I tend to be wary of “roguelike shoot-’em-ups”. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I like the appeal of a classic arcade shmup: five handcrafted levels (and maybe a second loop), with consistent enemy layouts and meticulous patterns that you can practice, master, and build a strategy around. I like roguelikes too, don’t get me wrong, but the appeal there is something very different: a mastery of the game systems underlying the dice rolls. One is about precision and finesse, the other is about learning to tame chaos and bad luck—two designs that are, by and large, at odds with one another. And yet, Operation STEEL makes the mashup work, for the most part.
While there are roguelike flourishes, the core of Operation STEEL is pure arcade shmup. A single run is five stages of adrenaline, colourful plasma to dodge, and extravagant bosses with mesmerising attacks. Fluid, responsive movement and increasingly powerful weaponry give you the tools to survive. A branching stage structure, a la Darius, offers different paths with different threats, and a degree of randomisation within each level means you won’t be finely tuning a perfect route from start to finish, but practice and precision are still the most crucial pieces of a winning run.
It’s important to note, here, that procedural generation doesn’t mean that enemies just spawn at random—frankly, that would be a nightmare in any shoot-’em-up, and a good way to let dice rolls create impossible situations. Rather, each stage has an assortment of different enemy waves, each procedurally generated according to certain rules to ensure they’re functional, and those waves are then assembled in a semi-randomised fashion. (Side note: this review initially suggested that the waves themselves were handmade, but Undermog confirmed that that’s not the case—and proc-gen waves that still feel like handmade ones is an even more impressive feat, honestly!)
Weapons, items, and power-ups are also semi-randomised. You start each run with a basic, but decently powerful, shot and three or four points of armour (depending on the ship you choose); each boss and mini-boss drops three items for you to choose from—usually (but not always) an armour upgrade or repair, a stash of coins, and a weapon or passive effect. Between stages, a shop lets you spend coins to upgrade your equipment, buy new items, or repair your ship. The specifics are random, but there’s also a degree of predictability in when you’ll get new items and what “categories” of things will be available. You can’t control your loadout exactly, but you can plan things, to a certain degree, and if truly rotten luck means you don’t get a single new item you find useful, just throwing all your money into powering up the starting cannon is a viable strategy. Most of all, it’s a setup that still encourages and rewards player skill in that classic shmup fashion—not getting hit means not needing to waste precious money on repairs.
The result is a neat balance between variability and consistency. Different loadouts and wave configurations create unique challenges and demand some adaptability, but as soon as you start recognising the patterns—which doesn’t take too long, really—that knowledge comes in more than a little handy for making up short-term strategies on the fly. Mastering a traditional shmup can feel like choreographing an elaborate ballet; Operation STEEL is more like a freestyle dance, where every step may not be meticulously laid out, but you still need to be a master of your own moves and understand the foundations that make up the music, even in a tune you don’t immediately recognise.
That said, the genre crossover doesn’t always work flawlessly. A “traditional” roguelike is less about action-game skill and more about the creative strategies that emerge from whatever luck throws your way; you’ll always have your favourites, but even bad luck tends to create interesting situations. In something as fundamentally skill-based as a shmup, that’s less true: there are no “bad” weapons per se, but playstyle preferences matter a lot more. A weapon or build that you don’t click with just isn’t really going to work unless you put in a lot of practice with it, and there’s limited scope for emergent creativity. Again, the default shot works just fine if you just focus on upgrading that and ignore other weapons, so bad luck won’t really ruin an attempt, but those runs are far less satisfying. (Also, if you find a seed you like, you can manually enter it at the start of a run.)
Operation STEEL has none of the permanent upgrades you often see in roguelites, but it does have a meta progression system in the form of weapon and item unlocks—after each run, you make progress towards the next unlock based on your performance, and crossing the threshold adds a new item to the pool for future runs to draw from. It’s a nice balance between feeling like you’re grinding for upgrades and creating some sense of permanent progression.
Beyond the base mode, there’s also Boss Rush and Time Attack. The former is largely as you’d expect, while the latter is rather fun caravan mode that forgoes the random elements of a finely-tuned score chase. The one notable absence is any sort of practice mode—granted, the random elements would make this hard to do for standard levels, but at least being able to practice bosses you’ve encountered before would be a handy touch.
When all the pieces come together, Operation STEEL finds a nice balance between the controlled chaos of a roguelike and the precision of a shoot-’em-up. A bad draw will sometimes put those two influences at odds, but more often than not, there’s an exciting confluence of styles of play that, on paper, seem incompatible. That’s an impressive feat as it is, but even more so for a solo developer’s first project.
Developer: Undermog Games
Publisher: Undermog Games
Genre: Shoot-’em-up, roguelike
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Release date: 27 January 2022
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.