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Ever played Descent? Me neither, but apparently it was an inventive shooter thanks to its free-form ‘six degrees of freedom’ system that allowed you to fly and shoot through a sci-fi world while defying any and all laws of gravity and orientation. Technically, it was the very first ‘truly 3D’ shooter ever made.

I’ve wanted to take a Descent game for a test flight for quite some time now, and Retrovirus, a similarly built shooter taking place in a virtual, Tron-like world and made by the independent folks at Cadenza Games, seemed as good an opportunity as any. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that despite having a great premise and being mildly entertaining in short bursts, Retrovirus is mostly a repetitive, unsatisfying, and at times frustrating shooter that somehow makes cruising through digitized mainframes and combating dangerous computer viruses boring.

See that trailer above? Don’t let it fool you; the quick editing does a lot to hide just how problematic the gameplay is. That’s not to say the game doesn’t start off promisingly enough, though. You’re given fluid and efficient controls for flying, strafing, boosting and banking with your ship, the weaponry hints at some elegant dogfights to come, and the scanning feature looks to be a unique and intuitive feature. To top things off, you’re also provided with an astonishing amount of color and neat visual design to feast your eyes on. Make no mistake; when you initially boot up Retrovirus, it’s easy to be taken aback by the zany aesthetic and ambitious design, and for a short while the primal thrill of zipping and twisting around in your ship is quite fun.

Unfortunately, that feeling quickly fades once you’ve had extended exposure to the game’s unpolished mechanics. Shooting, which comprises the majority of the game, feels limp and wholly unsatisfying throughout thanks to a glaring lack of shot feedback, weak-sounding projectiles and the underpowered nature of your weapons that makes fighting enemies an absolute chore. Most of their attacks are nearly impossible to dodge, especially the annoying lunging strikes of the melee-based critters, which saps firefights of any sense of finesse or strategy. Rather than engage enemies head on and let your maneuvering and dodging skills do the rest, it’s usually a safer bet to stay far from enemies and remain close to cover so you can hide whenever you need to recharge your small ammo reserves or flimsy health bar.

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Image Credit: gamingtrend.com

That’s right; the game employs regenerative health and ammo, which initially seem welcome in a fast-paced action game like this, but both seem to deplete with startling speed once a battle begins, and for whatever baffling reason, the game puts an emphasis on consumable health and ammo packs that can be collected. I don’t know about you, but swirling around combat arenas doesn’t exactly mix well with clumsily fiddling your fingers around to find the hotkey for a health pack. Even then, the bloody things take a while to fully heal you, so having to escape is all but necessary in many battles, which absolutely destroys any elegance and flow the gunplay aspires to have.

This is doubly true for the scanning feature, which when unleashed highlights enemies in red and supposedly makes your attacks against them stronger (not that I felt a major difference). The problem here is the scan has to be charged up in order to be anywhere near effective, adding yet another element of micromanaging to the already tense affair of simultaneously strafing, aiming, shooting, trying your best to conserve shots, avoiding wall-mounted viruses that spout poison, and managing health and ammo packs. Before I forget, there’s also a rudimentary upgrade system, but collecting experience for it is a tediously slow process, and very few of them are useful anyway, with most offering negligible bonuses that don’t drastically affect the combat in any way. You’ll be greeted with horrendous difficulty spikes no matter which way you slice it.

If you can’t tell, Retrovirus’ combat is overwhelming to the point of inaccessibility. Cadenza seems to have put a lot of effort into making Retrovirus challenging without recognizing that such a trait infringes on the main themes of the game, mobility and freedom. Certainly, one should always be stimulated and occupied in shooters, but the difficulty here is often so rigorous and unforgiving that it turns firefights onto stiff and joyless affairs that completely undermine the central appeal of the game.

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The game also does itself no favors with its congestive and cramped level design. I find it wholly ironic that a game fundamentally designed to give you spatial freedom with its free-form movement and boost ability happens to be set mostly in narrow tunnels and confining, boxed rooms, and it doesn’t help matters when the aforementioned wall-viruses and melee-focused enemies enter the fray. At one point in a tunnel, I had to duck into a series of small openings in the wall to avoid getting slammed by a train, but one particular space near the end of the tunnel was filled to the brim with foes, and I couldn’t fly around or back away without getting turned into a virtual train-made pancake. Let it also be said that the levels are confusingly arranged, with obscurely placed doors and snaking translucent tunnels in abundance. A waypoint system exists, which you’ll most likely know about only after skimming the options menu, though it had no problem leading me straight into a wall at one point, and during other moments it simply wouldn’t show up at all.

