I’ve read reviews that describe Zero Strain as a “sort of MOBA but not single-player shoot-‘em-up” – but, honestly, they’re putting too much thought into it. You could explain the gameplay to someone who hasn’t played a video game since 1979, and they’d understand perfectly. Why? Because Zero Strain is a modern day Asteroids. I’m saying “modern day” as opposed to “glorified” because I don’t mean to be insulting. If the Asteroids franchise had continued to this day, Atari fans would be delighted with it. The arcades would make a shit-ton of cash too because Zero Strain is fun, challenging, and about as addictive as a slot machine with a built-in crack pipe.
It was developed and published by indie studio EastAsiaSoft, whose eclectic previous releases include Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story, Trigger Witch, and Xeno Crisis (no relation to the Tetsuya Takahashi series). Zero Strain, unlike most of their titles, has been released on PC, PS4, Xbox One and the Switch; basically every platform. The gameplay is best suited to the PC’s point and click hardware, as you’d imagine with a game continuing the Asteroids tradition. That being said, it’s playable on the PS4 – I just about managed to finish it, and I won’t blame the PS4’s controls for my struggle. It was a combination of my incompetence and the game’s toughness.
Booting up the game, we’re introduced to Aleira, an anime-style girl with a kooky sci-fi fashion sense. She recruits us to fly spaceships (known as catalysts) and defeat enemie in order to rebuild her space station and defeat an ominous evil known as The End. Or something like that. The story is evidently an afterthought because I only finished it yesterday, and I’m already forgetting the narrative. Aleira is both our mentor and the face of Zero Strain. By that I mean there’s literally no other character. I was hoping The End would show up as an OP badass with cliché universe-destroying sentiments, but we don’t even get that – we only have Aleira keeping us company.
She gives us a tutorial to begin with, which sums up the gameplay in its simplest form. You’ve probably already figured it’s a top-down shooter in which the player battles off incoming enemies. Taking control of your ship, you shoot enemies with regular and special attacks, moving around by weaving, dodging, and boosting. Some enemies have a force field that requires you to boost into them before blasting away, and all leave little pellets once they’re defeated. Collecting these – by flying into them or using your boost as a kind of magnet – will power up your special attacks. These attacks are used by holding down the L2 button and pressing either circle, X or square – a bit like shortcut controls.
After the tutorial, once the game gets started, we learn there are three varieties of levels: descent, protect, and boss. The descent stages are the regular levels and certainly the most fun. There is a sense of progression as you defeat all the enemies on one surface before the floor shatters (in a cool animation) and you drop to a new area. To add an extra challenge, you lose health if you steer off the edge of the stage’s surface. The devs could’ve been brutal here and made falling off a fatal error, but most players wouldn’t make it past the tutorial. The protect and boss stages are self-explanatory. You remain in one arena while defending an ally or fighting a boss, respectively. The bosses get more and more interesting, usually taking a few tries to work out. Except for the last boss, the aforementioned “The End”, which took this reviewer over an hour of trial-and-error mixed with sheer luck to defeat.
You will also discover there are different ships – which you obtain by collecting “catalyst shards” – each with their own unique feel. Some are slow and chunky with higher defence, while others are swift but fragile. Aside from differing regular guns, the special attacks differ too. One ship has a beam that obliterates all in its path, and another spawns orbs that can be controlled in a nifty with the shortcut buttons.
On the subject of the shortcut buttons, I should add that it would be nice if similar attacks on different ships had the same button. For example, an area explosion is L2 and circle on one ship but X on another. This might sound nit-picky, but ironing this out would’ve made for a smoother transition to new ships.
Another annoyance is the upgrade system, which is introduced far too late (I think about four stages before the finale). These upgrades are impersonal and universal, which is a missed opportunity. They simply add to the ships’ overall defence and attack rather than, say, increasing the size of the orbs or the width of the killer beam. Upgrades personalised to each ship would be a nice visual reward for your grinding.
All this being said, the grinding is fun – especially by replaying previous levels with different ships. You come at the same enemies from different angles and with different tactics. What may be smooth sailing with one ship will be a tricky and arduous test for another. The whole game, in fact, is an adrenaline-fueled blast, hearkening back to titles like Wipeout and other ecstasy-fueled, clubby games of the PS1 era. The thumping techno soundtrack is an absolute bop too, which complements the intensity of the whole experience. It isn’t perfect by any means, but my God, is it satisfying.
Developer: eastasiasoft, Kaio Meris
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Release Date: 12th August 2020
Gaming Respawn’s copy of Zero Strain was provided by the publisher.