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Dreamcast review: Redux: Dark Matters

Sega held onto the Dreamcast for as long as it could, selling limited run games on its website well after the console's death in 2001. Still, Sonic's house gave up the ghost eventually. Enter publisher Hucast and designer René Hellwig, who just can't let it go. It's 2014 and they're still putting out brand new Dreamcast games like Redux: Dark Matters. A side-scrolling shooter made in the grand old style, Redux is very much of a piece with the hardcore arcade games typical of the Dreamcast. While it won't win the old machine any new acolytes, it handily demonstrates why the faithful remain, a demanding exercise in twitch reflexes painted in bold colors.

Like its 2009 predecessor, Dux, Redux feels at home in the Dreamcast library. The two-dimensional shooter has you flying a spaceship from left to right, shooting other spaceships while collecting new weapons and trying not to blow up – it's precisely the sort of arcade-style game that defined Sega's last console. It's easy to pick up and play, difficult to master, and bears an unusually soft visual style. Dux and Redux both feature opening levels whose color palettes actually call the Dreamcast itself to mind, with muted, grey industrial walls and a tiny, blood-orange, triangular ship. It's like you're piloting the console's power light straight into its guts.

Gallery: Redux: Dark Matters | 75 Photos

Piloting your ship well is an increasingly difficult task as you navigate Redux's seven levels, though combat is markedly easier than it was in Dux. (At least on the game's Normal difficulty setting. Veteran is another matter entirely.) As you fly into the rush of enemies and obstacles, power-ups dropped from exploded enemies stack onto your ship. First, a bulbous shield is attached, able to block the scads of pastel pink and yellow bullets flying in all directions. Then missiles, which can be adjusted to shoot vertically or straight ahead, then lasers that ricochet off walls to augment your standard machine gun. There's an elegant simplicity to how Redux stacks your power, letting you focus on survival and navigation, rather than trying to pick some new weapon out of the flurry of projectiles surrounding you. Punishment is also graceful; take a hit or run into a wall, and you'll respawn on the spot, your power ups diminished but not entirely gone. Redux hurts you just enough, letting you recover from one mistake, but laying you flat if you make too many in a row.

Redux's first two levels are structured to let these power and penalty dynamics settle in, their architecture staying somewhat open rather than automatically trapping the ship in tight spaces. By Level 3, though, the difficulty spikes upward, dramatically forcing you to use the ship's remaining secret weapon. By clicking the right trigger, a pink bubble surrounds your ship. It serves two purposes. First, passing the bubble over enemies lets you paint them with a target and fire off a homing laser. Second, it lets you vacuum up bullets without manually running your shield into them. The bubble only lasts as long as a small meter is full, and absorbing bullets with the shield refills it. Later in the game, it's indispensable when the screen is flooded with projectiles and hard to reach bogeys, but it's also not a win button. The meter depletes quickly, and it fills up slowly once empty. Managing this resource becomes Redux's crucial hook to distinguish itself from other shooters in the Dreamcast catalog.

Absorbing bullets from enemies and using them as an energy source is, of course, a dynamic borrowed in part from the Dreamcast's most famous shooter, Ikaruga. In fact, all of Redux's ideas are familiar, reflecting its genetic ancestors in shooter canon. The stacking weaponry recalls Gradius III; the bulbous shield and cramped later levels call back to R-Type; the soft color palette and flood of pink bullets even suggest Hellwig's other Dreamcast shooter made with NG.DEV Team, Last Hope. The first two levels of Redux are almost identical to those in Dux. Redux doesn't feel like a faded copy of a copy, though. Its levels are deviously and tightly plotted, and its challenge is never cheap. Familiar as it may be, it's also the confident work of a veteran.

In short, familiarity isn't what keeps Redux from Dreamcast greatness, but rather its presentation. Redux was designed with HD platforms in mind – PC, XBLA, and PSN – but the action can get overwhelmingly cluttered when played on the old standard definition Dreamcast. It's a more forgiving and playable game than Dux, but the addition of floating golden score orbs and other detritus on the screen mean that Redux's most hectic moments lack the clean presentation of its predecessor. Hopefully, it will be less of an issue whenever Redux makes its way to widescreen, HD platforms, but in 4:3 it can cause problems. Not game-breaking problems, but it makes the Dreamcast version feel less than definitive.

The Dreamcast doesn't need a definitive game anymore, though. The fact that publishers like Hucast and developers like Hellwig continue to keep its lights on at all is impressive on its own. That Redux: Dark Matters is a strong, well-designed shooter is a credit to the effort.

For everyone who simply can't let it go, Redux is well worth playing.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Dreamcast version of Redux: Dark Matters, provided by Hucast. Images: Hucast.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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