Pacific Rim Meets Starcraft: Nitropia, the Game – review’d

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Some time ago, we wrote about Dawn Patrol, a professional indie game studio – if that’s the right way to describe them – working out of an office right here in Colombo. They’ve just released their newest game: Nitropia, a space-age tower defense game set in a somewhat blighted future. It’s available on iTunes and on Google Play. So for the big question:

How good is it?

Start

Nitropia starts out simple. The premise is easy enough to grasp: you’ve got giant bipedial war machines, called rigs. Humanity is under attack by aliens. It’s up to you to use your rig(s) – and your towers – to blow a hole in them  before they cross that finish line. The first three levels are free: from then on, you can pick and choose what to unlock.

If there is a complex backstory, the game doesn’t show it here; instead, it tosses you into a rather frostbitten map with a snaking path running down the middle. This is your typical Tower Defense intro map –a single path snaking towards the bottom, with one entry point and one exist. You have one rig – which looks something Guillermo Del Toro might have made – and a bunch of offensive buildings.

If you’ve ever played the first Starcraft, prepare for some nostalgia. The art style is similar, the palette almost identical, the visuals a step away from modern shadow-and-shaders heavy work towards a simpler, grungier 90’s vibe. Menus and buttons are square, and  the tutorial is entirely based on tooltips. Everything about Nitropia cries “old-school” – from the art style to how everything handles. Even the music. 
level1
Any Gundam fan will know what to do.

The rest is (almost) intuitive.

Wait, did we say intuitive? Scratch that. Intuitive is Plants Vs Zombies. Nitropia isn’t there. Nitropia relies on a lot of trial and error. Which means you’ll be creating a base and forgetting to collect the shiny Nitrus that it produces every so often. You’ll be wondering what the heck that aircraft does, and why it’s so useless.

You’ll even be trying to figure out how to make your Rig do stuff. Can you get it to cover that choke point? Yes? No? Can it stay it one place without running off and getting itself killed? How much damage does this tower do? No idea, really: you only realize what does how much damage and how after half your towers have crumbled to the ground.  By some miracle, you’ve managed to survive this level. Phew.

And then this happens.
And then this happens.

Later, you figure out these things. You realize that the aircraft are weak by themselves, but super-strong in a swarm.  You graduate beyond the initial strategy of building as many Splash Rocket towers and possible and figure out how to set up an effective Pulse Cannon-Nitrus Mortar combination. You find the upgrades menu and begin giving your towers more power. Like the Nitrus Mortar, which eventually unlocks a sort of radial freeze-ray that immobilizes everything around it for quite a while. Then you realize that your rig pilots gain experience as well, and that rigs can be upgraded….

rig1
Yes, a mecha called Shakthi
Well, you get the picture. By the time you do get the picture, though, the aliens are on your doorstep.  They aren’t very passive aliens.

Your towers will be razed to the ground. You’ll spend ten minutes fighting one giant freak of an enemy, lose half your base trying to kill him, and then realize ten more have spawned and are trundling down the road.  At this point a voice in the back of your head wonders whether you could spend a dollar or so upgrading your rig. Perhaps that would make life easier? Technically, $ 1.99 is all you need for all the levels and three rigs, so you don’t need to spend; still, a pack of nitrous looks mighty handy.

Or perhaps you’d play Angry Birds. Indeed, Nitropia is very much a love-it-or-leave-it game with its own set of quirks. For example, there’s a story between levels, embedded in the little square pieces of art. You won’t know they’re there unless you happen to tap something by accident. The 90’s UI isn’t all that great when you’re expecting simpler, modern UIs.The officer / rigs upgrade system looks more complex than it is. The officer character descriptions add little to the game. (Rip Thorson 2014-2014, as Bhanuka put it on his playthrough). The menu between levels could really have been a more environmental design, like that in Starcraft II.

And in the heat of battle, especially with multiple rigs on the field, your screen is going to have so many things to press that you might wonder if you’re in an actual game of Starcraft.

Nevertheless, three or four levels down the line, all of this comes together – perhaps not enough to make the game an amazingly accessible masterpiece like Plants vs Zombies, but enough to make you determined to give the invaders hell. You grow incredibly attached to your rigs, which evoke a few good memories from Pacific Rim and can accommodate a pretty wide variety of playstyles.

As the game proceeds, it evolves from tower defense to tower offense, and at this point you have to think. Really think.  Even the button complexity works its way in, as you begin to put those rig abilities to good use.  

There’re also two game modes in addition to the story: “Base Battle” and “Survival Mode”. Survival is a creepwave where you take on enemy bosses with three of your rigs. Base Battle involves taking down an enemy base on the map while keeping your own fort intact. Based on what we saw, these add quite a bit of replay value.

story
Seek and ye shall find?

It’s a pity that the storyline integration is so poor, because the story’s quite decent and the art is lovely. The game gives a tangible sense that yes, we ARE kicking alien posterior. And perhaps we’ve taken it a bit too far, and there’s nothing else but to fight our way through it.

We wouldn’t call it a great game, but it’s a great choice for a rainy evening. It’s got a wonderfully old school vibe that shines through  at all times. And it might just be one of the best games ever made in Sri Lanka – although in all fairness, that’s not saying much. We’d give it a 6.5 out of 10. Hopefully we’ll see more of this in the future.

Nitropia’s out for iOS and 7-inch Android tabs at the time of speaking. Yes, specifically 7-inch Android tabs: Dawn Patrol tells us that they’re working on optimizing the game for other resolutions.  

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