Steredenn really was this lightning in a bottle, huh?
Around 2015, shoot ’em ups were in a comatose state, almost extinct, before French developer Pixelnest proved that the old girl still had Bullet Hell-life in her. It seemed like simple maths, adding the sh’m’up mechanics in an easy-to-understand rouge-lite core, and with that done, it’d only make sense for imitators to show up. One of these said imitators is Black Paradox.
This is the debut title from Italian developers Fantastico Studio, an 8-person strong team who released Black Paradox last month. They have another game in the works, or rather two; Landflix Odyssey, a platformer attempting to meld genres together in an A Hat In Time-kinda way, and Hex, something which… I don’t know, might exist at some point.
You play as a nerd in an alternate universe where DMC Deloreans are considered space-worthy, even with wide open Gullwing doors. Several other enemies in similar retro-neon aesthetic vehicles terrorize the galaxies, known only as the “Hellraisers”, and it’s up to you to destroy the seven lieutenants that run the joint. What you are NOT is the infamous “Black Paradox” that the game bangs on about, but that’s just the initial disappointment sinking in.
Gameplay is Steredenn. No, seriously, it’s just Steredenn with the most painfully generic Blood Dragon-esque graphics over it. You run through procedurally generated waves of enemies, there’s a massive ship that will give you exactly one weapon to test each level, and after you defeat one of the small handful of bosses, you obtain one of two small upgrades to choose from.
Gather enough energy and kick enough ass to the admittedly head-boppin’ soundtrack, and you will be able to activate your ultra move, the “Black Paradox”. This is essentially a parallel version of yourself in a black DMC Delorean, except they will have a random weapon each time you activate it. It’s the equivalent of plugging in a dodgy second controller which can only fire for a small amount of time before it disconnects again. It doesn’t offer devastating damage, even if it obtains one of the more overpowered weapons, it’s just a weird glitch that you’re honestly never thankful for.
When it comes to the gunplay and the shoot ’em up mechanics of Black Paradox, the controls are hampered by momentum. You don’t immediately stop when you let go of movement, meaning that you’re going to take shots more often than actual lack of skill. Despite slightly loose controls not sounding like much of an offense, it’s this continuous lack of tight focus on mechanics which serves to be Black Paradox‘s downfall.
Traditional sh’m’up law states that if a weapon is or looks more powerful and heavy-hitting than the usual bullet weapons, then it should slow you down. It’s so you’re not over-powered, and it’s a fair balance between a wide spread or high damage, along with a slightly capped speed. Here, Fantastico pay no real attention to this rule, and instead slap on one or two weapons that would work objectively better with a high speed, like the pathetic “Darts Punk”, which is a delayed cluster launcher in the first place, that would benefit more from speed.
Besides, every weapon is useless except the “Hedgehog”. It’s a circular saw which will rotate around the player, causing high damage to anyone nearby, along with being able to destroy incoming projectiles. What this means is that you can sneak underneath bosses and continuously clip them with your Black & Decker Buzzsaw while taking minimal damage, in a minimal amount of time. Mmm, game break-y.
The procedural generation and spawning placement of the enemies is varied and unique enough to warrant a clear cut definition of an “intense playthrough”, but the enemies themselves fall into some nasty habits. For one, enemy sprites will usually have two or three different attack patterns, but will only use one of said three patterns to attack. You won’t know which one it is either, leading you to make a hazardous guess with four different types of enemies, all of which are cluttering up your goddamn screen.
For two, the game will only warn you about an attack or spawn from behind sometimes. Sometimes it’ll tell you about a ship currently trying to ram your butt with purple lasers, but it won’t warn you about an un-blockable laser that will charge up immediately. For three, despite you not being able to shoot through asteroids, your enemies can, which– Look, can we stop this bullshit?
Can we stop this inherent design flaw of “the enemies don’t have to play by the same rules as you”? It’s not fair to be held back by some absurd crap like this, and it’s not fun to fight an enemy who will always have the advantage against you. It’s like a fight between a disgruntled customer from McDonald’s vs McDonald’s lawyers. What makes you think that’s entertainment in any way, shape or form?
In all honesty, you’re probably going to get hit multiple times, regardless of whether you’re a sh’m’up vet or not, because it’s so difficult to tell everything apart from one another. Everything has a neon tint to it, because muh Synthwave, and this includes the bullets, which can be hard to differentiate from background elements some of the time. Purple bullets fired from purple ships on a purple galaxy background are hard to tell from one another, believe it or not.
The bosses of Black Paradox also tire themselves out quite fast. I hope you enjoy the same right-to-left sweep of the screen at high speeds, reminiscent of the crap Horsemen boss fights from The Binding of Isaac, because Fantastico repeat this same trick three times in the main campaign. Other than that, they also use attacks that aren’t actually bullets, but random textures with expanding and shrinking hit-boxes. It’s hard to explain, but these “innovations” of random elements hurting you instead of clearly defined bullets, isn’t executed well.
When all is said and done, the only way Black Paradox tries to differentiate itself from the cut and paste job they’ve done with Steredenn, is by adding a garage aspect. Enemies drop money, and with that money, you can buy modules that you can add to your ship which give out random bonuses. “6 percent chance to fire a homing rocket”, “12 percent chance to make the next shot a triple burst”, that kind of deal. It’s implemented quite well, to a point where it’s not overpowered, but it’s also not noticeable.
What also isn’t noticeable is that every random module has factors that boost your ships base stats of health, attack, speed, special consumption, etc., which is a design choice that baffles me. In most games, the percent chance bonus from an item is usually a secondary element; One that you briefly gloss over before looking over to the real meat in the meal: The stat upgrades. Here, it’s the opposite, and it’s hard to tell why, especially when I didn’t notice the differences after 6 hours in, and only discovered the the stat upgrades on a whim while on the phone.
There’s still something about Black Paradox that bothers me however, and it’s hard to put my finger on it. Maybe it’s how inoffensive most of its presentation and scope can be, despite some truly beautiful pixel art and tense battles. Maybe it’s the way bosses tend to repeat themselves with tepid attacks that are only hard to dodge because of our hard-to-control ship.
Actually, come to think of it, it’s the aesthetic; The truly uninspired 80s Synthwave aesthetic which doesn’t even attempt to form its own shell outside of a Delorean with floor-facing wheels. Its title screen is a testament to neon-tinted generality, with it looking like something you could create with the PhotoFunia Synthwave Generator. In fact, look at this, here is the title screen for Black Paradox…
.. And here is the one I made.
Pretty similar, right? I mean yeah, sure, it’s not the right shade of purple, but the triangle, the neon, the grid surrounding it all. It’s a simple aesthetic to emulate, and every element of Black Paradox— From the nameless masked bounty hunter with an edge, to the 80s staples of culture being used in impossible ways– It’s such typical nature at this point.
In the end, Black Paradox’s vague attempts to seemingly ape over the simple and addictive nature of Steredenn miss the mark heavily. It’s 80s yuppie irony mask also falls flat on its face, since we all got bored of this cheap Hotline Miami-esque schtick when Trials of The Blood Dragon came out, and its infrequently entertaining gameplay doesn’t save it either. In other words, buy Steredenn. I promise you, it’s worth it.
This Review of Black Paradox was based on the Xbox One Version of the game.
An immensely disappointing sh'm'up that doesn't bring enough new ideas, even with its vaguely ironic Synthwave aesthetic.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.