Wednesday, June 8, 2022.
by Adam Dileva

REMOTE LIFE Box art Being such a big shmup fan (shoot-em-up), I always look forward to when there’s something new in the genre to play, as there doesn’t seem to be nearly as many releasing these days. REMOTE LIFE is a typical 2D side scrolling shmup but has a distinct artistic style that looks as though it came right out of some famous HR Giger artwork, best known for his ‘biomechanical’ style. This of course reminded me much of a classic R-Type game, so naturally I wanted to get into it right away.

While the gameplay and auto scrolling happens at a slow pace, you’re almost constantly moving, trying to shoot aliens and projectiles coming at every angle while navigating down narrow corridors, avoiding crashing into anything, as you’ll die instantly. With seventeen missions to play through, REMOTE LIFE has a decent length, but due to some design issues, doesn’t have all that much replayability. That said, for a complete game made by a single developer I can appreciate the countless hours that probably went into making a unique shmup like REMOTE LIFE.

Like most games in the genre, yes there’s an overarching narrative, but it’s not really the reason you’re going to purchase and play a game like this. Tell me if you’ve heard this before: There’s an alien race that has been discovered and threatening not only just our planet, but all of mankind. So of course you’ll need to pilot a space ship outfitted with an onslaught of weapons as you try and save our planet from these alien invaders. There are some more story tidbits you’ll uncover as you complete certain missions, but it’s a story that you’ll forget moments after you start playing.

With over a dozen levels, they may not take long individually, you should still be able to complete REMOTE LIFE in a single sitting or weekend without much problem. Levels vary in not only their aesthetics, but enemy types and bosses as well. The only issue I had to eye roll when it came to these story sections is that instead of being voiced by an actual person it was instead done via text-to-speech even though it’s supposed to be a human pilot speaking. It simply seemed 'off', yet was hilarious when trying to convey emotion unsuccessfully.

You begin by choosing one of multiple difficulties, from Easy all the way to Very Hard. I’m generally quite skilled at shmups, so I wanted to start out with Easy then ramp up to the higher difficulties to see the differences. While the first half of the levels posed no problems, the last handful were extremely challenging and frustrating, even on Easy, for a multitude of reasons. Start out on Easy and see how you fare in the first few levels before ramping up the challenge.

You’ll begin with only one of three ships available, with the other two unlocking at certain ranks, basically tied to mission progress. This only takes a few levels to unlock the other two and there’s apparently a speed difference in the ships, and you can also choose its color from just a few. It’s as if there was an idea for different ships to play drastically different but then never really did much with it after the fact. Most shmups generally have you piloting your ship as the screen slowly scrolls horizontally and you trying to shoot anything in your way. What makes REMOTE LIFE unique is that it also blends in twin-stick shooter elements, not something I can recall recently another shump attempting to do. This means you can maneuver your ship with the Left Stick, par the course, but you aim your blaster with the Right, able to shoot 360 degrees around you in any direction. With this mechanic you better believe enemies won’t simply be coming at you from the front, but from the rear, above, below and every other angle as well.

It takes a little getting used to, as your blaster is on the tip of your ship's nose instead of directly in the middle, so you have to be mindful as to your ship’s hitbox and where you’re shooting from, as they are different points. To make this even more challenging, a single touch of an enemy or obstacle will instantly kill you, as is normal with games in this genre. What’s challenging though is that enemies and their projectiles seem to not follow the same ruleset as you, so you’ll constantly have enemies flying through objects and shooting from afar with their bullets coming at you from every angle without anything to stop them. This of course seems quite unfair, but you’ll learn to deal with it knowing that you can’t touch anything yet enemies come straight for you through anything in their way.

Most missions are your typical 2D side scrolling shmup, but there are a few times where things change slightly to keep it interesting. The odd time you might have an escort mission, flying alongside a much larger ship trying to shoot any aliens and obstacles in its way that will deplete its shields. The longer the ship is alive the more it can help you. There’s a few portions as well where you attach your ship to this special large device, allowing you to play as a massive turret and blast anything in your way with ease for a few moments.

Then lastly were the ‘open world’ levels. There were only a couple of these different types of levels and sections, but the open world levels were the most frustrating portion of the whole experience. Still playing in 2D, the level is ‘open’ and you can fly around almost anywhere you want within its boundaries and paths. There’s a minimap in the top right with some glowing icons but you can’t really see the map properly and its pathways are not very clear with how small and jumbled up it appears. After trial and error, I figured out I needed to destroy all these energy orbs scattered throughout the level, but I was able to do it in any order I wanted. Since I can’t really use the map well, I was essentially guessing which path would take me where, causing some backtracking when I got to a dead end or further away from my objective. Once you destroy all these nodes the level completes, but the camera isn’t zoomed out very far, so it’s difficult to see what’s shooting you from off screen. These levels caused me the most deaths and simply wasn’t much fun when I had to guess what paths led to nodes and which were a waste of time.

