The Xbox Indie Game Arcade is like the consoles version of The Island of Misfit Toys. It’s a dark and scary corner of Xbox Live, home to Minecraft clones, poorly designed avatar games and some just plain disturbing content. Is SCHAR: Blue Shield Alliance a diamond in the rough?
SCHAR is a twin-stick shooter that can (and should) be played cooperatively with up to four people. The game is set on the eve of the fourth millennium, nearly 200 years after mankind developed faster-than-light travel. The subsequent exploration of space brought humans into conflict with a malevolent race known as the Constituents of Nothing, or CoN’s, who since first contact have been systematically eradicating human worlds. The plot sounds a little similar to a more well known Xbox title that may or may not feature ring worlds, but it doesn’t really matter, as story is sort of an afterthought in SCHAR.
Messages from Blue Shield Alliance’s wacky cast of characters pop up often during missions to add context to the players actions, but are often hard to notice when in the midst of a CoN swarm. With this in mind, perhaps voice-acting would have been a better choice, although it’s understandable that an indie game would favour text instead. There is a message log, as well, that can be viewed in the pause menu if one has missed something important, which is useful at times. The writing itself, when one has the opportunity to read it, is actually quite humourous.
The audio that is present in SCHAR is competently done. Lasers (called Substance-B Guns) make the requisite “pew-pew” noise and explosions are probably closer in strength to a grenade going off than a massive spaceship blowing up, but all-in-all the audio works well with the style of the game. The music of Blue Shield Alliance is what really stands out. The epic orchestral feel of the main theme was unexpected, and the intensity of the music underscoring large battles against legions of CoN’s helps to draw the player into the experience, at least at first. Unfortunately, as good as the music is, there just isn’t much of it. Each level features the same soundtrack, which means after 10 or 15 missions, the original effect dissipates.
The art style of SCHAR isn’t totally unique. The characters wouldn’t be out of place in an early 2000’s Adult Swim cartoon, and the somewhat generic ships look like they could appear in any other space combat game. Space, by itself, is about as boring to look at as it is in most other games, but when battles take place in close proximity to planets, the massive spinning worlds are almost enough to draw the player’s eyes from the action. Enjoyment of the background is often short-lived, as it’s inevitably obstructed by the colourful wreckage of massive CoN fleets that clutter the screen.
The main objective in the majority of Blue Shield Alliance’s 36 campaign missions, is to collect as much salvage as possible and deliver it to generators for use in repairs, counteracting damage dealt by the waves of CoN ships. There are attempts to add some variety with escort missions and very brief levels in which the player doesn’t have to defend anything, but for the most part, each level boils down to the same things: defending generators, shooting massive amounts of enemies and collecting and delivering salvage. Wreckage has other uses, as it can power ships shields, or replenish special weapons like missiles and turrets. At the end of each mission, the amount of salvage collected by players is tallied up and split among the team, and can be used to buy upgrades for their ships such as faster-firing lasers, or more armour.
There are four classes of ships, each with their own base stats and special weapons. For solitary players, who can’t get three friends over to play, picking a ship with turrets is essential, as SCHAR is nearly impossible to play alone otherwise. From time-to-time power-ups can be found that grant A.I. wing men, but these opportunities are rare, and even when the tiny orb representing the power appears, it’s usually hidden in a sea of wreckage better than Waldo during New Years at Times Square. While it is possible (and enjoyable) to play SCHAR alone, it is clearly designed for multiplayer, and is better experienced as it’s intended. Unfortunately, multiplayer is local only, so it’s not possible to drop-in to other games over Xbox Live.
Blue Shield Alliance throws a tonne of enemies at players in the later levels, as in, enough to make India feel sparsely populated in comparison to the screen. Despite the repetitiveness of the mission objectives, the chaotic nature of the gameplay hardly ever feels tired, and collecting salvage for the purpose of upgrading one’s chosen vessel is addictive. As the ship’s abilities are improved, they really do feel more-and-more powerful, with the player ultimately feeling like the A-1 Boss of the Universe, but even at this point destroying CoN’s doesn’t lose it’s appeal.
Besides the lengthy campaign, there is also a cooperative survival mode which pits pilots against varying numbers of enemy waves. This take on horde mode isn’t actually too dissimilar from many levels in the main campaign, so it’s hard to understand why it was included when players already have the option to replay their favourite levels.
SCHAR: Blue Shield Alliance delivers, for the most part, what fans of the genre will want. The RPG elements of levelling-up ships are a nice inclusion, and the campaign length is well worth the price of admission at 250 Microsoft Points. The gameplay does get repetitive, but for anyone looking to just sit down and blast away at enemies using both thumbsticks, it’s hard to go wrong with this game. The presentation isn’t anything special, but some concessions must be made when playing an indie game like this, so temper your expectations. Blue Shield Alliance is certainly one of the best purchases that can be made in the Indie Game Arcade.