution.

Score: 4.5/10

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