The two-person team at Tri-Coastal Games has accomplished something quite nice with Dystoria. This is a game that strives to create a fun and original experience and, in a lot of ways, it succeeds in doing so. It's a shame that the game stumbles along the way because there's a lot of unrealized potential, as well as some unsavory quirks. Even then, there's something about Dystoria that kept drawing me back to it, even after I'd walk away from it in frustration.
You Are The Last Starfighter
The duo at Tri-Coastal Games has stated that one of the major influences behind Dystoria was the 1984 film The Last Starfighter. Other inspirations such as Tron and Star Wars have also been noted, but in terms of the story itself, Dystoria is a lot like The Last Starfighter. Like the start of the game, which shows a young dude walking up to an outdoor arcade machine. Seconds later, he's abducted by an alien spaceship.
While on the ship, the player character receives a message from an unseen alien being named Omniam. He tells you that you're about to begin training for a mysterious mission. Right from the get-go, things sound sketchy. And they only get shadier when someone else eventually begins sending messages telling you that Omniam is just using you.
But who cares about that when you're totally training to be a starfighter on an alien ship, right?
Throughout the 29 stages in Dystoria, you'll have to traverse Tron-like worlds filled with enemies and obstacles. The levels are structured so that you'll often have to pilot your craft in tricky ways just to clear a level. Your ship hovers ever so slightly, but it never actually leaves the ground, and you can't fall off stages. Instead, you can stick to walls and explore every angle of every stage, and doing so instantly flips the camera along with your ship. It's a cool concept and provides a refreshing degree of freedom to explore.
Unfortunately, the camera isn't exactly one of the game's strong points. When you stick to a wall or quickly move to another side of the world, the camera jolts sharply to keep up with you. It's disorienting and, at times, I found myself almost losing control of my ship as I tried to deal with the camera.
Another issue is that Dystoria doesn't exactly control as well as a game like this should. It's easy to stick to a wall, lose control of your ship, and then accidentally stick to another wall within mere seconds. The ship controls are a bit too sensitive and slippery and, combined with the not-so-great camera, can cause major problems, especially when you're trying to deal with enemies.
There isn't a huge amount of variety in terms of baddies in this game. You'll quickly learn how each enemy functions, which means you'll be able to devise the proper techniques for either taking them out or avoiding them altogether. A few of the game's enemies are definitely more on the pesky side, dealing out insane amounts of damage if you're not careful, which can cause a speedy and annoying demise. This can be especially problematic in the later levels, which are much larger — it gets tedious having to eliminate practically every single enemy in a stage just to safely progress.
Collect, Kill, Move On
Most of the levels in Dystoria require you to collect three orbs to open an exit. Doing so is easy at first, but later levels add a puzzle element that requires you to unlock paths to reach certain areas. It can be tricky, but it's extremely gratifying when you figure out how to get to a part of the level that seemed so out of reach.
The few levels that don't have you grabbing orbs task you with killing every last enemy. These stages are the least entertaining in the game. They're devoid of the fun puzzle aspect that the rest of the game plays around with, and they can become incredibly frustrating.
The draw in Dystoria is clearly the fact that you can travel through levels from all angles, which yields hidden ship parts and bombs that come in handy a lot of the time. That design choice is undoubtedly cool, but I just wish there were more to do in terms of objectives. Collecting orbs is fine, but I can't help but feel that there was room for even more diversity in terms of missions.
Back to the Future
While the mechanics of Dystoria leave a bit to be desired, the presentation is certainly strong. The game channels its inner Tron with colorful neon grids in every level. And the music is pretty great, too, utilizing a collection of '80s-sounding synth tunes that are catchy and inspired.
Dystoria feels like a product that would've thrived in a past generation. At certain points during my playthrough, I couldn't help but feel like I was playing a Nintendo 64 cult classic. Sure, it suffers from some control and camera issues, but it's also kind of fun and has a distinct, enjoyable style to it that not a lot of other games have.
My relationship with Dystoria is a strange one. On one hand, I didn't enjoy the game as much as I wish I would have. I had some fun with it, and I was amused with its visuals and music, but I also walked away perturbed at times. That said, I'm excited to see what Tri-Coastal Games does next. The Canada-based studio clearly has the chops to do great things, and Dystoria feels like a good first step. It's not perfect – far from it, actually – but the potential for something really awesome is there.
I sincerely hope there will be a Dystoria 2 that takes what worked in this first game and improves upon it in big ways. This is a space shooter that I hope to see revisited at some point by Tri-Coastal Games and infused with new challenges and objectives and enemies. Dystoria isn't a bad game. It's an okay game that could be good or even great, and I for one would love to see a sequel that lives up to its promise.