2009′s PlayStation Network release, Söldner-X: Himmelsstürmer was a competent, but ultimately dry game to play. There’s certainly no denying that it played well, but ultimately it seemed at times as if it was held back – a bit too restrained and a little too pedestrian for its own good. Now Side Quest Studios aim to rectify this with the follow-up, Söldner-X 2: Final Prototype.
The most immediate thing you notice upon booting up Söldner-X 2 is how there’s a new sense of urgency and determination to proceedings, demanding that you waste no time and pick up the Dual Shock 3 to play. It’s this sensation which does wonders for the game and an approach that continues once you get into the thick of the action. The female voice from Mission Command chimes in now and then to offer guidance on bosses or groups of enemies and, with the pilot of your craft wisecracking enough to have flown straight out of a B-movie, everything just seems to come together with a lot more cohesion this time around.
The underlying system that governs everything in Söldner-X 2 is based around chaining. Just about every enemy shot down releases a set of chain rings which need to be collected to fill up the meter before time runs out. Once you’ve successfully completed a full chain, the energy bar resets itself and a new extra becomes available. Continually topping up the chain quickly becomes an obsession as you hunt for the next set, looking for extras to be released by completing a sequence.
Initially given the choice between one of two ships, the player is armed with two primary weapons and can gain a third by collecting weapon extras which are dropped from enemies. Each time you collect these a slot on your Limit Attack gauge is filled. Collect three and you’ll unleash a powerful attack that will damage all enemies on-screen and cancel their bullets, lending an attacking advantage when the odds are stacked against you.
If you take too much damage you`ll enter berserker mode. Unfortunately this has nothing to do with Cousin Olaf from Clerks, but it allows you to take less damage and also allows shields to regenerate slightly (although not all the way back to full strength).
Weapons are the usual shooter fare, including genre staples such as Fast Shot, but there are a couple of inclusions that stand out. The Spread Beam with its slithering, tentacle appearance, is a sight to behold, snaking across the screen much like you’d imagine the monsters contained within the walking machines from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds would grasp at their prey. The Magma Beam is, as the name suggests, an impressive fire-based weapon that undulates in front of your ship, bringing flaming death to anything in its path. All weapons can be upgraded, but it’s worth remembering that if you pick up any power-ups they`ll go straight to the selected weapon, with a small amount designated to others in your arsenal.
Levels, enemies and Boss fights get more and more impressive the further you progress into the game. Some of the later offerings pay homage to other established titles (as does large parts of the game in general), and it can be fun to spot references to your favourite Shmups. The music also deserves a notable mention with some quality, almost 80`s sounding, tunes dotted throughout.
You’ll also be expected to work a bit harder for you enjoyment than most games. Scattered throughout the initial first five levels are secret keys, identifiable by their gold colour and screaming to be scooped up. If you collect enough of them per level, you`ll unlock the sixth world. Gain four from each level and you`ll unlock the seventh and final stage. While that might sound a tad cruel, this treasure hunt becomes a meta game all to itself, holding your interest far more than if they were given to you for gratis.
The game also includes a set of challenges to get to grips with, providing a further incentive to come back for more. Some of them involve collecting 999 units of chains across just one level, another finds you having to complete three levels in a row without dying once. If people didn’t quite grasp the intricacies of the title before, these challenges will certainly put them right.
Söldner-X 2: Final Prototype does everything a good sequel needs to do in order to advance and improve. It takes all the flaws and niggles from the first game and tackles them directly, elevating itself to a totally different level. Perhaps, more importantly, it also provides an interesting and entertaining experience along the way.