Shoot 'em Ups have a long an illustrious history. The problem for us aficionados is that, well, they don't sell too well. Lack of sales means lack of releases - unless you live in Japan. So while we seem unlikely to ever see local releases of Death Smiles or Ketsui, the occasional release does slip through the "they won't want this" filter and actually makes it to market.
It's one such release we're celebrating today and it's not just the mere fact it exists that's worth celebrating. It turns out Söldner-X 2: Final Prototype is actually damn good.
Sequel to 2008's Söldner-X: Himmelsstürmer (loosely translated as "Mercenary X: Somebody who conquers the sky") Final Prototype continues the story of a universe in crisis. The Da'aarg (pronounced pretty much as "Dark") are making a big push into allied planetary space (paraphrasing, it's really not that exciting) and you, with your Söldner prototype alien-killing machine, need to go on a rampage and take them all out. Fortunately this is fairly easily achieved by holding down the X button and moving your little ship out of the way of the (relatively) slow moving enemy fire. Sure, there can be a lot of fire and sometimes you might be distracted by what's happening at the other end of the screen (read: your weapon, their face) but in general it's not super difficult to progress.
The difficulty comes in the challenge modes, which are unlocked by collecting enough "secret keys" dropped during gameplay. The challenge of these modes starts somewhat higher than simply finishing the (short!) story mode and quickly shoots through the roof.
Gameplay has a bunch of things going on, so much so that trying to work it all out on your first game is likely an endeavour beyond most of us. Once you've had a bit of a play, you'll find things like the ability to switch weapons (L1 or R1), chain combos (keep collecting the Sonic-like rings dropped by your foes) and the dynamic difficulty ranking system which keeps you on your toes by ramping up the difficulty as your skills improve. There's also a context-sensitive tutorial system that lets you access in-game assistance for the particular event you're currently involved with but accessing it interrupts the flow in such a way that you'll probably take damage when you exit it. Chances are you won't make heavy use of that feature.
Health in Final Prototype is considerably more casual friendly than its side-scrolling Shmup predecessor "R-Type". Here you can take quite a bit of damage before exiting this plane of existence, giving you significant lenience when it comes to avoiding the bullet hell that occasionally ensues. The environment itself can be a hazard, something leveraged by the game designers frequently as they draw you to a level-edge-near bad guy with high frequency.
The levels in Söldner-X 2 are well designed, with patterns of enemies that will challenge your ability to avoid or destroy them all. The enemies themselves have interesting attacks and behaviours that develop as you progress, keeping you on your toes - especially when trying to achieve a particular challenge in challenge mode. It never feels dull or tired and each of the levels is distinct from the others in the package, although this is perhaps less challenging that it could have been given there aren't actually that many levels.
Visually Söldner-X 2 is breathtaking - the backgrounds are diverse, gorgeous and move past at an incredible pace - all at 60 frames per second! Explosions are awesome (helped in no small part by liberal use of the rumble, should you have a DualShock) and the weapons, power-ups and backgrounds are all visually distinct with nary an issue separating out these core components.
The sound package is solid, with a good combination of voices, effects and music. None of it is particularly stellar or stands out in any real way but there's certainly nothing particularly flat or notably light-weight. It would be nice to hear a bit more personality next time around but that's a pretty small critique in the grand scheme of things.
Chances are pretty good that the target audience is already the proud owner of this game. If you're in that audience but aren't sure whether to drop $24.90 on this, stop procrastinating and buy it right now. Sure, it's a little bit easy / forgiving but there's a lot of challenge in the stuff you unlock once you "finish" it. This is every bit worthy of a place in any discerning Shmup gamer's collection.