You ship has unlimited ammo with three different weapon types you can switch between. Of course they aren’t very powerful but at least you always have a way to defend yourself from the nonstop alien invaders. There will be power-ups you find along the way which change your shots for each type of weapon with limited ammo. Pickup these power-ups and you can then choose to swap weapons depending on your current situation and enemy types coming at you. With eighteen different weapon types to find, there’s some variety you’ll pick up along the way but I tended to simply stick with my favorite default weapon and saving these better guns for when I needed them in a tight jam or bigger enemies and bosses. The ammo on these pickups get used within a few seconds, so it’s a shame you never get a more powerful upgrade that lasts permanently. There’s a bomb you get as well, though this isn’t always the screen clearing type you’re used to in the genre, as sometimes it’s a cluster bomb or a minefield that can protect you from certain directions.

Enemies come in a variety as you progress levels, and the end of each stage also has a massive boss you must face before completion. Most enemies only take a few shots to destroy, while some of the larger aliens will take a more concentrated effort. The majority of bullets they fire at you can be shot out of your way, but your aim will need to be incredibly accurate given how small your firepower is. After a handful of levels you’ll start to have more and more enemies and projectiles thrown at you, increased greatly if playing on the harder difficulties.

Where the problem comes into play and caused me countless deaths was when enemies or their shots would blend into the background given similar color schemes or how small they were. For example, there’s a few enemy bullets that are what I would guesstimate as one or two pixels wide. Trying to avoid or shoot those while watching everything else on screen is quite a challenge and simply felt unfair at times. I’ve died so many times to these one-pixel bullets and it was quite frustrating since they can come through walls and objects. The most frustrating enemy type are these spores that duplicate when shot. They cannot be destroyed, so continually fire at them and you’ll eventually become blocked by impassable spores that resemble a minefield. So not only do you want to fire at every enemy and projectile coming your way, but you need to watch for these damn spores that duplicate and can make areas impossible to pass without losing a heart.

You start out with a few hearts, so of course if you lose all these and it’s game over and you need to start the mission from the beginning again, even if you were at the boss. Hearts can be replenished if you see some to collect, but I found on the harder stages I was dying quite often quickly, so it was hard to keep up and complete some of these missions.

Off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of another shmup that doesn’t have a scoreboard or leaderboard of some sort. REMOTE LIFE chooses not to score your play. I’m guessing this is so that you can simply focus on the gameplay and what’s happening on screen, but the flip side is that there’s virtually no reason to continue playing once complete as you don’t have any score or able to compare to anyone else’s performance; an odd choice that I didn’t think would bother me, but once complete I couldn’t think of a reason to go back and play again other than testing myself on the harder difficulties, just because.

The 3D rendered graphics on a 2D playfield makes enemies and your ship ‘pop’ from the background with its smooth animations and contrast. The HR Giger inspired aesthetic is hard to not appreciate, as every background and enemy has a machine and organic blend while looking menacing. The aesthetic is quite decent but the main issue arises when enemies and projectiles blend into the background, especially when it’s chaotic on screen at times. If you’re playing on a small screen, good luck, as I barely saw many of the bullets on my 65” TV. You can choose some faux 8 and 16 bit graphic options in the menu if you want to put a more retro feel to the gameplay, though it simply appears to be a type of filter that changes contrast and color palette.

As for the soundtrack, there’s techno tracks that play in the background and fits the visual aesthetic, but is pretty forgettable overall. There doesn’t seem to be many tracks either, so you can hear similar tunes throughout but there’s also an awkward silence and gap between tracks as if it’s not totally ‘stitched’ together. Again, the ‘acting’ from the text-to-speech is awkward when it’s trying to convey emotions and surprise and simply seemed weird.

For a shump just under $19 CAD, I really found the blending of genres with a twin-stick shooter interesting, but with no real reason for replayability or even a scoreboard at all, I have to suggest waiting for a sale as you’ll complete it in a single sitting or two. I absolutely commend solo developer Mario Malagrino for creating a passion project into an actual game, and with word of a sequel in the works I hope the follow-up will address the issues I had for a more memorable and unique shmup in the future that can be scored.

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

Overall: 6.5 / 10
Gameplay: 7.5 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 5.0 / 10


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