Jamestown Review

Jamestown in an inde shoot-em-up developed and published by Final Form games for the PC.

When I first heard the title Jamestown, I am not sure what I thought, but I can assure you it was not shmup set on Mars. You play as a character referred to only as R and his quest for the right to return to Earth-England by defending the New World colony on Mars from a bunch of betentacled Martians loyal to the Spanish, and that is actually part of the first level’s name.

Though the game as a whole is more, as far as play goes, Jamestown is another shmup–a good one, mind you–but such a specific genre can never truly be denied. You move around the screen, almost never let go of the fire button, and avoid large quantities of bullets in familiar patterns. There is no focus, so you get one speed of movement, but it feels good as it is not so fast you end up unintentionally darting into stray bullets and not so slow you cannot get away from them. If I had to decide whether to call it faster or slower, I would say Raiden, which is a little on the slow side. Despite the slow-average move speed, though, Jamestown is fast-paced and never fails to keep the energy-energy level high. My whole time playing I felt I had to keep a close eye on what was going on if I wanted to stay alive, and generally it was beneficial to feel that way. The game has four different attack types, two basic and two more tricky ones. There are no bombs, but has a super-mode called vaunt. Vaunt is charged by collecting the golden nuts (as in nuts and bolts), and once activated you are given a shield for a few seconds, and so long as it is still active your attack and score multiplier are doubled. Some of the weapons even change a little. You can even hit the vaunt button again to pull the shield back up and end super mode. Most of the time, there is no reason you should not be in vaunt, since the faster you can take down enemies, the fewer bullets you have to avoid and the clearer the screen gets, and since collecting nuts charges up your vaunt bar even while it is activated, you can keep it going as long as there are dudes on screen to destroy. Replacing bombs with a potentially infinite buff is an interesting step off the beaten path, but it is still ultimately about avoiding bullets and racking up points.

A screenshot

This is a boss fight!

Jamestown does have a lot of style, though, which is what truly sets it apart–more than its vaunts mechanic. The game is set in a strange colonial future-past where the English have begun to colonize Mars and the evil Spanish have allied with the locals to drive you out. John Smith is there, too. Everything is sprited, as shmups should be, and sprited well. There is never a question of what should and shot not be shot or avoided. The Martians are all gross and tentacle-ridden and malicious looking without being unpleasing to look at, and the English side of things is all airships and muskets except for your main character, who is all tiny airship and giant laser-ey things, but no one ever said it made sense. It has a nice ye olde color palette to go with the colonial theme, and even the shop has an e at the end. Someone put a lot of meticulous love into making this game look good. One of its strongest points, though, is the music. Each of the levels has it own orchestrated music that makes the game feel tense even when there are not as many bullets on screen. It is enjoyable to just listen to during those brief reprieves between bullet patterns, and when you finish a level a jaunty, satisfying olde tune plays. After a while I found myself wanting to complete a level just to hear that victory jingle–every time I hear it, it fills me with a feeling of old-timey goodness. It is a pity that all the bosses and bonus stages have the same couple of songs, considering how few campaign levels there are, though the levels do have brilliant, long-winded colonial age subtitles, one of which I liked so much I had to save a screenshot of it.

Best level name

Just as long-winded as it should be

The game’s story and arcade modes are the same, but one separates all the levels out while the other has you run through them one after another. Both are brief, though with as many difficulty setting as it has I ended up replaying all of the levels at least thrice, and the way difficulties are set up is a clever little trick. Without unlocking anything, there are four difficulties: normal, difficult, legendary, and divine. Notice none of those are called easy. Despite this, the first difficulty that allows you to play all of the levels is legendary–normal only covers the first three, and difficult lets you do one to four, making legendary effectively the normal difficulty. I call them a trick because while most shmup players would never be caught dead playing on easy or beginner mode, none have qualms staring off on normal and working their way up. It also feels more satisfying to beat the game on legendary than on normal, even if it is just clever wording. When I first discovered their ruse I admit I was pretty impressed. I have no qualms leaving an “easy” mode unchecked, but I always feel the need to check off “normal” and above if a game keeps track, and Jamestown keeps track and I ended up playing through the campaign three times in one sitting just to fill the first three difficulty checkboxes. There are also a series of bonus missions, which is another of Jamestown’s unique features. They are things like survive for x time, complete a level without getting hit, go through rings, or get x points in y amount of time. Most are pretty enjoyable, adding some variety to avoiding bullets and shootin’ dudes, but a few did suffer from being frustratingly over difficult. They also cannot boast the same awesome music as the main game, though I did end up sinking about as much time into the bonus missions as I did the main game. They are an interesting addition, but all quite brief and a couple of them I only went through to have it done rather than because I wanted to, as they do not offer a special reward other than the ability to claim you did them.

Finally, Jamestown has an up-to four player multiplayer option. Not surprisingly, it does not feel much different from any other shmup’s multiplayer, but it is still cool to be able to play with friends, especailly since the inclusion of multiplayer in shmups seems to have fallen out of style with the years. While in a team larger enemies will drop an item that revives downed partners without using up a credit, which allows you keep plowing on, making the game generally more forgiving, almost as if encouraging you to play multiplayer rather than alone. Vaunt gets a little more interesting, though, as the number of nuts dropped does not increase, so you have to split them with your partner(s). Simply turning on vaunt for the duration of a level becomes difficult if not impossible, and so you end up having to find a certain amount of synergy so at least one of you can always have the boost. I only played two-player with a friend, and we ended up switching back and forth, activating or deactivating to protect one another or pull our multiplier up. It was a pleasant experience, and I am glad that I tried multiplayer at least once. Since I am on a small laptop without xbox controllers or spare keyboards lying around, one of us got stuck with the mouse controls, and while they work it just feels wrong to play a shmup without buttons.

If you like shmups, Jamestown is a worthwhile game, and though short it can sink enough time with its various modes and difficulties to be easily worth the $10 price tag. I thoroughly enjoyed playing it–it is an engaging game with a lot of style, and that latter aspect seems to be in short supply these days. The multiplayer works well and encourages cooperation despite the need to gather golden nuts, and you can tell after playing just one level that a lot of time, effort, and care was put into making this game. I would especially recommend it to folk trying to get into shmups, since the lax normal difficulty and essentially unlimited vaunt are good ways to ease into the genre, plus you can have friends back you up if you’re having trouble.

touhou10 first boss hard

That's just the first boss

As an added bonus you don’t play as a little girl on a screen made of bullets like the shmups I usually play. It is a welcome change of pace.