It doesn’t seem fair to call Compromised a twin-stick shooter. I’ve played quite a few twin-stick shooters since discovering Xbox Live Indie Games, and Compromised doesn’t really fit it. It isn’t shallow or repetitive. It doesn’t star either zombies or neon wedges. It isn’t about defending yourself in a static arena. No, Compromised isn’t really a twin-stick shooter in the sense that we’ve come to think of them. It’s an oppressive science fiction exploration shooter that happens to use two sticks for control.
I was reasonably impressed with Compromised from the outset, and it only gets better. The game looks good, if gloomy. It’s not going to wow anyone with 3D facial animations or anything, but it doesn’t need to. Sprites of various sizes and designs flit gracefully around crumbling future-industrial tunnels and subterranean cavern complexes that feel reminiscent of the ‘real world’ sections of the Matrix trilogy. Lumbering drill arms burst through the walls and release clouds of small enemies that clump and swirl like particles of smoke. Missiles boom like Satan slamming doors in hell, dropped energy cores twinkle in the darkness, and occasional boss enemies loom and rip the world down around you.
I don’t resort to the over-used internet superlative ‘epic’ very often, but at times Compromised really does feel epic. Most of the game sees you speeding through winding tunnels where you’re harried by small, quick enemy fighter craft, but it’s punctuated by frantic arena battles that sidle back into more familiar twin-stick territory for a little while as you fend off escalating waves. I’m not a big fan of arena-based twin-stick action, but fortunately these sections tend to feature rapidly changing enemy times and come to an end before they get too repetitive. If you run into a couple in succession they can get a little tiresome, particularly if they’re long, gruelling battles with sparse checkpoints, but they never become boring.
The real highlights, though, are the boss fights. There are a several, sometimes at the end of a level and sometimes in a level all to themselves. The bosses here aren’t just big enemies that require a lot of firepower to bring down. They’re gargantuan mechanical beasts that launch devastating attacks in patterns that you must observe and learn, with specific weak spots that have to be targeted, and several increasingly powerful forms that you must defeat in turn before you can finally breathe easy again. For the major bosses, the camera usually zooms way back and has you manoeuvring a tiny speck around some sprawling monstrosity. In all honesty, I’d have to say Compromised has some of the best boss battles I’ve played in years. They’re tough and sometimes frustrating, but you can always see how you’re meant to proceed, you can always think of a new strategy, and with enough persistence the titans always come crashing down. When they do, you’ll feel like you’ve felled a fierce god. Compromised has the sort of bosses that people would still be reminiscing about if it had come out in 1995.
These were the moments that made me feel I was playing the sort of game that I started playing games for in the first place. Compromised has a slightly Super Nintendo or PS1 feel to it, but that’s not to say it’s retro. Admittedly I was infatuated with the SNES-era Mode 7-style spinning of the burrowing drill arms, but Compromised doesn’t feel like an undiscovered relic of the good old days. It feels like the sort of game I used to play, simply because of how it handles itself. It doesn’t clutter things up with lengthy exposition but does at least provide some sort of story to give you a reason to fight. Too many indie shooters give you nothing more than ‘shoot this stuff because it’s there’. There are several well-balanced defensive and offensive abilities, including a devastating but hazardous gravity bomb, activated through judicious use of collected energy cores. Your little spacecraft can be upgraded, and any upgrade cores you’ve picked up carry over after you get killed, so if you’re really stuck on a particular level you will actually gradually get stronger each time you try it. There are two recharging default abilities as well, missiles and bombs, which are crucial to success. The whole thing feels painstakingly balanced and very carefully crafted, and it’s that quality that makes Compromised feel like games I used to play: the game gives a sense that it was made by people who are proud of what they do, rather than slinking into the room apologetically like most XBLIGs.
Not that it’s perfect, of course. Don’t get the wrong impression from my lavish praise. While the difficulty is challenging yet surmountable, it’s also uneven. There are also one or two badly designed areas: a series of crushing contraptions on the first level that simply can’t be avoided by any means, and late-game chase level that depends far too much on trial and error. Note to all developers: exhilarating chase levels cease to be exhilarating if you have to start over every twenty seconds. Chases need to maintain momentum, and to that end maybe it’s better to make them slightly too easy than slightly too hard.
The story is a bit of a loss as well. Having some sort of context for our combat is very welcome, but the cryptic mentions of ‘Se-Da’, ‘Stem’ and ‘BIOC’ that intrigued me in the early game are never really resolved. The plot comes and goes without ever revealing what’s going on, who we are or what we’re fighting. As someone who notices to game music and listens to it in his free time, I feel I should also mention that while Compromised’s music is quite good and feels appropriate for the grim science fiction environment, it’s not always in the right place. Some of the most frantic scenes in the game are accompanied by mellow tracks that don’t really fit the action on screen. It’s not a problem – a lot of the time the music is drowned out by the combat anyway – but it’s an odd choice.
All in all, Compromised impressed me hugely. It may not be perfect, but it looks good, generally sounds good, and plays delightfully. If you really don’t like shooting at things with your thumbsticks then maybe give it a miss, but I’d encourage anyone else to at least take a look, and take my word for it that the demo shows you the least of what the game is capable of. Between its carefully designed player abilities, its well-balanced challenge and its alarmingly huge boss battles, Compromised should be a flagship for all the things that Xbox Live Indie Games can do right. I might have to create a top ten list just so I can put Compromised on it.