There’s a perception that indie games and triple AAA blockbusters are natural enemies. The former is the clever, young underdog where the latter is the dumb, brutish villain. One is bright and full of creativity whereas the other is old and stubborn, refusing to change. Rise & Shine takes this ‘conflict’ and creates a entire world (and war) around this. While the game is colorful, a lot of the action and story ends up feeling clumsy. It doesn’t matter who makes the game or how big the budget was, a balanced experience is something the devs are responsible for creating.
You play as Rise during the invasion of your home-world, Gamearth. This planet is inhabited by ‘retro’ video game characters (sometimes homages, sometimes parodies). The attack is being carried out by the army from Nexgen, who are direct spoofs of the soldiers from Gears of War. These ‘brutes’ are massacring the people and history of poor Gamearth.
In his last moments, the Legendary Hero (modeled after Link) gives Rise the weapon of infinite respawns, Shine. The anthropomorphic gun is a wisecracking, fourth-wall breaking companion that tries to capture the team-up feeling of Banjo-Kazooie or even Ratchet and Clank. So with your talkative side-arm, you take off to meet with the King of Gamearth in order to stop the invasion by finding the ‘ultimate weapon.’
While the foundation of this adventure is platforming, the main draw is the twin-stick shooter aspect. You move with the left analog stick and aim with the right. You start off with a chamber of ten bullets and you need to reload after you run out. Shine can pick up a handful of new power-ups to mix up the challenge. A half-baked cover mechanic also appears from time to time. The crux of the gameplay is juggling these different elements and blasting your enemies as fast as possible. Get ready to hammer on the right trigger as quick as possible.
The platforming controls are tight and responsive whereas the shooting is a little loose. I played around with different sensitivity settings but the aiming never felt accurate. A lot of the cover moments had me popping out and firing in a ‘general’ direction rather than a specific point. Even by the end it felt like I hadn’t mastered the delicate art of pointing Shine to the correct spot. Taking refuge behind rocks also felt off; you press a button to slide into cover. The command usually felt sticky and sometimes didn’t respond to my button presses. It also takes a lot longer to get out of cover which felt counter-intuitive.
At one point you get the ‘RC Bullet’ power-up which quickly became the game’s go-to mechanic. You basically can guide a single bullet in designated areas in order to flip a switch or kill a grunt that has the high ground. It’s a fun distraction at first and the controls are on point (you can speed up or slow down the bullet and you have a surprising amount of control over it). But it’s used a lot for the first half and the novelty wears off.
However, the RC bullets and the other two gimmicks thrown into your arsenal are well balanced in the boss battles. There are only three traditional end fights in the whole game (with a few mini-encounters that aren’t as memorable) and they are pretty nicely put together. I don’t want to ruin too much but you’ll be using your electrified bullets to restart a giant heart at one point and guiding your remote controlled projectiles into a giant mech’s brain.
The setting and humor in Rise & Shine is a bit of a mess. It’s unclear why there’s so much reference back to retro game and its unfortunately not utilized that well. The setting seems to lean more to a world inspired by gaming like Wreck it Ralph or Neptunia rather than making fun of it like Matt Hazard. But it’s like the devs at Super Mega Team just wanted to shove as many retro cameos (usually in the form of corpses) as possible rather than use them in an interesting way.
Everything from Tetris to Qix to Mario to Metal Gear to Donkey Kong to Kid Icarus is scattered across the similar landscapes. It’s usually bloody as well. Do you love seeing the heroes of yore diced up in the background? Is this a half-handed commentary on war? Is it just for fun? Some of the references are more interesting like a bar called ‘Guile’s’ or a tugboat with a face that might be a nod to the ship from Windwaker.
Some moments are also thrown in for an attempt at comedic effect. These usually are quite spread out and not that effective. Shine is supposed to come across as smug smartass who points out all the stupidity around him; he mainly just sticks to the annoying ‘comic relief’ that needs to sometimes comment on things.
At one point, you get a flashlight upgrade for your gun right before going into catacombs. Shine sarcastically mentions how convenient the placement of this accessory as you need it right after. I smirked when this happened. That’s it. I should also mention that the flashlight is never used again after this part. You’d think my smartass sidekick would quip about that oversight too. It’s obvious what its trying to go for but its such low-hanging fruit. And the pacing of the jokes (and the story) is really off. You’ll go levels between a fourth wall-breaking moment and it will just feel like its coming out of nowhere.
