Once the cornerstones of the arcade, sci-fi shoot-em-ups have fallen from a place of pride to a rather small niche. By paying homage to its predecessors and adding new gameplay twists, Defenders of Ekron tries its hardest to restore the beleaguered shmup genre to its former glory. While it doesn’t quite succeed, its blend of retro aesthetics and innovative mechanics will surely win it some diehard fans.
On a basic level, Defenders of Ekron’s gameplay is pretty standard for the genre. Enemies shoot you, you shoot them back, all over the backdrop of a planetary civil war. After a few introductory stages, Defenders of Ekron settles into a Mega Man-esque loop of plowing through levels to defeat their bosses and gain new powers. You start with a basic blaster, a punchier cannon, and a shield, but before long you’ll gain blades for melee attacks, a dash move, and a few other fun weapons.
At first glance, Defenders of Ekron doesn’t stand out much. Its enemy and ship sprites come across better in motion than they do in screenshots, but they’re still not particularly good looking. Some of the ship designs are interesting, especially for the many screen-filling bosses that you’ll encounter during the game, and a few of the backgrounds are arresting, though a bit too repetitive. The game’s standout art appears at home base, which features several semi-animated backgrounds with the hand-crafted look of matte paintings from a 1980s sci-fi movie. Friendly NPCs all get large portraits done in a similar style, most of which look interesting and are made with care.
That style also turns out to be a perfect complement to the game’s story, which has all the hallmarks of an ‘80s kids’ anime. Giant mechs piloted by teenagers, gleefully overwrought villains, shoddy dialogue translation, second-act double-crosses, inexplicable emotional blowouts between the protagonist and his friends — it’s all there, and it’s all corny as hell in the best way. The game packs way more lore than it needs to into codex entries throughout the world, which helps to establish a fairly intricate stage upon which the game’s story unfolds.
Instead of the ever-upward level path of most shmups, the game’s levels feature sprawling exteriors that you can navigate at will, intercut with cramped dungeons full of puzzles and baddies. It’s a welcome twist on the spartan level design that dominates the genre, which often leaves players with little sense of where they are in space or how far they’ve traveled. Unfortunately, Defenders of Ekron’s levels are more novel than they are interesting. The free-roam maps tend to be expansive and repetitive, while the dungeons are usually series of rooms unartfully cobbled together like leftover LEGOs. Progressing through them can be tedious, especially when sparse checkpoints force you to recross the same wasteland, fight the same enemies, or solve the same puzzles over again when you die.
And believe me, you will die. A lot. Defenders of Ekron rides the line between satisfying difficulty and controlling-throwing aggravation. There’s a lot of fair challenge built into its bullet hell formula, but several mechanics ramp up the frustration rather than the fun. Your ship’s hit box seems just a bit too large, and your shield takes a touch longer than it should to activate.
The game’s wonky recharge mechanics complicate things as well. Using any of your abilities, including your basic attack, eats energy. To recharge it, you’ll need to momentarily stop using any abilities. The lag between laying off the trigger and gaining energy is fairly long; it seems odd that this isn’t activated by a button instead.
Regenerating health has its own quirks as well. You gain “Oxus” by killing enemies, which can be traded in for upgrades back at base. This same resource is used to regenerate your health and to power a damage-boosting “Berserk” mode, forcing you to choose between immediate needs and long-term benefits. The constant risk-reward choices you’re forced to make add some depth to the gameplay, but the system has some flaws. These abilities are most useful in the midst of a hectic dogfight, but getting hit instantly cancels them, causing you to lose your hard-earned Oxus.
It feels unnecessarily punishing, especially when you’re facing off against bosses that essentially fill the entire screen with bullets. Some of these bosses have fairly interesting patterns to master, but often they boil down to battles of attrition that relegate you to taking occasional potshots while dodging absurd amounts of projectiles. And if you make the bad decision that I did to focus on upgrading speed rather than firepower, you can look forward to spending practically an entire afternoon slowly chipping away at a boss’s health bar.
If you find yourself short on Oxus for upgrades or you just like the game’s punishing difficulty, Defenders of Ekron also has an extensive collection of training challenges to complete, which reward you based on performance. The game’s upcoming Asian release also boasts a boss rush mode and an easy mode (which I would have had no shame activating right away), among other improvements. There’s no word on whether those enhancements will be making their way to North America. Even if they did, they wouldn’t be enough of an incentive for me to dive back back in. Though I really enjoyed the game’s cornball presentation, its gameplay too often felt like punching through a brick wall only to get to another brick wall. However, if you’re not bothered by constant repetition or the sense that the game wants to beat you up for your lunch money, Defenders of Ekron may be worth a look.