A year before Liberty Prime proclaimed Communism as the very definition of failure in Fallout 3, XS Games unveiled the project they had taken over from Acclaim after that studio went belly-up and declared bankruptcy in 2004. This project had languished in development hell for three years and was released far too late in the PlayStation 2’s life cycle to make any headway when put up against games like Resistance: Fall of Man. XS Games persevered, because they believed it deserved to see the light of day, In doing so they simultaneously delivered one of the most unique PS2 games ever seen, and answered the sage-perplexing question, “What do you call a game that combines the shooting mechanics of Gunstar Heroes, the brawling system of Final Fight, and the bullet hell style of Ikaruga?” with three simple words: The Red Star.
The game is set in an alternate or parallel dimension to our own, where the Union Republics of the Red Star (URRS) occupies the same territory as the former Soviet Union. In this world, magic is just as important as technology and The State utilizes both in order to defend its borders and keep control within. This fantastical premise is lifted from the comic series, written by Christian Gossett, and casts two characters from the books as your player choices (or three once you beat the game).
Kyuzo is your Mike Haggar type: big, strong, and slow. He’s a physical fighter who dominates the battlefield with his melee weapon, a massive double-sided sword used to slice, impale and hurl bad guys around like rag dolls. When you need crowd control, Kyuzo’s your man. And for those times when hand-to-hand isn’t a prime choice, he packs a nice big gun with which to dispatch longer-range threats.
Makita, by contrast, is your faster-but-weaker choice. Her weapons of choice, a hammer and a scythe (naturally), don’t have the range of Kyuzo’s blade but she swings them more quickly and can pull off an impressive array of combos that often leave her targets airborn so she can jump after them and finish the job. Her sidearm is a machine pistol which spits a faster stream of bullets at those who are out of reach, but causes less damage per bullet. Each character gives the game a different vibe, but the best way to experience The Red Star is in two-player simultaneous mode where the pair can compliment one another’s strengths and compensate for their respective weaknesses.
What’s most impressive to me about The Red Star is how easily Acclaim or XS Games could have taken the easy way out. If they’d wanted to, they could have easily turned the game into a slightly prettier Fighting Force clone and left it at that. But they didn’t. Instead you’ll find camera angles changing on you periodically as Kyuzo and Makita are forced to change up their tactics and confront bosses. These range from ‘annoying’ to ‘I’d sooner yank out my own pubes’ in terms of difficulty, and the game isn’t terribly forgiving. Dying in The Red Star means starting the level all over again: no reloading the last checkpoint. The first time this happens, it’s irritating. The fifth time you have to repeat a level because you cannot figure out the safest route to walk between a series of rapidly-rotating and shifting laser grids, you’ll be using words that would get you thrown out of any conventional social setting.
But just because its difficulty is sky-high doesn’t mean it isn’t worth playing. The Red Star is one of those things you have to experience for yourself, if only to see how perfectly the developers managed to mix three game genres that have no business working together as well as they do. Find me any other game on the planet that could describe itself as a side-scrolling-bullet-hell-beat-em-up while executing all of these aspects competently, I dare you.
The last thing XS Games did right was publish the game as a budget title. Its 2007 release meant it was going up against PS3 and Xbox 360 games, and they knew there was no chance at directly competing with either market–let’s face it, Oblivion had been out for two years at that point, and The Red Star looks every bit of its early-2000’s heritage. But for twenty bucks in the bargain bin, it caught the attention of gamers who hadn’t yet put together the $500-600 necessary to join the next generation, and made it suitable for the impulse buyer or fan of the comic. There are games in my collection I’ve spent $60 that haven’t given me as much pleasure as The Red Star did for $20, and unlike many other niche titles for older consoles, you won’t have to sell a kidney to finance its purchase. So go ahead: dig out that dusty PS2, head to your favorite outlet for used games, and snap up a copy of this ridiculously unique licensed gem. And for once, take pride in being a friggin’ Commie!