Retrovirus doesn’t really do anything interesting on the narrative front either. There are pretensions to flesh out the plot beyond ‘you are a program, eliminate a virus strain,’ but it ends up making the narrative convoluted. Countless support characters will show up in the form of AI programs fashioned after each level’s theme, but they’re introduced abruptly and have vaguely explained motivations, not to mention they end up being little more than one-dimensional stereotypes such as ‘the OMG girl,’ ‘the silly British guy,’ and ‘the quick-tempered military sergeant.’

There are also Email items scattered throughout the levels that can be picked up and slowly piece together a plot involving humans and their conflicts outside of the computer system, but their vague and uneventful nature ensures that you’ll continue to receive them long after you’ve stopped caring. At the very least, there are occasional ‘spam’ Emails that are often genuinely funny for those of us who can relate to finding poorly written Viagra ads in our spam filters. Overall, I’ll be generous and award the story an N/A, since it at least has the courtesy to not get in the way.

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At last, we come to the game’s visuals. Indeed, the game has quite the unique art style behind it, eager to show you colorful displays of neon and wireframe. However, it’s not long before you’ll realize just how cluttered and visually busy the whole thing is. There’s no consistent color scheme for the enemies; at first they’re purple, but then they come in green as well, even though health packs and allied orbs are also green, and the ones that are purple are indistinguishable from the wide-reaching tentacles of the wall-viruses, of which are a much lower priority to shoot at. Then we have windy tunnels, useless server boxes and other needless visual distractions that only become more distracting when you’re consistently rotating around them.

It may have sounded like I just took an extended #2 session on the game, but let me state that for some inconceivable reason, I don’t completely hate it. At the very least, I don’t hate the idea behind it. I would often get extremely excited about sitting back down to play it, and as mentioned before, when played for a few minutes at a time it can legitimately be a bit of fun. Unfortunately, the game’s ideas are the only strong cards it has. Everything else, from the shooting, pacing, visual design and story simply felt hollow and failed to draw me in. Throughout the game’s plodding and overlong 41 chapter campaign, which most aren’t likely to finish, it’s easy to wonder why Cadenza didn’t trim it down and instead focused on infusing more polish, variety and careful thought into the experience. In the game’s current state, levels feel uninspired, objectives are completely rote and the whole thing feels more artificial than the setting it takes place in.

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Retrovirus is absolutely fascinating until you sit down and play it. Once that happens, you realize the unique visual design is actually busy and impractical, the fun flight mechanics are hamstrung by confusing and confining levels, and the promising shooting turns out to be a stiff and punishing affair. I can’t help but feel I had more fun in the flying sections of the recent Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, which succeeded due to smooth combat, expansive levels and elegant pacing, all elements that Retrovirus sadly lacks.

I still applaud the ideas behind Retrovirus, and I encourage Cadenza to try another take on this concept, one that’s significantly more tightened, rebalanced and tidied up. As for now though, I can only recommend Retrovirus to the most starved and undemanding of Descent fans. This is one program that’s better left in cyberspace.

(Review code generously provided by Cadenza Interactive. Many thanks.)

 

ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE

Story – N/A

Gameplay/Design – 5/10

Visuals – 7/10

Sound – 6/10

Lasting Appeal – 6/10

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Overall – 5.5/10

(not an average)

Platforms: PC (downloadable)

Developer: Cadenza Interactive

Publisher: Cadenza Interactive

Rating: E10+ (ESRB)

Michael Urban
Now an occasional contributer, Michael Urban is the former Editor-in-Chief at OnlySP and has the nickname "Breadcrab" for reasons his therapist still doesn't understand. From the moment he first got hacked in Runescape, he's been uninterested in multiplayer games and has pursued the beauty of the single-player experience, especially in terms of story and creative design. His hobbies include reading, writing, singing in the shower, pretending to be productive, and providing info and feedback regarding the games industry. It is an industry, right? You can ask him a question or send him spam at michaelurban@onlysp.escapistmagazine.com. Also, follow him on Twitter or the terrorists win. (@MichaelUrban1)

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4 Comments

  1. I always thought it was called “degrees of freedom”…

    1. Fixed now. I have no idea how I screwed that one up. Thanks! :D

      1. Lol I spent the last couple days thinking I remembered it wrong.. glad to know I’m not loosing my mind =p

        1. Your dedication is greatly admired. XD

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