Fellow Finger Guns critic Toby put it best in his review of Project Starship X – “new shmup’s have to do something unique to stand out in a genre that reached its pinnacle decades ago”. Auto scrolling shmup’s haven’t evolved in any meaningful way for years. You move either horizontally or vertically shooting up/along the axis while avoiding anything fired your way. Habroxia 2 from Lillymo Games moves this formula forward in some exciting ways and while not all of it is unique to this game, the combined package makes it feel very refreshing.
To look at Habroxia 2, you wouldn’t expect it to be revolutionary in the slightest. With retro inspired visuals, like a spruced up Salamander complete with a similar fighter jet styled space craft, the game barrels through levels as alien ships, turrets and more fly ahead in formations and attack. It’s played on a purely 2D frame, like most in this genre, with some terrain to navigate around. The plot is akin to many from the 80’s and 90’s too; After the events of the first game, humanity sends out scouts to the solar system that was the origin of the attack on Free Space. You play as Sabrina, the daughter of one scout pilot who’s out to rescue her dad after he didn’t return from his mission. At a glance, it’d be easy to confuse this game with any other shmup. The tried and tested visuals and rote plot are where most of the familiarity ends.
The biggest innovation in Habroxia 2 is the inclusion of twin-stick controls. Sure, twin-stick shooters aren’t new but to have this control method in an auto scrolling shmup is almost entirely new. I’ve searched the internet for mention of another in this vein and have come up with just one (Zytron II, if you were interested). The combination of a continually scrolling shoot-‘em-up and twins stick controls is a real rarity. Here, the left stick moves the ship and the right stick informs the direction of fire. The ship itself doesn’t turn but if you point the right stick in any direction, the standard laser attacks will fire in that direction, granting full 360 degree offensive capabilities.
The way this control method enables fresh games design in the shmup space is quite ingenious. Most auto scrolling shooters tend to keep most of the enemies in front of the player controlled craft with clear line of sight to destroy them. In Habroxia 2, the ability to fire in any direction means enemies can hide around terrain or above/below (and in boss battles, behind) the players ship with no horizontal or vertical attack path. This means you’ll sometimes have to move further into a level in order to shoot back at a turret or ship, making for frenetic and energetic play. This also means you’re able to manoeuvre out of enemy fire, much of which is still tied to straight horizontal or vertical paths, while returning fire. Habroxia 2 seems to have been tuned to accommodate this with alien ships often able to take quite a battering before exploding.
What’s also quite exciting about Habroxia 2 is the inclusion of direction changes. I’ve not played a game since the aforementioned Salamander/Gradius games that did this often but in Habroxia 2, there are a number of levels that contain corners. When you reach these corners, the direction of travel changes from ever scrolling from left right to scrolling upwards. Sure, this isn’t innovative, first appearing in a shmup in 1986, but it’s such a rarity in modern day shooters that it made me smile each and every time it occurred.
Another mechanic that’s included here that’s not new to the genre but is well used in Habroxia 2 is the ability to boost. Holding down the R2 button sends the player’s ship into a short lived burst of speed. During this burst, the ship becomes invulnerable, so you can dash through a wave of fire, and it dishes out damage to any alien it passes through. The amount of boost available is controlled by a gauge at the top of the screen and it empties quickly, so it can’t be overused and abused, but offers an extra tactic to consider while playing. This is coupled with a branching progression path. Some levels have multiple exits (each guarded by a boss battle), which unlock a new route across the galaxy hub map.
While it’s not exclusive to this game, the inclusion of RPG-like elements in Habroxia 2 give it further depth too. Rather than having lives, the player’s ship has a health bar. Health can be recovered with healing items that are dropped by defeated aliens or when destroying parts of the environment. Before starting a level, the player also gets to choose a forward and rear firing special weapon, triggered with R1 and L1. The selection available here is initially limited but expands as specific bosses are defeated. During play, you’ll also find single use powers like bubble shields, lasers and bombs. The amount of health, power of standard, special and single use weapons, rate of fire, boost amount and more can all be upgraded. To do this, the player must collect credits (again, dropped from defeated foes or as an award for performing well during a level) which can then be spent in an in-game store. Thankfully, you keep any collected credits eve if you die half way through a level.
