Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


Retrovirus (PC, 2013, USA): Airsickness Bags At The Ready!
November 5, 2013, 3:54 am
Filed under: Retrovirus (PC, 2013, USA)

Okay, for Christ’s sake! So I never played any of the classic “Descent” series of games. Just call me uncultured and shoot me while you’re at it! I guess that little fact makes me completely unqualified to jot down a quick personal discussion of “Retrovirus” (PC, 2013, USA). Jesus! Either you folks are real assholes, or I have an incredibly deep-seated inferiority complex—or possibly both.

Oh, hi there! Uh…have you been sitting there for long? Have I been talking to myself again? How terribly embarrassing. All I wanted to say is that I finished playing this lovely little, colorful, six-axis shooter (also called a 6DOF game, six degrees of freedom) from American developer Cadenza Interactive about three months ago. Unfortunately, I never got around to adding it to the crappy blog. I’m going to fix that oversight now, come hell or high water.

Cadenza, an indie developer of approximately 20 folks located on the left coast of the USA (California to be exact), has scant previous titles on its resume, namely a turret defense game known as “Sol Survivor.” (The team is also currently working on an interesting project called “The Wanderer,” where you play as a western-themed robot attempting to escape a dying planet—sounds like my kinda crap.) Anyway, the developer began as a loose collective in 2006, was incorporated in 2009, and eventually got its first game onto Steam in 2010. Like many indies, “Retrovirus” (as Cadenza’s second official game) began its life as a crowd-funded wannabee. The team created a Kickstarter campaign in June of 2012. Although the project garnered over 1,000 backers to raise about $30,000, that wasn’t even half of the $75,000 goal the team had set for themselves. “Funding unsuccessful” was Retrovirus’s tagline at this point in time.

Thanks be to the gaming gods, however, that “Retrovirus” didn’t simply pass into obscurity like so many other un-Kick-started games do. No, instead the unbelievable happened. I’m paraphrasing poorly here from a story the Penny Arcade Report wrote on the life and near-death of “Retrovirus,” but a single “angel investor” (with some cash to burn) named Chris Davies essentially told the fellas at Cadenza: “I’m a real fan of this game. I must be able to play it. If your Kickstarter doesn’t succeed, I can fund you myself.” Of course, Cadenza’s founder, Spencer Roberts, and lead designer and writer Nick Mazmanian thought this was unfunny, malicious spam. But sometimes important things come in little unsolicited emails. As it turned out, Chris Davies wasn’t a spammer, and the game ended up on Steam several months later regardless of the failed Kickstarter all because of one fan’s crazy interest (and healthy bank account). So, if you ever play “Retrovirus,” you know exactly who to thank.

This happy ending only makes playing “Retrovirus” that much more of a colorful joy. Before discussing the gameplay and narrative, I suppose it’s time to get all the “Descent” references out of the way. Unlike uncultured moi, you probably know all about the early PC game “Descent,” which was a six-degrees-of-freedom first-person title developed by Parallax Software and released in 1995. It spawned several expansion packs and two sequels, so it was clearly very popular for its time (and still today by a dedicated fanbase, all of whom refuse to uninstall it).  In “Descent,” as a “Material Defender,” you fly a spaceship through a labyrinth of asteroids and must destroy virus-infected mining robots. The real trick of the game was being able to successfully orient yourself while being able to move in all six axes in zero-gravity–and being able to make offensive moves and defend your ship against counterattacks. If this sounds like it might induce vertigo, you’re right.

fb5“Retrovirus” very clearly takes its inspiration from its predecessor. Only in this iteration, we aren’t flying spaceships nor dodging robots on asteroids. No, in this updated version of “Descent,” our perspective is decidedly more microscopic in nature: In “Retrovirus” you are an agent of a computer’s antivirus program—for all intents and purposes, okay, okay, like a tiny spaceship—flying through the innards of a computer. (No computer I know ever looked like this though!) Your sole purpose is to eradicate a worm that is malevolently tearing through the operating system, level by level. Whisking around the colorful, abstract spaces, you hunt down rotten bits of hardware and software, zapping nasty virus tendrils with your gun (or dual guns in some cases).

