Review: The Last Podfighter (XBLIG)

The Last Podfighter is one of many games on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Indie Games service that’s marketed at the lowest price point, 80 points, which equates to about sixty-nine pence (or a buck twenty-four to our Canadian friends). As anyone who’s dabbled in it will know XBLIG can be a bit of a crapshoot but there are some decent games out there which can be had for next to no money. I’ve previously written about the decent Final Rift here on AR, and by now almost everyone knows about I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1. To these ranks you might also add The Last Podfighter. I emphasise ‘might’.

You may wonder where I’m going with this. You may think it’s obvious. Here’s the issue, though: in a lot of ways The Last Podfighter has the potential of a fine game. It also has a number of problems, and further I suspect that it might not be a game for me.

On that last point I have to confess I’m plain bloody terrible at this game. I’ve yet to beat the second Arcade level (my top score is a shade under 11,000) and I’ve not lasted in Survival long enough to bust 7,000 points. I am really bad at The Last Podfighter. It’s pretty hard. On the other hand, I can never get past the first level or two in contemporary FPS games set to their highest difficulty level, and I know lots of people who can, so they might find it a breezy experience. Who can say? A game’s difficulty can be a hard thing to argue or even convey.

This is an old-school title in many ways. This will charm many hardcore gamers, I’m sure. Here are some things that make the game old-school: there is no plot and you get straight on with the action, which rarely lets up for more than a few seconds (and only then if you’re doing well). There is a well-realised and snappy power-up system that you must utilise in a way matched to the game’s pace (lose step and you die). You only get one life and when you die you start over – not the level, the entire game. That’s Arcade mode. Survival mode is the same with no bosses or levels and a lot more small enemy ships popping up, waiting to be popped open by your laser fire.

The Last Podfighter screenshot 1

Here's one of the big bad bosses. It's the only one I've managed to defeat. It's pretty easy, to be honest; the training bra of capital warships.

Having never been a kid who hung around in arcades, and having cut my teeth primarily as a PC gamer, twitchy arcade action is not something I’ve ever really nailed. I suspect The Last Podfighter might seem an interesting prospect to such gamers. Personal appeal aside, though, I can objectively identify some things that The Last Podfighter does well and others that it does not. I’ll start with the latter so we can end on a high.

First off the HUD is spread out to the four corners of the screen, which is problematic. All displayed info is relevant, often vital, but you’ll find your eyes constantly flicking all over the screen to keep track of different information – which means that you’re not dodging the incoming fire as well as you should be. This distraction-factor is reduced to some extent by the visual presence of the titular ‘pods’ (power-ups) mounted on your ship’s hull so you can tell how many you have without checking the bottom-right part of the HUD, but the radar, life-gauge and score/timer are all still in different corners.

Further, your ship’s manoeuvrability is a little limited. At first it feels wonderful; at the tap of a shoulder button you can execute slick barrel rolls to dodge shots, for example. In practice, though, these moves are barely sufficient to dodge the huge amount of fire that will be poured at you before too much time has passed, and executing the barrel roll actually skews your perspective (often losing your lock-on to an enemy ship) and removes control from you for a precious second. When you’re used to them these factors can be worked with, but it remains a little frustrating.

The playable area is fairly small and there are boundaries which are invisible until you reach them, at which point an enormous red X will cover the screen. If you push too far past this barrier your ship will be manually turned around. Between not knowing when you’re approaching the edge of the playable area and the fact that enemy vessels can freely move through these areas, it has the feel of a poor solution to a recurrent yet under-considered problem.

I’ll skip past the Bomber-class ships (they shoot green shit at you – watch out Will Smith) seeming overpowered because that may just be my butthurt failure to beat level 2 rather than a genuine gameplay issue, and focus instead on the absence of leaderboards. It’s disappointing that there’s no way to compare your scores with friends or global players, as The Last Podfighter would have benefited immensely from this. I’m interested to see if I’m uniquely naff at the game or if it’s not just me, and further would be more inclined to keep revisiting the game if I felt that I had some context or yardstick against which to measure my performance.

The Last Podfighter screenshot 2

Pew pew pew! The lock-on system is imperfect but does streamline the necessity of leading your targets. Also note how in this screenshot the player has been going for 15 seconds and has already lost 13% health...

In more positive news, some nice ship design makes the various classes fairly easy to identify: you can tell from a distance what type of enemies are in front of you, which is useful, and the different types of incoming ordnance is equally visually distinct. This is mostly achieved through vivid use of colour and distinct profiles, a trick deployed in many a bullet hell shooter as well as designed-to-the-nines shooters like Team Fortress 2 (before everyone turned into hats, anyway). The game is, in general, quite visually sumptuous, although it does lack much distinct character; the same can be said of the bland but well-chosen pacey electronic soundtrack. You won’t remember if afterwards, but it fits the game perfectly.

The actual shooting and combat is good fun, too: the game may brutalise you but the core mechanics are enjoyable. The first level is a blast: nipping about and blasting enemy fighters, learning the simple attack patterns of the first boss and timing your barrel rolls just-so, deploying a pod at just the right moment to give yourself a burst of speed, a repair and temporary shield, or shoot off a fire and forget missile at a final fleeing target before you turn and face an incoming wave. It may not take long to get overwhelming but there’s still fun to be had by trying again and dying again.

Depending on your perspective it could be a strength or weakness that The Last Podfighter will unforgivingly kick your arse. It’s an ass-kicking that at times feels unfair thanks to slightly rough-edged controls, a UI that lacks finesse and distractingly small gameplay areas, but gamers who cut their teeth on unforgiving scrollers like TurricanContra or Ghouls ‘n Ghosts will have fought through tougher, less accessible experiences than this. Plus it’s cheaper than any of those games, even today, thanks to the strange vagaries of digital distribution.

One final note: the game is made by a group of students from the University of Utah. An indie game produced by a team of students does earn a few passes. I wouldn’t, for example, demand the finest UI or the most polished controls from such a title. But regardless this is a game that’s out there, to be bought with actual money, and therefore the criticisms must be aired. Ultimately it’s up to readers if they want to overlook such a lack of polish and have a go if they think they’re hard enough.

The Last Podfighter screenshot 3

I've not even seen this boss yet, but I imagine that its attack patterns involve brutal violation of every orifice.