There’s a lot going on in Project Starship X. Even by shoot-’em-up standards, it’s a game of sensory overload, full of bright colours and flashing lights, overwhelming attack patterns, and eccentric character designs. In contrast to the precision and mastery that a finely-crafted bullet hell demands, this is a game that wants you to always be scrambling, always flying by the seat of your pants and doing whatever it takes to get through alive.
The driving force behind this chaos is procedurally-generated levels. Each level is made of different “pieces”, if you like, and while those individual pieces will soon become familiar enough for you to develop a strategy for dealing with them, each new game means a different arrangement of those pieces. This is where Project Starship X gets truly chaotic; whatever strategy you have for a specific section is going to be affected by the pieces that come before and after it, the strategies you use to deal with those, and the attacks and hazards that overlap at those borders.
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In true roguelike fashion, it’s a game about adaptability. Knowing how to deal with individual pieces will only get you so far; you also need to be ready to quickly adjust to whatever unique challenges can arise from the different configurations of those pieces. A level segment that can normally be dealt with effectively by sticking to the bottom of the screen until the danger passes can suddenly take a different turn if it’s immediately followed by a segment that renders that safe spot no longer safe.
Project Starship X has 14 different themed levels, each one broken down into different pieces, but the way they’re arranged is semi-randomised. Each run will see you through five levels, classic arcade shmup style, but exactly which levels you get will depend on the whims of the random number generator. It’s not completely random—there are some rules in place to make sure easier levels come first—but random enough to allow each new run to pack a few surprises.
This roguelike setup mostly works well. The individual challenges within a level segment can be brutal, but they’re telegraphed enough to avoid being completely blindsided. This is mostly true of the random aspects, too—it’s not often that attacks will overlap in a way that leaves you with no practical way to respond, so long as you keep your wits about you and stay ready to adapt on the fly. That said, a run coming to an early end due to bad luck rather than poor skill is an occasional frustration, but such is the nature of the genre.
One of your most useful tools in Project Starship X is a dash move that functions as both a dodge and an attack. Dashing will jump your ship forward a short distance, making you invincible while you do so—that’s crucial for bypassing obstacles that you otherwise have no way of safely getting past, like screen-wide lasers, but it also makes an effective attack. The tradeoff is a short cooldown before you can use it again, meaning a misjudged dash can leave you completely vulnerable instead of getting you to safety.
Almost every level segment is built with this in mind, building unique challenges around it. It’s not uncommon to run into a maze of hazards that require precisely-timed dodges to navigate through while not leaving yourself exposed during the vulnerable moment that follows each dash, or enemies that can only be killed by ramming into them. The only way to collect power-ups is to dash into them, and some of the more devilish levels will use that against you by using power-ups to lure you into dangerous, risky dashes (but with great rewards if you can pull them off).
This all makes Project Starship X a game with a lot of room to explore its mechanics to the fullest. It’s difficult, by design, but has a high skill ceiling—as you figure out how to make the best use of this dash (and other tools available to you, like slow movement), you’ll grow better able to respond and adapt to whatever the game throws at you. You’ll get better at pulling off the trickier, more dangerous maneuvers that bring the highest scores, and better able to tackle some of the game’s tougher optional challenges.
The manic nature of playing Project Starship X is only reinforced by the game’s ridiculous sense of style. There’s a Lovecraftian influence to the aliens you encounter, but filtered through the comical and the downright bizarre. It’s Lovecraft by way of stoner comedy and a Gorillaz-esque aesthetic, which is… something. And yet, it works, feeding into the general sense of chaos that drives the whole game.
Project Starship X is something unique in a genre that, for better and worse, tends to stick to the tried and true. Its roguelike elements add a fun, fresh twist on the shoot-’em-up formula, adding an unpredictable twist and a sense of chaos that goes hand in hand with its over-the-top presentation. The random aspect can sometimes be cause for frustration, but for the most part, it makes for a game that continually throws up new challenges and expects you to be ready for anything.
Project Starship X is developed by Panda Indie Studio and published by eastasiasoft. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC .
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.