We reviewed Stellatum back in October 2019. This mix of the vertical-scrolling and twin-stick shooting sub-genres was a stylish and addictive shoot ’em up which felt different to the usual arcade-inspired titles on PSN. The developer, Sometimes You, went on to make I, AI a year later but now Stellatum is back sporting a new lick of paint and some new haptics. Aside from that though, the original review stands, so we’ll be recycling that right here.
Stellatum is the latest addition to the PS4’s large roster of shoot ’em ups and comes to us by way of Satur Games. As ever, the plot is paper thin in these sort of games but involves you facing off with different races of aliens, all of whom coming in large numbers while, on the console ports at least, you’ll just be on your own.
This is a hybrid of two types of shoot ’em up: twin-stick and vertically-scrolling. That is to say that as the background scrolls down below you, you’ll be using the typical left stick move, right stick aim control system of a twin-stick shooter. If you didn’t have the scrolling background, it’d just be an arena shooter but where all the enemies emerge from the top.
The game doesn’t make a great first impression and that’s something that you do need to work through if you want to get to the good stuff. When you start your ship’s armaments are weedy and the game’s visual style, while being very detailed, isn’t exactly exciting. There’s a lot of grey in there and the tiny ships, and tinier bullets, seem very flat as if they aren’t related to the backdrop at all. Which they aren’t and so it can feel a bit like playing an Adobe Flash game at times.
And then you’ve got the controls which are inertia-heavy and make the game feel a bit like Asteroids, albeit without the rotate and thrust control system. So initially it does feel a bit like you’re floating around shooting pixel-sized bullets at large armies of enemies. At which point the game commits another sin.
Aside from the fact that you have to press/hold to shoot (something I hate in twin-stick games), your gun also heats up. Given how many enemies are on-screen and the fact that gun cooldowns have no place in good shoot ’em ups, Stellatum did its best to give me a bad first impression.
So, in my first few hours with this game I wasn’t really feeling it at all but then something clicked and that’s thanks to the game’s upgrade system. Now before I start heaping praise on it, even this part of the game gives a bad first impression as well.
You upgrade guns by first earning blueprints (which are given out for beating main story levels) and then constructing them using components which are either found in space or bought using “materia” which are shiny dots that enemies drop when they are destroyed. It’s a slightly long-winded system, not helped by the confusing controls that the upgrading screen uses.
Also, given that the blueprint drops aren’t random and that most of the time there’s a very clear indication of which ones are good and which aren’t, the overcomplicated nature of the upgrade system is puzzling, especially as you’re never short of components or the materia to make them. It’s as though the risk vs. reward mechanic isn’t quite right.
BUT. When you start applying the upgrades and beefing up your arsenal, the game gets exciting. Swooping inbetween, and around, large volleys of alien gunfire, and I do mean large as the screen is often full of bullets, while returning fire with a three weapon combination of lasers, missiles and conventional guns is genuinely great. This is especially true when you get a good combination of weapons that do the damage but also have a bit of visual oomph to them. It often comes down to your powerful barrage of firepower going up against theirs and, given that you can destroy their bullets with yours, it all becomes very dynamic.
The problem is that it takes a while to get to that point but when you do, Stellatum is great fun and each new upgrade has a promise of being something quite exciting. Sure, you’ll still be ignoring the ones that don’t offer anything useful but it is enjoyable to experiment with the new tech.
There is a lot of game here though. Each level lasts a few minutes and there are around eighty of them, including side missions (which annoyingly don’t yield blueprints). Arguably for an arcade style shooter this is too long but this is a deeper type of shoot ’em up and so it’s less of a problem and at least the trophies aren’t asking you to 1CC the whole thing or anything like that. There is a good chance that you (yes, you) might be put off by the game’s opening hours and you might get bored by the time you finish all eighty but we’re loving it. It definitely took a while to get there but many hours in, this is the shoot ’em up that Stellatum should have been from the very start.
Well, not much has changed. The game is still stylish and deep when compared to many other shoot ’em ups but those eighty or so levels do grind on. The early inertia-heavy, peashooter-firing ship loadouts are still a yawn to get through but, as before, the game does improve. The array of weapon types, handy gadgets and defensive upgrades really do make the game more interesting and there’s a lot going on on-screen which makes the action feel very dramatic for what is a 2D shooter.
The only upgrades are a higher resolution and the new haptics. The haptics are good with the DualSense’s motors getting a real workout. Every bit of action seems to vibrate in your hand, even just enemies firing and your various weapons and engine movements all lead to some very sophisticated rumbling.
The visual upgrade is harder to notice as Stellatum was always a detailed game but it all looks good for sure and certainly any flashes of light and fire to tend to pop on the screen now.
We’d have liked to have seen some refinements in the gameplay and maybe a retooling of the levels, weapons and bosses but the game still holds up well and the new trophy set gives us a reason to keep playing. It’s a shame that the upgrade isn’t more substantial (it’d be cool if it was free to existing owners too) but it is worth checking out if you missed it before and we’re pleased that finally someone has remembered to put haptics into a PS5 port.
+ Improved visuals and haptics
+ Upgrades are addictive
- Takes a while to get interesting
- Upgrade path is needlessly fussy considering that you never have to save up or grind for the next one