The inclusion of purchasable upgrades for all elements of play in Habroxia 2 means that this is a game that can accommodate many different player skill levels. I’ll admit, I’m not brilliant at shmups and found some levels a real challenge on my first attempt. Instead of getting frustrated, I replayed a few of the previous levels (which only takes a few minutes each) to build up enough credits to buy upgrades. The effect of these upgrades have a palpable feel to the difficulty, with ships that previously caused a headache dispatched more easily at the second time of asking.
This does mean that if you’re a low to mid skilled shmup player, some of this game can be a bit of a grind. Every level beyond the half-way point does get appreciably more difficult. Alien ships have more health, fire more dangerous attacks at you (screw homing laser blasts into the Sun forever, please) and become more numerous. New alien ship types are gradually introduced and you’ll find new variants of ships you’ve already faced that post a stiffer test. You’ll need the purchasable upgrades to match the rising challenge and in order to afford them, you might end up playing the same level a few times. None of the levels are too vast to feel like a slog but there’s a risk of repetition setting in as you’re at the mercy of the RNG as to when credits drop. Later levels do provide higher credit pickup types but you’ll destroy fewer ships because you’re not able to dish out enough damage before a ship leaves the screen.
Repeating levels in Habroxia 2 is made far less onerous by a top quality soundtrack. A collection of fast paced, retro inspired chip tunes, the music here is almost exclusively excellent. I found myself tapping my foot along to some songs, the pumping synths driving me forward. This is matched by the obligatory blips and blops of old school laser fire that transported me back to my childhood.
The biggest improvement in Habroxia 2 over its predecessor is with the boss battles. There’s 20 different variants in this game and while the strategy to defeat almost all of them is “shoot them until their health bar is empty”, there are some fun scenarios to overcome. Most of these boss fights take advantage of the new twin stick controls too by using the whole of the screen to attack. In one boss battle you’re scrapping against an astro rock breaker which drills through walls of rock and then shoots a barrage of lasers through it. In another, a small ship runs the edges of the screen shooting at the player until it floats into the centre and occasionally tries to back into Sabrina. Some levels are simply a boss battle with massive offensive platforms that turn the screen into something akin to a bullet hell game. The variety here is pleasing and is much improved over the previous instalment in this series.
Talking of bosses, Habroxia 2 has a few extra modes outside of the main campaign including a Boss Rush mode. Here you fight through the bosses one by one, as the name suggests. Also included is Boost Rush mode. In this mode you’re locked in boost and challenged to speed through levels, avoiding the tight, tunnelled terrain as you go while hitting score granting rubble. This is a fun side attraction that makes great use of the boost mode. Finally, once you’ve finished the campaign, you can unlock New Game +, a new mode with an even higher challenge.
The biggest disappointment with Habroxia 2 is the lack of leader boards. The game itself has a cool combo score system which increases the score multiplier for every alien defeated without taking damage. Unfortunately, this score is only used for grading purposes at the end of the level. While I understand why leader boards aren’t included – the fact that the upgrades can give each player a different advantage – it would have been nice to be able to see how my own best scores compared to that of other players. Unlike the previous game which had local, pre-populated boards to tackle, this doesn’t have any that I’ve seen. For a genre that’s so predisposed to score chasing, not having any comparator other than an F to S rank is a bit of a let-down.
An accessible and innovative shoot-‘em-up, Habroxia 2 does more than enough to stand out in a crowded genre. While it hasn’t turned the genre on its head and lacks leader boards, the combination of auto scrolling shmup, twin-stick shooter controls and RPG-lite elements make for a refreshing and exciting game.
Habroxia 2 is launching on PS4 (review platform), PS Vita, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PC/Steam on February 3rd, 2021.
Developer: Lillymo Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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