Video Game Review – Gigantic Army (Version Reviewed: PC)

Gigantic Army is marketed as a return to the side-scrolling mech game popularised by Assault Suits Valken and Front Mission Gun Hazard on the SNES; functionally a 2D platformer, the emphasis is far more strongly on combat (evoking something like Contra or Metal Slug) but with a more ponderous, weighty physics engine. This sense of nostalgia shines through in advertising – which uses a mockup SNES game box and logo – and in the game’s use of achievements (names of which are a series of puns on other mech-game classics) and even the pared-back cutscenes of moving stills and scrolling text. Whereas a game like La-Mulana takes the mechanics and design ethos of retro games and builds on them into something new and ambitious, Gigantic Army is slavish in its use of past game design. Entire level concepts are lifted from the games which inspire it – given an original spin aesthetically, and designed around its core mechanical changes from the formula, but nevertheless there is a significant familiarity to it that is both a virtue and a reason for criticism.

The first thing to note about it is it is a difficult game, and difficult by design. Each level has a strict time limit, preventing over-cautious play, and very limited health available. Health items restore a tiny fraction of the player’s life bar and even completing a level only heals a small amount. This necessitates skillful play – between extremely fine time limits, limited health and a strict three-lives-to-beat-the-game continue system, Gigantic Army is a retro revival that, like Hard Corps Uprising before it, feels unforgiving to play. It is also a very different kind of difficulty to most “challenging” games nowadays; something like Demon’s Souls, held up as very difficult, relies on memorising small sections of a level, with no limit to the number of tries permitted and – in fact – minimal penalty for failure. Recovering souls is, in most cases, possible. Gigantic Army instead has the player’s resources diminish throughout the game and each death reset this decline, refilling special weapons and health but setting the player back to the start of the level. This avoids the death-spiral effect some games which have the player continue where they died create, and also prevents brute-forcing bosses by dying repeatedly and continuing. The player must learn the levels, learn the boss patterns and improve at the game. In many ways this is good design; even the first time through the level it is not unfair level design, with traps often telegraphed with visual cues and a kind of teaching method involving using the level’s enemy set in increasingly complex combinations used to allow the player to find a good strategy. Yet similarly the gaming world is moving away from using the lives system – towards the death-and-retry system the Souls games, or the recent Prince of Persia titles used. There would be scope in Gigantic Army for a good compromise – the lack of spawn points and short levels suits a return-to-start-on-death model, but an ability to alter the number of continues a player has would be a valuable addition. It is a case where the minimalism works against the game – having the option to alter the “retro-ness” of the game would be a better decision. A good example of this is found in the fan-made Mega Man Rock Force, a homage to the Mega Man games which permitted the player to choose exactly what mechanics – from the jumping and sliding physics to the damage dealt by traps – were used.

In terms of actual play, Gigantic Army is straightforward and enjoyably minimalist. The player is presented with two difficulties (with others to be unlocked), and a choice of three weapons and three special weapons. From there, they begin playing with only short, plain-text cutscenes to explain the simple story. Levels are fast-paced thanks to the timer, and populated with large boss fights at regular intervals that are enjoyable to fight and – in a good departure from some past titles – have forgiving hitboxes. Hit detection in a 2D game based around precision dodging and accurate shooting is vital to a satisfying experience and Gigantic Army tends towards the lenient. Dodging attacks is a fair process, and the platforming – when precision is required – is generally situated in low-threat areas meaning the player is either fighting or platforming, rarely both at once. This is level design suited to the mechanics – when the player shoots, their aim angle is fixed even as they jump. At first this aiming, and the very heavy jumping, feels awkward – but it is easily learned and adapted to and using the full suite of moves available – melee attacks deployed automatically in place of shooting, the fixed-aiming, and the limited use shield – creates a varied kind of combat.

Overall, Gigantic Army is a small but enjoyable game, paced and designed authentically like those retro games it evokes. While a wider suite of options to adjust the difficulty would have served as a better compromise between retro minimalism and modern accessibility, that it errs on the side of difficulty is to its credit. In audio-visual terms, it is equally faithful to its roots; the high-detail sprite graphics and detailed level designs are visually impressive while the use of a distinct palette of colours of bullets (colours not used in level backgrounds) makes dodging far easier. Even though the sprites are detailed, and there is significant decoration on screen, the game makes which areas are passable and solid – and what particles are damaging – very clear. This is an often-overlooked fundamental of designing this kind of game, and a vital part of making difficulty fair. The only other main criticism is the sound – the music is uninspiring compared to the visuals, and the sound-effects are, under default settings, mixed a little too loud.

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