STAFF REVIEW of Sophstar (Xbox One)

Tuesday, November 22, 2022.
by Adam Dileva

Sophstar Box art I believe it was 1942 for NES that started my love for shumps (shoot ‘em ups). One of those vertically scrolling shooting games, there were a number of classic shumps back in the NES/SNES era, but once Ikargua released, that truly cemented my love for the genre and is easily one of my top five games of all time. That said, when a new shump releases, I’m always eager to give it a go, regardless of vertical or horizontal scrolling, or if it’s a bullet hell or not (where you have to deal with avoiding hundreds of bullets on screen at any given point). Well, from developers Banana Bytes and publisher RED ART GAMES, we now have Sophstar, the latest in the genre.

I’ll admit, very few shmups in the last decade or so have really stood out. I’ve reviewed a good handful, but none have truly stood out ever since possibly Deathsmiles on Xbox 360 back in 2007. Of course, I always root for a newcomer and had high hopes that Sophstar would be a must have for any other shmup fans. While not so much a bullet hell, that doesn’t mean Sophstar doesn’t have its challenge with its multiple difficulty modes.

Inspired by classic 90’s vertical shmups, Sophstar is more than a competent game on its own, but there’s actually some unique and interesting mechanics that I actually quite enjoyed during my multiple playthroughs. You can simply jump in and start shooting enemies and avoiding their bullets, but there’s going to be some practice and strategy needed if you want to challenge yourself with its hardest difficulty modes, great for casual up to the hardcore fans.

While shmups aren’t generally known for their deep and involved stories, Sophstar is really no different, but at least some effort is made to have a narrative and a reasoning behind shooting everything in sight. You are Soph, a Sub-Lieutenant, part of some sort of space army. She’s lived in Galanian for her whole life yet can’t recall anything about her earliest years or how she developed teleportation powers, a useful skill that helps her as a pilot to survive. Being sent on a seemingly simple recon mission, she decides she must find out about her past and what’s going on, setting you on a journey across eight unique stages taking on some sort of alien advance.

Being a vertical shooter, with you at the bottom of the screen as your fly your way to the top constantly, I was surprised Sophstar utilized a classic 240x320 arcade resolution. This of course means that there’s a massive border on the left and right of the screen, but there’s a few options for you as to what artwork you want to have. Being a true shmup, there’s even a Tate mode option, where if you were playing on a widescreen monitor that can rotate, you could have it mimic a true arcade experience. I doubt many will utilize this option, but greatly appreciated to have nonetheless.

With a handful of different modes to play, the main one is Arcade, acting as the story mode. You then get to choose between six different difficulty modes, ranging from Child to Brutal, so naturally my first few were on the easiest setting to get a hang of its gameplay and hit detection. After a few playthroughs I tried the harder difficulties and there was quite a difference. While not a bullet hell at its core, there’s still plenty of challenge, especially in the last few stages.

While normally having a few different ships to choose from isn’t too uncommon, having nine though is quite an accomplishment. Even better, they are so unique in their firing modes, secondary abilities and teleportation skills that each one warrants its own playthrough. They all perform unique, each with their own strengths and weaknesses aside from the fire modes. Some are slower than others but make it up in other ways. Some have weak attacks but have a very wide spread for their shots, where others have a much more narrow firing pattern and is more concentrated.

Experimenting with each was fun, as I clearly had some favorites over others, liking a primary shot but maybe not the secondary. Each also has its own unique teleport pattern and use, adding some more strategic thought into your choice. The wide variety of ships truly does change how you play each time and once I played with the ship that has homing missiles, I found it hard to play as any other. Most important, none were terrible, in my opinion, each catering to a different style of gameplay, though with how many enemies usually are on screen at a time, I generally opted for a ship with a wider spread shot.

Across eight missions, each run will roughly take a half hour or so to reach the end, pretty much on par for many shmups. You’ll fight numerous mini-bosses along the way with a massive one at the end of each stage. Defeating enemies throughout the stages will at times have random power-ups float across the screen, changing what it is every few seconds until you pick it up. This would have been a great tutorial section, as this isn’t explained, and Sophstar isn’t like many other shmups where you start out with weak firepower and need the power-ups to shoot stronger/more. Instead, these power-ups seem to refill your sub/secondary weapon or give you points. There’s even secret question marks that can appear if you fulfil secret objectives, which really isn’t explained either unfortunately.

As for the actual controls and shooting mechanics, it’s solid overall. Control feel smooth with the Left Stick, though you can hold a button that turns down the sharpness of the movement, allowing for more minute and precision movement, though I rarely had to rely on this. Your main attack is simply held down at all times, but you have a meter for your secondary. Each ship will have completely different primary and secondary attacks, so make sure to experiment and see what you prefer. This meter really isn’t explained at all either, taking some figuring out on my own to understand it. There’s a portion of the secondary meter that flashes, though it seems that’s the amount that will be used as soon as you use it. You can hold the button for more use, quickly draining the meter, but good for when you need a quick offensive or defensive boost depending on your chosen ship.

There’s also a key teleportation ability each ship has, but each does so slightly differently. Even though Sophstar isn’t really a bullet hell shmup, there will be times you become cornered in between oncoming bullets. To survive this you can use your teleportation ability, allowing you to move to a different spot without taking damage. Some ships have you move a cursor to indicate where you’ll appear, others choose a random spot, and one of my favorites actually causes a Black Hole to appear at the spot they teleported out of, great to suck in a bunch of enemy bullets to give you a moment to recollect yourself. What isn’t explained at all as well is the square surrounding your ship is actually the timer to indicate if your teleport is ready or not.

There are different scoring systems you can unlock and choose, depending on your skill. When you shoot and destroy and enemy they will instantly drop a token. The longer the token stays on screen the smaller it gets and less points it's worth, so the risk versus reward is that you’ll need to attack enemies closer to the top of the screen to grab those tokens as soon as possible if you want the best scores possible. There’s a combo counter as well, so there’s some crazy scores you can get if you play properly and know how best to extend your scores for the online leaderboards.

Outside of the Arcade, you have a number of different modes you can choose to play as well. Score Attack, Endless Mode, Timed Challenge and even a Cadet School. Ultimate Challenge is very challenging, as it’s basically a boss rush mode that will take some serious skill to see to completion with a number of loops that become harder each time. The most interesting though has to be the Cadet School. Here you take on very specific challenges in a number of different categories. You’re given a specific ship and objective and have a specified time limit to complete it in. For example, maybe you need to stay alive for 60 seconds but your weapons are disabled, so it’s a skill check on your avoidance abilities. Others task you trying to reach certain combos or scores within a short time along with a ton of other unique challenges. It’s a great little mode that I accidently stumbled upon, thinking it was just the tutorial or something initially.

As for its retro styled aesthetics, it looks just like any other 90’s shump, not necessarily a bad thing. Truth be told, I thought Sophstar was some obscure overseas shmup from that era that never released here, that’s how authentic it feels. There’s also a number of different visual filters you can choose if you truly love the old classic CRT lines and such. The soundtrack is decent though unmemorable, as you’ll really only focus on your ship sounds and the endless barrage of bullet ‘pew-pew’s.

Having a robust online leaderboard that separates every mode and ship is welcome, providing plenty of replay value if you want to top the numerous high scores online. Having nailed the classic 90’s style, gameplay and aesthetic, Sophstar is a decent shump overall, and although it doesn’t reach the heights of an Ikaruga, it’s certainly worth your time if you’re a shmup fan.

**Sophstar was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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