Remember Jamestown, the first permanent Colonial settlement in the New World, the one that succeeded where Roanoke mysteriously failed? Turns out Roanoke was destroyed by a giant cyclopian plant-monster. Jamestown succeeded because men in zooming steampunk ships blew up enough tentacle aliens and aggressive Spaniards to ward off the intruders, dodging bullet-hellish laser arrays and picking up floating ducats all the way through. Sometimes they teamed up in groups of up to four with different ships, dying a whole lot because they were poor pilots and had been drinking beer. Mars can be such a cruel place.
Since I hail from the great white frozen north, my American history is a bit shaky, to say the least. I don’t know a thing about Jamestown, Virginia or the mysterious disappearance of Roanoke, which in turn makes Jamestown’s Colonial fanfic that much more intriguing; its skeletal storyline is historically reverential, but its gameplay pays homage to Cave Co. shoot-’em-ups (“shmups”) and bullet-hell fliers just as much as it owes its alt-history storyline to every cheesy Space-Opera you’ve ever secretly loved. Final Form Games’s shooter is epic stuff: as Walter Raleigh, escapee to the New World (literally, Mars), you find yourself in the new colony of Jamestown, seeking to prove your merit to your King and absolve the charges of murder brought against you. What follows is pure action, a Neo-Colonial fanfic for the ages, leading you from the steampunk Spaniard frontlines all the way into the Lovecraftian heart of Mars itself.
None of this ambitious setup would matter if it didn’t play like a dream: selecting from one of four unlockable ships (bought with ducats, from the “shoppe”), up to four players can collaborate on local multiplayer, flying their steampunk-y ships with keyboards, mice, and as many gamepads as you can cram into your PC (or Mac!). Keyboard control is my personal favourite as Jamestown’s overwhelming bullet-arrays frequently call for precise movement, but the mouse option is certainly appealing, and I can only imagine that play with a gamepad would be nearly sublime. In classic top-down-shooter style you’ll spend the whole game progressing upwards, firing each craft’s signature special weapon while dodging enemies and gathering ducats to activate your score and shield-multiplying “Vaunt” mode. You might even manage to figure out the proper order of destruction that causes each(!) enemy in the game to drop its ‘Special’ bonus points, a trick I still haven’t been able to riddle out for the good majority of Martians and Spaniards. Jamestown is a top-down shooter in the classic shmup tradition: it’s got screen-filling bosses, multiplayer action and more than enough difficulty levels (from Beginner to Divine) to ease anyone into the action – even though the endgame’s minimum difficulty ramps up to (hard-mode) Legendary, making the final level a true bullet-riddled challenge.
Speaking of classic traditions, Jamestown’s soundtrack is easily worth the asking price (usually $10). An epic symphonic arrangement of synthesizers and perfectly Sci-Fi blips and bleeps, at its best Francisco Cerda’s music evokes Chrono Trigger composer Yasunori Mitsuda’s legendary work, while installing a pumping, electronic style all its own. The OST perfectly complements the graphics, which will have 16-bit fetishists (you’re reading one now) cheering with glee whenever the beautifully-detailed backgrounds evoke Secret of Mana or Final Fantasy. As a shoot-’em-up, each level is on rails, meaning the music has the opportunity to shift dynamically with the appearance of bosses, the entrance into tunnels and chasms and, of course, your multitude deaths. This musical accompaniment is fantastic and compliments the action perfectly. In terms of sheer presentation, Jamestown is an A+, no doubt – it sells itself so well that I was on the verge of impulse-buying it even before it appeared in this month’s Humble Indie Bundle (close one!).
Jamestown is hands-down my favourite recent shoot-’em-up, and one of the best indie games of the year, but like all shmups there are limitations (yes, it’s a word). For one, Jamestown is a short thrill-ride: if you’re playing on Legendary mode (as experienced players will want to), you’ll be through the story in a clean hour and a half or so. I’m no pro, so it took me about four hours, including liberal level-replays to farm ducats for unlockables (of which there are new ships, bonus levels and an alternate, farcical story mode). The multiplayer component of Jamestown is clearly designed to encourage players into the same room as one another, for that additional excitement-factor, but it’s certainly a game that would profit enormously from online play. Jamestown’s shortness is mitigated by its density, including Farce story mode, Gauntlet, Hardcore mode and multiplayer – for many, simply the pursuit of online high-score boards will last them for weeks to come. There’s also the Gunpowder, Treason and Plot DLC ($3) to extend your playtime, which I fully intend to purchase down the line. All in all, Jamestown’s weaknesses are few: if you love shmups, and you don’t mind the brevity of the campaign narrative, there’s a lot to love here, and a whole lot of difficulty levels (and nigh-impossible bonus challenge levels) to chew on.
Jamestown is one of those games whose gameplay is such an arcadey joy to play, and whose presentation (both musically and visually) is so vibrant and pitch-perfect, that I know I’ll be coming back to it for midnight play-sessions for months to come. It’s a blast, it’s hilarious, and it threatens to teach you a bit of American history. I love Jamestown, I think you will too. Grab some friends and shoot some martian squids, it’s ten dollars very well-spent.
Part 2 of my series on Humble Indie Bundle #4, available here until about a day after Christmas. Re-route that ten bucks to charity, or pay whatever other amount you want for five great games and their soundtracks, DRM-free. Beat the average (about $6) for two more games and soundtracks. Money goes to charity, everybody wins, I get to keep writing reviews. Whee!
Originally published right here, December 2011.