Review: Battle Crust

There was undoubtedly a period, not too long ago, when the mention of yet another shoot 'em up for the Dreamcast would have brought a deafening sigh from the community. It seemed that for a time, every single post-mortem indie release was another vertical or horizontal shooter (I hasten to add that I'm not a fan of the term 'shmup,' just as I cringe at the term 'Metroidvania'), and even though the majority of them are pleasant, highly competent examples of the genre, overkill set in. This probably came to head in 2015 with the release of Ghost Blade - a game I personally quite enjoyed, but one which also drew derision and ultimately signalled a hiatus for shooters on the system.
Indeed, the reliance on the shoot 'em up has largely vanished from the indie Dreamcast scene, what with JoshProd stepping up to the plate and releasing a bunch of new titles for the Dreamcast with nary a spaceship in sight. That's about to change though, as the latest wave of releases from the French publisher includes a port of Picorinne Soft's well received retro-styled vertical shooter Battle Crust. The game initially launched on Steam back in 2016 and I must admit that prior to learning of the Dreamcast port, I was totally unaware of its existence.
Of all the games to bring to the Dreamcast, it's a curious choice then. Especially when you look at the other titles that are making up this third wave of new releases from JoshProd: Another World, Fade to Black, Bang Bang Busters and The Escapee. However, variety is the spice of life, and if anything JoshProd is proving that Dreamcast gamers are thirsty for a range of experiences from a range of genres; and now that the tsunami of shooters seems to have slowed to a mere trickle, it's actually refreshing to see a new title of this ilk on the Dreamcast.

Hyperbole aside though, games like Battle Crust live and die on the quality of the experience they provide, so enough with the procrastination - let's see if Battle Crust deserves a place in the Dreamcast's ever-growing indie library, and more importantly, in your collection...

Before we discuss the main meat of the Battle Crust experience though, we must first address the elephant in the room - the name. Just what the hell is a Battle Crust? Well, it all comes down to some kind of new-fangled material that the 'space government' has created from the ore mined from an asteroid. This material is called 'metal crust' and using it to manufacture weapons and armour far superior to anything the Earth government has at its disposal, the space forces attack the Earth and hand out an ass whupping on a global scale. In an attempt to thwart the rampant and devastating attacks on terra firma, the Earth government creates a ship known as the Meteor Striker to take the fight back to the space forces. Yep...it's all pretty formulaic stuff and reminds me a little of the story in Ikaruga; where a lone ship is the real star of the show and the meat sack piloting it (you) is a mere supporting actor. It doesn't really explain the name of the game (surely Meteor Striker would be a more appropriate name), but who am I to argue?
Battle Crust then, is a vertically scrolling shooter where you control a little ship against hordes of enemy craft, battle gigantic mid-level bosses and also face off against screen-filling end of level bosses. Again, if you're au fait with this genre then it'll all be hugely familiar. Where Battle Crust shines is in it's relative simplicity and the way in which it borrows certain mechanics from its peers. There are elements of R-Type, Blazing Lasers and even the previously mentioned Ikaruga here; but make no mistake - Battle Crust cannot be classed in the same league as those titans of the shooter genre. That's not to say Battle Crust is a bad game, far from it, but it is a little confused and lacks its own real identity such is the reliance on aspects of other games that are mashed together to produce this new title.
From the outset, you are offered the choice of three different types of charge shot that become available for deployment once you have collected a power-up module. When you start the game, you have nothing but your default piddly pea shooters with which to destroy enemies, but after collecting a power-up you are furnished with two extra guns that float next to your ship. Holding down the charge shot once you have these additional nodes will generate an R-Type style ball of energy in front of the ship, and this can be used to either absorb enemy fire or destroy enemies that touch it. Finally, releasing the charge button will unleash a devastating blast with differing characteristics depending on which type you chose at the start of the game.
The normal charge shot just fires a fairly powerful orb up the screen; the mega charge fires a three-pronged projectile but also has a recoil effect on the ship; and the blast charge fires a comparatively weak projectile that will hang around for a longer period of time, inflicting a constant stream of damage on anything stupid enough to get in its way. It's an interesting method of adding a bit of variety to proceedings, especially considering that you don't get the option to choose alternate ships. Naturally, you also get a selection of different weapon types depending on the pick-ups you collect, some of which change the spread of fire, and some which add homing missiles to your arsenal.
There are six stages in total, which may sound a bit stingy, but the difficulty level in Battle Crust means that you'll really need to work hard to see everything the game has to offer. One of the main criticisms levelled at Ghost Blade was the ease with which the game could be completed without really trying. That isn't the case in Battle Crust, with literally everything on the screen offering the very real threat of a one touch kill. It comes down to knowing when to use your charge shot to protect your ship, unleash a powerful projectile or get the hell out of dodge by just avoiding enemies. The stages too offer variety, as some are wide open with you soaring above cityscapes; while others are claustrophobic enclosed affairs, where touching the walls will kill you, and rising platforms create new obstacles where before there was only open air.
Visually Battle Crust looks very much like an homage to the shooters of yesteryear, with a very lo-fi aesthetic. I mentioned Blazing Lasers earlier, and that's because Battle Crust is quite reminiscent of the Turbo Grafx mainstay. There are very few flashy effects and the animations of certain enemies as they rise from below into the main play field can best be described as functional. However, this is exactly the look that Picorinne Soft was going for when the original game was developed for and released on Steam. It was specifically channelling the retro look and feel of Irem shooters of old, and in truth, the developers pulled it off with aplomb. Next to other Dreamcast shooters such as Zero Gunner 2, Ikaruga, Under Defeat and Mars Matrix, Battle Crust looks a little pedestrian...but that's totally the point. You only have to look at the PC version to see that this old skool visual style is wholly intentional.
As a side point, I thought it worth mentioning that I did try to play the Steam version of Battle Crust in order to fully evaluate the accuracy of this console port; however I found that the game would not run on two separate Windows 10 machines. Both machines more than met the required specs but all I was met with when trying to run the application was a quick flash of a dialogue box...and then nothing. Granted, the game is only £5.59 on Steam and I was able to get a refund in about 10 minutes flat, but bear this in mind if you are curious and wish to investigate the PC original.
As far as Dreamcast-specific extras go, Battle Crust appears to be fairly light so don't go expecting a disc bursting with additional content, a la Flashback. The controls are mapped well to the Dreamcast controller, and because there are really only two commands (fire and charge shot) many of the buttons are reused. There's a nice added bonus in the way you can switch the screen between standard, zoomed and a TATE mode on the fly with the Y button; and there are several different styles of graphical boarder to choose from. However, there doesn't appear to be any support whatsoever for the VMU or a rumble pack; high scores don't seem to be saved and the game doesn't even create a save file or show any additional graphics on the VMU screen. That said, the printed manual and cover art are produced to a very high standard, and - as with all of the JoshProd releases thus far - Battle Crust could easily pass for an officially released game from back in the day.
In pretty much all respects then, Battle Crust is a highly competent example of a shooter. It has a pretty stale storyline and is sadly only a single player game, but it holds up well where it counts - in the gameplay. It looks decent and it sounds great too, with some very nice music from veteran composer Hyakutaro Tsukumo. It's far from perfect, with some questionable collision detection in spots, otherwise perfunctory sound effects, and some of the bosses lack imagination in their design and execution - the stage one boss is particularly hilarious in how bad it looks and moves.

