Wish upon a Starwish

Flash game Starwish has only the best of intentions. It combines JRPG style advancement and narrative with shmup style combat reminiscent of Gradius, and endeavors to make an entertaining soup out of them. And while it stands as definite proof of concept, Starwish falls into the traditional JRPG traps: poor pacing, a lack of integration, and being too damn long.

Starwish begins with your character, the loveable Deuce, getting shot down on the imaginatively named “Home Planet” and meeting one-third or Starwish’s harem, Ginny, the cute, clumsy one. There’s also the mad scientist, violent one who doesn’t know how to deal with human emotions and the tsundere childhood friend. The first third of the game focuses its energy on which one of these girls Deuce likes.

That may sound utterly terrible, but it’s not a terrible story for the first third. Maybe this comes from optimism, seeing the game marry visual novel with Gradius, but the first third of the game is well-paced. It bounces back and forth between Deuce flying missions on Home Planet, shooting down enemy drones and looking for the resident macguffin, and Deuce flirting with ladies and talking with the strong cast, which also includes a drunken panda, a old blonde man, a silent robot, and a precognitive old lady.

The story’s so-so, but it’s got that visual novel bounciness to it that makes it enjoyable, and the shooting kept my interest with an RPG mechanic and a lot of options. You can choose how to specialize your character, buy weapons from an ever-expanding trickle of options, and buy modules that let you specialize your ship and piloting even further. The shooting itself doesn’t feel the best—it’s extremely precise but doesn’t have a lot of weight—but I forgive it because of the robust customization and the story’s compelling anime twists. And I give it points for doing something different: I’ve never seen this combination of elements before.

Then the wheels come off.

You see, if Starwish was just the adventures around Home Planet it would be a good two hour experience, a proof of concept. But that’s not what it has planned. It has an epic journey through multiple planets and dimensions prepared before it runs out of gas. To be fair, it’s a pretty decent yarn. It’s long-winded and reliant on macguffins, but for someone who likes a heavy dose of Japanese ridiculousness it’s not unenjoyable.

What doesn’t work, though, is the gameplay. As the game expands to more planets it’s like the writer forgot to tell the designer that more enemies, more levels were needed. The second planet features exactly the same number of areas as the first, with more difficult enemies but the same bosses. The thrill of novelty goes away, and it’s replaces by repetition. The game gets long. It feels long.

Even worse is that the narrative in this middle chapter proceeds independently of your flying missions. In effect, here’s the typical day during the second segment: Deuce flies out in the morning to shoot down imperial drones who exist en masse for no discernable reason. Then he comes back and the plot, which has conveniently paused, proceeds for a short amount of time before Deuce goes to sleep.

It’s incredibly awkward. There’s no synergy between gameplay and narrative, and it creates a muddled two hours of mess where the plot advances completely independent of what you’re doing. Effectively you’re doing busy work to advance a separate plot. When the characters ended up on a third planet, fighting through a third collection of the same encounters, I gave up on the game.

But let’s not let this diminish the good this game manages. It combines two genres, both quintessentially Japanese, into a whole that works as a unified game for a reasonable running time before going off the rails due the the developer over-reaching. It messes it up, of course. But as a proof of concept it stands solid: these two genres were meant to be together. Stories can be told like this, and we can be happy with them. The problem is in making it so that they sing together, instead of singing different songs.