Sponsored By: Optical Override (ie. A review code from the developer)
Time Nulled or Vectored: 34 minutes
What if Geometry Wars was a cover shooter? It wouldn’t be Null Vector, but it’s still an interesting question, don’t you think?
Have I mentioned that I like dual-stick shooters? Because I do. I can pretty much be relied upon to have something nice to say about almost anything that reminds me of the days when I taped two NES controllers side-by-side so I could play the home version of Smash TV as it was meant to be played.
I also like character progression and choosing upgrades. Give me a game where my character can become increasingly powerful to a ludicrous level, and I’ll go to plaid all day long. (What? If “going ham” is allowed to be a thing, I can resurrect an old Spaceballs joke if I want to!)
So you’d think that The Binding of Isaac would be my bag, right? I mean, you pick up powerups, build your character, and generally shoot everything. What’s not to like? As it turns out, quite a lot, and it became the first game I refunded under Steam’s refund rules.
But I’m not here to talk about Binding of Isaac, I’m here to talk about Null Vector, a game with a very generic name that takes all of the things that I should have liked about Binding of Isaac and makes a fun game out of them.
You play as a triangular prism that, unlike Isaac, can shoot in any direction. Also, unlike Isaac, it doesn’t make poop jokes, but I don’t necessarily consider that a strike in its favor.
Your enemies are other sorts of prisms and geometric shapes that have various means of hurting you. (I think I saw a dodecahedron in there somewhere, and I told him that Tock and the Humbug say “hi” before blowing him up.) Once you’ve cleared a room of these mathematical constructs, you’re given the option to pick which room you move to next, until you’ve explored the grid of arenas long enough to find the exit. If you think that sounds like Smash TV, you’re right. I’m glad to see someone honoring the classics.
I mentioned character progression earlier, so let me elaborate. As you go around blowing things up, you’ll start collecting crystals and mods. You can only equip three mods at a time, at least at first, and you can use the crystals at upgrade stations to improve your mods, or sometimes permanently apply them to yourself so you can free up a mod slot.
Mod juggling becomes important very quickly, and in the interest of making the game simple, the developers made a design decision that I don’t entirely love: You can drop any mod at any time, but only in reverse order, which is to say you drop whatever you picked up most recently. If you want to drop the first mod you collected, you have to eject everything and recollect the two that you want to keep, which can be difficult because a) the mods all drop in a tight radius around you and b) they all look like identical white cubes on the screen, both of which makes picking up the precise mods you want tricky to do. Fortunately, there’s no requirement to juggle mods in the middle of a battle, as the mods never disappear from the field of play. Even if you leave the arena and come back later, the mods you dropped will be there waiting for you like a child you left in the basement to please the voices in your head. You can rearrange your mods as much as you want until you decide to move on to the next map, which leaves everything you couldn’t carry behind.
Graphically, there really isn’t another way to say that the game is going for a classic Tron aesthetic in a big way. Everything looks like it would have been right at home on a vector monitor, and even the startup screen gives you the feeling of walking up to an arcade machine in the most totally radical neon-powered arcade you’ve ever been in. If this game were to be ported to VR, I’d love to see the ability to look down and see your own hands on the twin sticks, and maybe have the ability to lean down and manually insert your own quarters into the machine.
Overall, it’s a well crafted throwback to classic games, with a few modern twists to keep things interesting, which may not make it stand out these days, but it’s still heartwarming to see.
Null Vector succeeds quite well in recreating the sort of game that I grew up on, and that’s almost the only problem with it. Whenever I buy a classic-games collection, I nearly always have the same response: I fire up an old favorite, play for about ten minutes, say “Yep, that sure is that thing I used to like,” and then I go look for something else to play. It’s the same with Null Vector, which is a great game that just isn’t holding my interest very well.
The upside is that I’ll always have something in my library that I can fire up when I have fifteen minutes to play something and don’t know what, and that will even give me five minutes to finish up and refocus on the next thing I have to do.
Is it the Dark Souls of dual-stick shooters?
If I had to answer the question, “what is the Dark Souls of dual-stick shooters?” I’d probably say it was Robotron 2084, or maybe Devil Daggers if I were allowed to stretch the term beyond reason and etymology. Null Vector is a challenging game, but no more so than many other entrants to the genre.
The closest it comes is when the player loses health. Null Vector doesn’t do a great job of letting you know when your hit points are getting low, or even when you’re getting hit at all. I’ll be humming along, thinking I’m doing well, only to notice that I’m down to my last hit point without any recollection of having gotten hit.
Other than that, though, it’s not the Dark Souls of its kind. It is, however, an enjoyable way to spend the odd fifteen minutes, and for the price you could do much worse.