Anyone who was a PC gamer in the 90s remembers the Descent games. In them, you played as a ship that navigated caves and shot your way through waves of robots. In many ways it was like Quake in a spaceship, and it was awesome. After three games in this series, and a more free-form approach with the Freespace titles, the genre fizzled out in favor of ‘on-foot’ shooters.
From out of this rubble, indie developer Cadenza set up a Kickstarter to revive the genre with Retrovirus. After a long road and a few years, it has finally been released. It is similar to the Descent games in terms of its core gameplay, but with a twist. Remember in Deus Ex: Human Revolution how when you’re hacking something and it activates a countermeasure that tries to attack and expel you? Well, in Retrovirus you get to play as the countermeasure. Instead of fighting against virus-infected robots, you are inside a computer system fighting against actual viruses. How does it all turn out? Read on, intrepid one!
Retrovirus is a ‘six degrees of freedom shooter’, in which you are able to navigate your ship up, down, forward, backwards, left, and right. While it strives to emulate the feeling of flying a ship, it’s not quite a flight sim either; the ship you control moves in an environment without constraints like gravity or slow-down. In fact, if there’s a game (besides Descent) that I would compare it to, it might actually be Quake II, in that success is contingent on quick reflexes and circle strafing around enemies.
The twist of this game is that instead of outer space, it takes place in innerspace — specifically, inside a computer system (like Tron — kind of). Caves, tunnels, and cities are replaced here by servers, conduits, and data transfer centers. You begin by encountering a worm on the computer’s desktop and from there the chase begins. Each level takes you deeper into the core processes of the ‘world’ and into higher levels of security. The world of Retrovirus is rich in detail and in many ways it shares a strong resemblance to games like Portal and Mirror’s Edge. All these titles present a world covered in a clean, antiseptic layer atop a grubby, behind-the-curtain view. Stark colors and clean edges are juxtaposed by the blurry corruption attached to surfaces, creating a vividly evocative representation of the inner workings of a computer.
Viruses, worms, and other hostile programs are presented as gooey, toxic blobs corrupting the environments. You are given a wide range of weapons that each have benefits and drawbacks. As you progress, you gain the ability to upgrade these weapons and abilities allowing you to adapt the game to your preferred style. In truth however, few of the weapons are particularly useful and worth upgrading unless you’re a fan of challenging yourself ‘just because’.
Objectives are pretty static throughout. Go into an area, remove signs of infection and clear out hostiles, find key to access next area, and continue. None of the puzzles are particularly difficult, and their difficulty owes more to the sense of disorientation you get from the topsy-turvy environments. Visual style notwithstanding, Retrovirus reminded me of Super Mario Sunshine in that you are spending much of the game cleaning up a mess. If you have OCD tendencies, then this is a great title for you.
Aside from the usual health spheres and power-ups, as you play you come across items that are actually Emails which tell the story about what is happening out in our world as you are working to fix what’s happening inside.
The ‘upper’ story about what’s happening outside this computer construct is not essential to your actions, but it does provide an interesting alternate perspective on the bigger picture behind your actions.
Retrovirus has many similarities to its predecessors, and not all of them are necessarily good. While this game is very fun and challenging, it does tend to be a bit of a grind after a while with little variation in the routine of ‘go to area, clear it out, go to new area’. There are a bunch of optional objectives for completionists, and eventually you are introduced to some fun new tricks such as being able to cloak. While I appreciate that Cadenza was committed to giving the player his/her money’s worth, it does feel a little long and repetitive. They likely would have been far better served by releasing something a little leaner in its middle sections.
I’m not so much of an idealist to think that a game like Retrovirus will hearken a resurgence of the six axis shooter or space simulators, but I am extremely pleased to be able to play something new that even partially resembles it. Cadenza wears its influences prominently on its sleeve, and delivers a fun and innovative adventure which more than earns a place alongside them.
[+Reinvigorates a classic genre] [+Clever, innovative story] [+Beautiful and visually striking] [-Levels drag on] [-Few weapons are actually useful]