There are moments in Strike Suit Zero of pure bliss. Quickly getting into mech mode, targeting a swarm of enemy fighters with a plethora of missiles, then letting the projectiles fly as you watch a dozen tiny explosions on screen is one of them. There are also the times when you fly wildly about and- since the game doesn’t force you onto a specific axis- you find that you’re viewing the battlefield from a new perspective. But these moments of joy are punctuated by those of pure frustration, that include the game suddenly overwhelming you with large enemy numbers and the systems meant to help you working against you. Developed by the UK based Born Ready Games and self-published with a little help from the crowdsourcing power of Kickstarter, Strike Suit Zero is a space combat simulator that employs some Japanese aesthetic sensibilities.
While games like Galaxy on Fire 2, Evochron Mercenary, and Star Citizen’s huge success prove that their is still a voracious audience for a genre that large publishers have almost wholly abandoned, that audience should know up front that Strike Suit Zero follows less the design routes of the Freelancer or the X series and more to the arcadey gameplay commonly found on consoles in games like Rogue Squadron and Starfox. Don’t expect to pack up your ship’s cargo with alien technology and go off finding the best selling price, as the game sticks to ship-to-ship skirmishes for the main course.
That ship-to-ship combat is unsurprising, with players having to lead their fire, focus on targets for missile locks, slow down to make tighter turns and so on. A neat twist is that the game employs a set of two weapon types instead of sticking to one. Machine gun weapons with a huge targeting reticle and limited ammo are used to soften up a target by quickly depleting shields. Recharging plasma guns are used to rip ship hulls, and can be linked for more powerful shots at the cost of a lower rate of fire and higher energy drain. While either gun can be used to take a ship down, being given an advantage with weapon switching definitely made individual dogfights more engaging as I was forced to pay more attention than what just aiming crosshairs and firing off would require by itself. Throw in the variety of missiles that the game provides and the game’s main activity is satisfyingly engaging.
Players can also choose between four ship types. Three fall into the heavy, medium, and light class conventions of video games, with players being able to choose weapon loadouts to determine the strength of guns and what type of missiles a ship carries. What really causes a significant gameplay difference is the fourth ship, which transforms into the eponymous Strike Suit. The Suit runs on a rechargeable energy called ‘Flux’ that’s earned from destroying enemies and taking damage. That energy is then used to fires off the Suit’s powerful gun and recharging swarm missiles. While forward movement in the suit slows drastically, it’s able to quickly move laterally and horizontally, as well as make extremely sharp turns. Like the rest of the ships, the Suit handles great and allows for players to shut down the ever-looping dogfights that plague the genre by being able to immediately turn around and shut down enemy ships. Since Flux isn’t always easy to get, learning when the Suit best suited my needs was necessary and provided another tactical layer to consider while playing. But while the basic player actions are all well executed, the structures built around those actions aren’t always great.
The game is split into thirteen level, with each having around three sections and each section having various objectives to accomplish. Replay of the missions is encouraged with an end level score screen that rewards player performance. Like the combat, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in the genre already. Players are asked to dogfight, protect other ships, assault platforms, and take down capital ships and stations. I’ll note here that the actual size of the levels are hefty. While there were moments where I started reaching the edges of maps, often it was when I was already turning around to get back into the fray. I never felt limited in how I wanted to maneuver, so that’s a huge plus. The ability to transform into a Strike Suit makes during these missions is a delight as player’s aren’t limited to traditional strafing runs and tail-chasing, but the game has these hard swings towards difficulty every now and then.
On the whole, the game isn’t particularly tough and I managed to get through the most of the sections in one try, but specific parts were quite hard. I’ll point to an early mission where I was asked to protect some slow moving bombers as they took down a capital ship. When I first failed to do so, I assumed it was because I was focusing on the wrong targets and switched my strategy. That second strategy was as equally disastrous, so I switched again. After about four more failures, I had to put the game down and come back to it later. I fought through most of the level and reached that same section and failed again some more times until I decided to do something really unappealing- I meta-gamed. I knew particular actions would trigger the bombers to arrives, so I refused to do them until I had cleaned up the area of enemies thoroughly and hit the capital ship enough times myself that eventually the bombers only needed one run to destroy it. I had to employ this meta-game thinking a couple of more times throughout my playthrough, which left a bitter taste.
Bad checkpointing helps to exaggerate these tough segments. Often the game dropped me into the section a few objectives before the one that tripped me up, having me spend more time doing something I was totally capable of accomplishing instead of spending time trying to move forward. The game also has an auto-targeting mechanic that is supposed to direct players towards the nearest objectives, but this failed me a few times. Going back to the bomber example, the auto-targeting directed me to fighters that posed the most threat to me instead of to the bombers. Just obeying the auto-targets led me to abandoning the ships I was supposed to be protecting. To the game’s benefit, player ships are brought back to full health and given back all their missiles when going back to the checkpoint- though that presented another meta-game opportunity for me to abuse when I entered a section with low health and found it easier to kill myself and continue fresh.
The game’s narrative isn’t much to speak of. The premise is that colonized planets want to secede from Earth’s control and are fighting over an ancient, alien artifact. Players are placed in the shoes of a silent protagonist who is back in the cockpit after being suspended. While the political implications of colony planets are neat, the game doesn’t explore this in any meaningful ways. Rebels are ruthless and should be killed is the extent of characterization the opposing side gets, and the game’s choice to convey the story through short cut-scenes, pre and post mission text, and over the radio communications while in the midst of battle doesn’t do much for the story in general. While none of that is offensive in any way, it was particularly annoying that the last mission consists of a five minute narration talking about choice as if there had been any throughout the game at all. Thankfully the story is encountered much less often than the game’s visuals and music.
Composed by Paul Ruskay– who did the soundtrack to Homeworld– the music is well done. It contains not just the synth pads expected in space themed pieces, but adds the vocals of Japanese artist KOKIA as well as non-electronic, Eastern and Near-Eastern instruments. The mix of high and low tech sounds is unique enough that I continue to listen to it even now as I write this review. The ships are equally appealing, designed by Junji Okubo, whose work has been seen in 2002’s Steel Battalion and Infinite Space for the DS. One of the small joys I had in the game was surgically taking apart until a capital ship until it was defenseless, then doing slow strafing runs across it as I inspected its design.
When I first heard the game’s tagline of “Space combat reborn,” I had high expectations of a space combat experience that adapted aspects of modern design. But Strike Suit Zero is a fairly conventional game that has a few moments of aesthetic brilliance. When things come together the it’s great fun, and the moments of frustration that hamper the game down are rare enough that I intend to get back in it and get higher marks on missions. While I wouldn’t recommend Strike Suit Zero to everyone, if you’ve been craving a gorgeous space combat game and are willing to put with some moments of frustration, this is definitely a title worth checking out.
+ Gorgeous music and visuals
+ Mech and ship loadouts along with multiple weapon types makes combat always engaging
+ Large combat spaces
– Hard difficulty swings
– Checkpointing can make the game tedious
6 and 6.5 represent a game that doesn’t do anything spectacular or drastically fails to meet the high expectations people had for it. These scores are for games that you would only recommend to diehard fans of the series or genre, something that the average gamer wouldn’t miss very much if he/she skipped it. A game in this range has rental written all over it.
Strike Suit Zero was developed and published by Born Ready Game. It was released on January 23rd, 2013 for PCs. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.