The Laser Guide to Video Games - Review - Espial (Atari 800 & co.)









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Psychic Storm (PC Engine - Alfa System - 1992)

It'a fair to say that many shoot-'em-ups suffer from a sense of over-familiarity after repeated play. This is especially true when confined to a single platform. Some titles manage to set themselves apart with a combination of innovation and implententation. One of these standouts is Psychic Storm which brings a unique take to the genre. Psychic Storm seems to offer a traditional vertically scrolling shooter game and this is probably what you're thinking if you don't progress very far. However, there are some early hints that this is going to be a little different than the standard fare. At the outset, you're given a choice of four unique, somewhat different pilots to choose from, each brings a unique arsenal to the battle, though there are enough similarities that it really shouldn't matter too much which one you're playing as. The unique characters offered seem to be tailored towards divergent styles of play, but the dynamics of stage design, level structure and overall arrangement of enemies doesn't change no matter which one you play as, so this is basically an exercise in semantics and style over substance. It doesn't seem to make much difference in terms of use, since the difficulty quota is static no matter which character you decide on.

Fortunately, the game's responsive controls and straightforward game mechanics are fairly easy to grasp. Most players should be able to figure out the basics without much effort. Initial impressions are likely to be somewhat lukewarm as you face off against a tradtional group of cyber-alien foes who shoot at you in relatively predictable patterns while giving you the occasional standard power-ups that don't add much to your firepower. Visually, the initial stages look decent enough with lavishly illuminated scenery and backgrounds that bring an above-average amount of detail and flourish to the action. Its array of enemies are nicely rendered and mostly fit into the cyber-alien mode, with a standard array of attacks are somewhat difficult to avoid. Learning to stay out of their way and not take too much damage along the way is a tricky task, but one you can learn without much trouble. The patterns in Psychic Storm aren't too terribly complex or challenging, its mostly a matter of memorization and reactive skills that need to be mastered. There aren't variable skill levels as in other shoot-'em-ups, which is somewhat surprising given the attention that's gone into other areas of the game. This means you won't have much to work with one you've completed the game. You can try to play through with the four characters, but the lack of individual layouts or enemies doesn't provide much incentive to do so.

The special attack ships are very impressive, take up a larger portion of the screen, roughly twice the size of a standard ship. The three ships are mostly inspired by insects and other Giger-esque creations which gives Psychic Storm a unique aesthetic that stands out from the more generic approach most shoot-'em-ups implement. The other major element comes with the transformable ships, which occur when the player presses the secondary fire button. When this is hit, the action stops for a brief moment and the character lets out a yell. This signifies that the transformation has begun. The action stops for a moment and players are given a quick animation as the ship morphs from standard to enhanced form, which is a fairly interesting feature at first, but quickly becomes an unwelcome interruption that brings the action to a screeching halt.

Emerging from this overly-elaborate animation, the ship is now much larger and more powerful than a standard ship. This makes slicing through enemies much easier and almost painless. Despite the enhanced ships' increased firepower, you aren't immune from their attacks and can still take damage in this state, so you need to be careful. Your much larger size makes it harder to avoid attacks as well. The other major drawback in this mode is that it's time-limited. There's only about 30 seconds available, intiially. There are some power-ups that show up which will increase your timne, but these are limited. You can only use this special attack three times in each stage, which is annoying. It also means that you you need to time the duration and spacing of your attacks effectively in order to do yourself the most good. Going full-blast too soon in a level wastes your power on foes that can easily be dispatched with normal means, while going in too late leaves you vulnerable to attacks that drain your life-force needlessly. Its probably a good idea to save at least one of these for the end-stage boss battles, which provide you at least some leeway in your final battle with the typically large and somewhat impressive foes.

The game generously offers numerous continues and these can be used to progress quickly through its levels. However, we advise not to get too reliant on them, since losing a life means going back to the beginning of the stage, no matter how far you progress into a level. This can be frustrating at times, but once you get a handle on things, it shouldn't be that much of a problem. While the gimmick of changing into a different ship is cool at first, once the novelty wears off, Psychic Storm offers a solid, yet somewhat pendantic shoot-'em-up experience. An above-average CD soundtrack pulses with a decent energy and helps to give the action some additional momentum, and ther are some fairly good cut-scenes along the way. The controls are fairly decent and there's enough strategy in timing the special-attack modes that keeps things interesting throughout. It lacks some depth in terms of enemy attack formations and the waves of attack are somewhat predictable, but Psychic Storm is still an entertaining and occasionally challenging title. Its probably most notable for its transforming ships, but its solid gameplay mechanics are fairly well-implemented. Despite its short-length and somewhat predictable patterns and formations, there's enough challenge to keep your interest-level high throughout.

- Michael Palisano