The story is somewhat similar. There are picture montages that act as cutscenes lined throughout the journey. Sometimes they’re brief moments of talking to the retro parodies you meet along the way. Other times you’re given speech bubbles loaded with dialogue for plot points that aren’t that interesting. Did I really need to hear how difficult it will be to get into the king’s palace?
On the positive side, the game does feature a few characters that would’ve been interesting if the game were longer. Dwayne and the little girl he rescued from the ravages of war pop up a few times piloting the smiley-faced tugboat. I’m not sure if they’re supposed to mimic the basic concept found in The Last of Us (parental male stand-in travelling with a female child who’s lost everything) but they feel like they’re unique beyond references. It’s an unlikely pairing that has a hint of tragedy that I wish I had spent more time with.
Actually, there’s a darker current running through this sometimes colorful run and gunner. The music is usually ambient and somewhat morose (and unfortunately not varied enough). There are the aforementioned corpses of 80’s and 90’s video game characters everywhere. At one point, you meet a character who left a message for you hinting to where the ‘ultimate weapon’ is kept. In the end of his message he says he wants to spend his last moments with his partner. It’s not what you’d expect…
But then soon after you’re taken to NPC Island to play silly mini-games. And of course the characters comment on how they’re forced to play silly mini-games. Hilarious?
Rise & Shine at least looks pretty; the design on characters and backgrounds are meticulously crafted. You go across cities in ruin and you’ll see an overwhelming amount of detail put into the crumbling buildings and razed terrain. Of course the game references are packed in there as well like a tower with tertronimoes adorned on it or a mall full of punny video game stores.
You actually start Rise & Shine in that mall and immediately I thought, ‘Oh this is cool! I wonder what interesting places I’m going to go to next.’ And then the rest of the game is mainly just ruins. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when there’s a lot of detail in these areas, but it does get old after awhile. I thought it’d be a little like Wreck it Ralph with elements of different game worlds and genre parodies thrown in. But, it’s just area after area that shows the destruction of combat (luckily these are usually colorful). At some points, it felt like Super Mega Team wanted to do a gritty war game but decided to stick retro game characters in there for some reason.
I think that’s my biggest complaint with my experience: Rise & Shine is not exactly sure what it wants to be. It’s unbalanced. It has elements of a parody about gaming but it doesn’t commit to that. It pays a bunch of fan-service to the gaming greats but does nothing with them. It has longer, more involved cutscenes but the game is too short for an epic narrative. The game makes obvious jabs at triple AAA games and shows indie titles as the real heroes but this is all surface level stuff. Are bigger studios killing the small guys? Sometimes, yes. Is showing a bunch of buffed out space marines taking out a planet full of 8-16 bit characters a smart way of commenting on that? Not really.
The imbalance found within the game isn’t limited to story elements though. The game is mildly challenging right up until the last level where the difficulty jumps dramatically. The levels are brisk usually taking at most a half-hour to get through. The last level and it’s lack of checkpoint spacing tripled the completion time. The pacing is also off as that village of NPCs that I mentioned earlier comes pretty late into the game, like the devs felt they needed a cliched RPG town or something to mix things up.
Most egregiously the tone is all over the map. Rise is a 10 year old boy thrust into a war with a smartass gun and a path littered with console character corpses. It’s just bizarre. At one moment you’re reconnecting with your mom at a refugee camp and the next you’re blasting enemies out of the sky on a space tugboat with a permanent grin.
All in all, Rise & Shine isn’t a bad experience. It’s just one that has a lot of wasted potential. If the AAA barrage on indie games is real, then this game would not make a good soldier to fight in that battle. The gameplay is good and the game doesn’t overstay its welcome at 10-ish hours, but the sudden ramp up in difficulty plus the finicky aiming blemishes the experience. If you want a game that touches upon the horrors of military engagement, try This War of Mine. If you want a game that parodies/honors video game culture, try Super Meat Boy or Scott Pilgrim. If you want a weird mash-up of the two, I guess this experience was made for you.