In my youth, I’ve spent countless hours enjoying side-scrolling run and gun titles, such as the NES classic Contra and one of my all-time favorite arcade titles Metal Slug. Outside of avoiding incoming enemy bullets, and being on the lookout for power-ups, there wasn’t much else to the simplistic, yet addicting gameplay. With that as a base, Rise & Shine feels like it fits in with this old-school genre, but developer Super Awesome Hyper Dimensional Mega Team wants players to think before acting, adding puzzle elements, cover mechanics, and over-the-top violence to elevate the experience.
The story in Rise & Shine begins with the retro inspired world of Gamearth being invaded by Nexgen and their bulky space grunts that would feel right at home in the latest Gears of War title. Players take on the role of Rise, a young boy caught up in the violence as he witnesses the death of Gamearth’s legendary hero, who happens to resemble the fabled hero from The Legend of Zelda. With his dying breath he bequeaths Shine, a sacred weapon, to Rise; tasking him to take it to the king. Along with the ability to fire an endless supply of bullets, Shine provides a defensive buff, along with an infinite amount of respawns. Don’t get discouraged when you explode time and time again during your adventure.
Although the game doesn’t have varying difficulty options, Rise & Shine is a hard game to complete, let along nigh impossible without dying. A single wrong move can lead to a quick, often painful, death for the young protagonist. Even with Shine’s powers, you are only able to withstand a handful, if that many, attacks before your succumb to your wounds. Some enemies are powerful enough to kill you in a single hit; harkening back to the games that defined the genre. Respawn locations are quite generous, only momentarily setting your progress back, if at all. There are also hidden treasure chests that can increase the maximum amount of bullets you fire before reloading.
The game’s beautiful hand-drawn illustrations are rich with vibrant colors and layers upon layers of subtle details that help make them pop. Even with the sheer amount of obscene gore, especially seeing Rise's bloody severed head rolling across the screen. Remember, he is only a kid, and these violent deaths rarely occur in media, but it works alongside the nature of the game. It didn’t help that the metagame in Rise & Shine is off the charts. Designing the world around retro franchises allowed the developers to add dozens of references to other games. Whether it's a visual nod to certain video game characters, some that clearly didn’t survive the invasion, or a brief note to a series through a name or graphic icon, you’ll probably miss all of them your first time through the game. Each stage contains hidden collectibles, some have more than others, but I found myself replaying certain scenes just for the meta elements. How else would I learn about B.J. Blazkowicz opening up a chainsaw retail store in the mall or Qbert idolized as a statue in the park? The game’s humor is dark, which is in stark contrast the game’s visuals, yet both work in perfect harmony.
You are free to aim Shine in any direction, except straight up or down by using the right analog stick. Although most of the time you will be on the move, the game does make use of cover elements to telegraph incoming waves of enemies. With cover locations being able to take damage, and the fact you aren’t 100% protected hiding behind it, you want to strike fast and precise. The armies of Nexgen will throw drones of various sizes, hulking space grunts, giant mechanical beasts and even zombies in your path. Considering so much can be happening on-screen at a single moment, you’ll have to think fast and act even faster to prioritize targets and dodge attacks. Even after finding the laser sight attachment, which doesn’t create a line across the entire screen, I found aiming to be slightly dodgy at times. With the game’s fast-paced action, I skipped trying to be precise and instead maximized the amount of bullets I shot.
Progressing through the game, you’ll unlock new abilities for Shine to assist and make your battle against Nexgen easier. Standard bullets are still the backbone of your arsenal, but using electric bullets, you can destroy drones (most of them anyway) much faster and even temporarily paralyze space grunts, leaving them open for a precise attack right between their eyes. During the last third of the game, you’ll rely on shooting grenades from Shine to kill multiple enemies and help take down heavily shielded space grunts.
One unlockable mode for Shine that you gain early on is used heavily for solving the game’s puzzles and during boss encounters. Using a controlled shot, you can manipulate the direction and speed of a bullet as long as you are within the sphere of influence. If you are, you can trigger the bullet to fly in any direction at full speed. It does take a couple of attempts to get used to the mechanics, but just be careful to avoid the very edge of the playable area as it can stop registering.
As Rise isn’t able to take too much punishment before dying, a game like this needs the controls to be responsive. However, in some of the later stages, the mechanics don’t work as precise as I would have wanted. In particular, there is one minigame (yes, for some reason there is a town full of minigames) where you must shoot hoops with grenades. The longer you hold down the aiming button, the further out and straight your targeting arc will appear. Sadly, the grenades don’t respect the laser sight indicator and end up coming below the guideline. This makes it harder to judge the angle for perfect shots, especially against boss battles.
The bosses in Rise & Shine are enormous and require both accurate shooting and fast reflexes. With Rise being able to shoot enemy projectiles, the game showers the screen with bullets in an almost shoot ‘em up fashion. On top of that, there are certain time limits to the different stages of the boss fights. After depleting a health bar, if you miss triggering the next phase promptly, it will regain all of its health. I found it unclear on what needed to be done at times, and when combined with the difficulty spike during the last couple stages, it can be frustrating.
Rise & Shine is an enjoyable side-scrolling action game that perfectly blends the run and gun gameplay of past games with puzzle elements that make you think. The artwork is nothing short of spectacular and the sheer amount of nods to other franchises in the game will make you smile. The game can be completed in a handful of hours unless you become stuck on the final boss like I was, which added a couple more hours to my total. Upon completion, you can go back and find missing collectibles or try your hand at the Ironman mode. Besides a couple of puzzles that bring the game’s pacing down to a crawl, I thoroughly enjoyed everything from the gameplay to the atmosphere in Rise & Shine.
Note: The review for Rise & Shine is based on a digital Xbox One copy of the game, provided by the publisher.