Soldner-X 2: Final Prototype is a solid horizontal space shooter with plenty of challenge and re-playability packed into seven fairly short levels. Level design is challenging enough in lower difficulties to keep novice players occupied whilst harder modes are more than enough to keep veteran high score chasers happy. Final Prototype checks every basic horizontal shooter requirement off the list, but does so with no flare or sense of style. Stages are visually uncreative, ship and boss design is generic and collectable points in the stage are suspiciously similar to Sonic The Hedgehog rings. Soldner-X 2: Final Prototype is a fine horizontal shooter, but one with no pizazz.
There’s a polarising quality level between the good game design and poor art design throughout Final Prototype. Where gameplay is tight, deceptively deep and enjoyable art design is cheap feeling and woefully generic. Soldner X 2’s generic ‘knock-off’ aesthetic betrays the good quality that lies beneath skin depth, it’d be all too easy to write off Final Prototype at first glance.
Like most other horizontal shooters the goal of Soldner X-2 is to get from point A to point B down a pre-determined path whilst shooting lots of enemies. The game starts with five stages, though an additional two are unlocked by finding enough of the five keys hidden away in each stage. Unlocking the final stages feels obstructive, there’s not a good reason to lock them away. The choice to mysteriously gate two stages makes the first playthrough feel incomplete. Even the ending cut-scene confirms that there’s more stages to go. It really ruins Final Prototype’s flow the first few times out.
Regardless each scripted stage feels great. Enemies spawn at a fast enough pace so the combat flow never stops. Attacking is only half the battle as nearly every enemy is capable of mounting their own offence. To rack up big scores I needed evade enemy fire as well as aggressively counter attack. Soldner X-2 eased me into it’s world well with a relaxing difficulty curve. In the early stages Final Prototype did enough to help me learn what to expect, and later it didn’t shy away from really bringing the challenge. Completing the stages in beginner mode is a great way to learn what to expect, when I upped the difficulty to medium I found even though I knew what was coming the pressure was a lot to manage.
Soldner X-2 kept me on my toes throughout every playthrough by way of it’s constantly changing stream of enemies. No stage shares the same type of foe, there are no palette or model swaps, each and every enemy is unique. The only way to succeed is to change up play-styles, as a result I never felt I was ever just fighting the same old waves of fodder. The approach to battle was also dependant on which ship I was using. Each playable vehicle comes with it’s own set of weaponry, there are three ships in the game total, but players start with two.
Each ship has it’s own range of offensive capabilities. All three have a core weapon and two alternate. Of the two starting ships one has a traditional main gun that fires laser bolts dead ahead, whilst the other has a shotgun-like spread that fires out like a short-range cone. Alternate firing includes utility like mines, wave guns and magma cannons. It’s the core gun that will account for the majority of the ships destructive output, I personally felt secondary fire felt like an after thought. In addition the bonus ‘shockwave’ weapon can be picked up by any ship, when used it obliterates enemies in the circumference. Finally there’s the super move, each ship has a different animation but the end result is the same, all on screen enemies are defeated.
My only real gripe with the way the gameplay is the health bar. Instead of being a ‘one hit and your out’ system in Final Prototype the player controlled ship has a health bar. The advantage of a one hit system is it’s immediately obvious what will cause death. The health bar feels imprecise, there were plenty of times that I couldn’t determine if taking a hit would kill me or not, therefore I couldn’t accurately articulate if a risky manoeuvre was worth taking. Final Prototype doesn’t explain how much damage each hit does, or how that translates to a part of the life bar; it was impossible to tell how close to dying I was with a cursory glance. The health bar felt too imprecise, even something like a ‘three hit’ system would have felt much better.
The generic nature of the artwork is without a doubt Soldner X-2’s greatest weakness. From enemy units to boss fights to aesthetic stage design everything feels like it’s been done before. The generic look makes Soldner X-2 feel cheap. Even points littered across the stage feel recycled, they’re the absolute double of rings from Sonic The Hedgehog. It feels lazy and unoriginal; it’s such a shame to see poor design elements in a game that is otherwise solid. It shouldn’t be too distracting, but I found myself constantly looking noticing it.
Soldner X-2 Final Prototype is a solid horizontal shooter wrapped up in a generic packing. The game is well structured and the stages well designed; challenging enough for players of all skill levels. But the lack of aesthetic quality means there’s a sort of soulless feel to the game as a whole. The odd inclusion of a health-bar makes risk assessment murkier than it should be, and the decision to lock one ship and two stages the first time around in questionable. Soldner X-2’s core has a lot to like, but there’s no flourish to make it great.