The “guns,” while looking more like wireframe rectangles than anything else, fall into vaguely familiar categories of shotgun, rifle, pistol, laser, etc., and all of them are highly upgradeable throughout the campaign—which lasted about 15 hours (for slowpoke me).  While your “character” is silent, and there are no actual “people” present in the game per se, there are personalities involved in the campaign, which dabbles in multiple narratives at once. For example, the antivirus program itself is voiced by a smart, young female voice—a typical HQ know-it-all–who tells you where to go, what to watch out for, and what the invading worm seems to ultimately be seeking. Additionally you meet other “personalities” within the confines of the computer. For instance (if I remember correctly), the email manager is a goofy, careless, self-absorbed female voice, and the central processor is a king-like figure, a colonel who demands to know—in military exhortations–what is going on (as antivirus bullets are whizzing past his head).

fb3To be honest, the story doesn’t do much to propel the gameplay. Essentially, you are always once step behind the virus as it eats its way through the system, ultimately targeting key components (ultimately a vault where virus definitions are stored) and lashing out at you. Thankfully, this “thin narrative” is not the only story in the game. “Retrovirus” includes many collectibles, specifically emails, which tell at least two other tales. One details the life of a frustrated creative designer who argues with clients who are always requesting mundane, boring designs. Another is a heated exchange of messages between two hackers who argue about how, where, and why to launch an aggressive attack on a government or corporate entity (or something like that). How much of these secondary stories is revealed is up to you and is dependent upon your exploratory abilities. Personally, I found the writing to be confusing on all accounts—I could just barely keep these various stories straight throughout the campaign. In addition, since the entire game takes place in an abstract space without physical human beings hanging about, this made it even more difficult for me to make a personal connection to the stories being told. But thumbs up for Cadenza Interactive getting a story into this game at all (let alone three). “Retrovirus” clearly could have just been a shallow six-axis shooter reboot without depth. And this game, even if confusing in the story department, has depth.

The abstract setting provided the developer with a great opportunity to create some stunning visuals, and Cadenza clearly ran with the concept. The game is a looker, simply put—especially on a large screen at 1080p. I found it even rendered well in stereoscopic 3D—though with the six-degrees of movement, 3D may not be recommended (unless you’ve got barf bags handy). Visually, the small, cramped spaces that begin the game eventually spill into massive circular and cubed areas; some of the spaces look very organic, broken, rock-like with dark, cavernous atmospheres; others are made of perfect 90-degree angles and bathed in iridescent colors that don’t exist in nature. Many of the areas always seem to hint at real-world counterparts—like a big, boxy electric blue space shot through with clear tubes may appear to be some sort of warehouse or transit station, and a red area with a white table-like disc at the center could represent a small sitting area. Additionally, some areas later in the game appear to represent outside park areas or glittering cityscapes. But of course there are no boxes, chairs, lamps, tables, trees, buildings, or anything that resembles real-world items to be found anywhere. In our current market filled with videogames that try their hardest to represent real-world items as realistically as possible for purposes of immersion, the artsy, colorful, abstract environments in “Retrovirus” were a welcome change of pace for me.

fb7There are probably many other aspects of this game I could gush over, but having played it a few months ago…well, my memory isn’t what it used to be. One last item I do want to note, however. Many reviewers seem to think that vertigo-sensitive players should steer clear of “Retrovirus” due to the six-axis movement in the game. (Even I couldn’t stop myself from mentioning airsickness in the title to this post!) But on a more reasonable note: I’ve had some seriously bad cases of motion-sickness in my life (mostly as a vomitous pre-teen in the backseat of the car on a cross-country trek), but never once did I feel a sense of vertigo playing this title. Nor did I ever lose my bearings, which way was up or down, or which way I needed to go. It also didn’t make me sleepwalk. So honestly, the need for meclizine (i.e. motion-sickness pills) may be slightly overstated.