Overall though, Battle Crust is a worthy addition to the stable and well worth a look if this genre is of particular interest to you. It isn't in the same premier league as stuff like Sturmwind, Ikaruga et al, but if there could ever be considered a second division of Deamcast shooters, then Battle Crust would be somewhere near the top of it.
Battle Crust, along with all of the new releases from JoshProd can be purchased from Videogamesnewyork with NTSC style covers and a reversible manual. They are also available from other online retailers with PAL covers (a quick Google search will be your friend), and the artwork designed by Jerome Alquie on all of the games looks pretty special.

Special thanks to Dan at Videogamesnewyork for providing this review sample, and thanks to Philippe at JoshProd for continuing to release new Dreamcast titles.
What do you think? Will you be investigating Battle Crust or any other the other new releases from JoshProd? Let us know in the comments, on Twitter or in our Facebook Group.

Previous reviews of JoshProd Dreamcast releases:

8 comments:

Florian Wallin said...

Really nice review Tom ! Seems like a nice game, but ill think ill buy the bang bang busters instead. A review on that game would also be awsome. Take care

AmigaPd said...

Bought this and Bang Bang Busters - would be interested in reviews of the other recent Joshprod games - can't seem to see any videos or reviews of fade to black and not sure what if any improvements have been made to the two 2d platformers.

DCGX said...

Wait, it doesn't even save? That's half the point of arcade-style games; to compete for high scores.

DDT said...

It has the VMU compatible logo at the back of the case. It should save?

David McGregor said...

I asked the dev about saving and they confirmed that indeed it doesn't support the vmu.

DDT said...

I am still waiting for my copy from Playasia, but if that is true I will consider it a broken game. What a shame. A shooter is pretty much worthless without high score saving. What on earth were you thinking JoshProd..

DCGX said...

Yeah that is extremely puzzling.

Tom Charnock said...

You guys had me thinking I was going crazy. I tried it again with several vmus and no, there is no vmu saving. And now it's confirmed by David.