Since DotEmu re-released the splendid R-Type for Xperia Play, our thirst for ultra-challenging shoot-'em-ups has been somewhat quenched.
That was never going to last long, however. So along comes A Space Shooter For Free, whose self-effacing title is both mildly humorous and mildly misleading.
It's a shmup from the outset. You man a single ship on a scrolling screen as Commander P. Jefferson, a Deathspank-like hero with a penchant for explosions and killing “all alien scum”. Jefferson airship
The reasonably well-voiced dialogue between the protagonist and his on-board AI provides an occasional chuckle, but it becomes tiresome after a while. Jefferson’s in-game cries of, “You think you’re hurting me but really you’re just fuelling my BLOODLUST” are a lot less funny after you’ve heard them for the tenth time.
A Space Shooter For Free exploits the Xperia Play's physical controls in a basic but sensible way. Developer Frima Studio has wisely steered clear of the troublesome thumbpads and opted to use the D-pad for direct movement instead. Meanwhile, the X button fires your cannons.
Tradition is at the game’s core. Power-ups dropped by enemies momentarily grant you missiles, faster cannons, shields, health, and other useful upgrades. There are also asteroid sections to blast through, and the inevitable end of level boss fights to overcome.
There’s no life system in place, but checkpoints - while not exactly numerous - are common enough to dispel some of the frustration the levels will induce.
This frustration is at once a good and a bad thing. The game is intentionally challenging, with screens of harder levels and bosses bordering on bullet-hell territory. Often, it’s a mixture of skill, body-memory, and grind that will get you through in the end.
The grind comes from the ship's upgrade system. Enemies and asteroids drop money when you destroy them, and you can collect this to spend in Jenna’s Shop (after a thankfully skippable session of banter).
Upgrades to weapons, hull, shields, power-up duration, and more are all useful in one way or another, but they cost a lot of the game's currency. This is where the microtransactions come in, allowing you to fork out a few pennies extra on a more powerful space-gun, thus actually standing a chance of completing a level.
Even after you've bought the full version, which unlocks all the levels and the Survival mode, the grind is still so pronounced that it’s clear you're severely disadvantaged by working your way up the old-fashioned way. The arcade action mostly holds Space Shooter together, and it's possible to gain some momentum by investing in the right upgrades early on. It’s an odd game in that it has a decidedly retro skeleton wrapped in the skin of a new-age business model. If you can put up with the freemium elements, there's a decent shooter underneath.