HellStar Squadron

For years, a galactic organization known as Paradise has given humanity a peaceful existence in space. However, that all changes when rebelling demonic forces end up starting some shit. It’s up to the HellStar Squadron to put down the demon rebellion and restore peace to Paradise!

HellStar Squadron is a shmup by Cosmic Crystal Games that tries to emulate that retro arcade shooter experience. It was another one of those games that I got from that big itch racial justice bundle, which I’m slowly chipping my way through. Also man, things really have gotten worse since the situation that bundle was released for. Just a normal functioning country over here.

There is a story, but it’s extremely half-baked in a way that makes me wish that they didn’t bother trying to put one in. The dialogue from the three characters are near identical, if not completely the same. The enemy characters all allude to a dark truth behind Paradise… but the game does absolutely nothing with it and the enemies end up being 100% bad while you’re 100% good. I even decided to look up a 1CC playthrough of the game to see if there’s some sorta bonus boss I missed out on, but… there isn’t one.

At the very least, I do appreciate the B-movie element of “Hell-Energy” that gets brought up toward the end.

I don’t think I would have had a problem if the game committed better to its theming. Despite what the game tells you, the enemy doesn’t look particularly demonic, save for the red-black color scheme of all the enemies in the game. The only ships that look all fucked up are the boss ships toward the end, which I admit are kinda cool looking. The setting of the last level even looks like a version of Hell instead of some kinda space. However, the last level also suffers for it because it is really red, which makes it easy to lose enemy shots in the environment.

I do like to see some sorta theming with these games. Danmaku Unlimited 2 suffered for me because it’s generic, while I admire games like Jamestown for coming up with a theme and sticking to it. HellStar Squadron ends up taking the awkward middle road where it feels like it barely tries to the point that I kinda wish it was just a generic space shooter.

But you’re probably thinking, “blah blah, facts, themes, characters, how does it play?” Well…

For the life of me, I can’t tell the differences between the first two ships besides sprite changes. If they do function differently, it’s really hard to tell. In contrast, the Emerald ship noticeably fires less, but it can also shoot from the sides, which makes it a good ship for screen coverage. They all also have the exact same beam sub-weapon, and said weapon is actually pretty effective, so you may as well just choose any ship to play with.

Playing HellStar Squadron felt weird to me. I don’t think it’s longer than a standard shmup, but actually playing it felt like things were dragging on. I think this is because of three things. One: there are no level specific set pieces or uniquely structured segments to break up the monotony. Two: there’s eight stages, so it feels longer than it actually is. Three: the screen scroll is Actually So Slow.

The boss battles do at least feel satisfying, though the last one is annoying on account of the whole “last level and all the bullets are red” thing. I mean, that can be avoided on the boss rush mode… which inexplicably doesn’t have music, so fighting bosses don’t feel particularly exciting in that mode. But then again, I’m pretty much just “whatever” on the music in the game.

As you play through stages, little pick-ups spawn for you to get. I for the life of me don’t know how to make these pick-ups spawn, especially since I had a few bizarre occasions where they spawned during a pre-boss cutscene. There’s a pick-up that gives you an extra hit, a shield pick-up, a pick-up that upgrades your ship and of course, bombs. Now, wanting to upgrade your ship is frustrating on account of the fact that pick-ups just seem kinda random. I will also say that bombs aren’t as useful as you’d think because it takes a second or two to actually detonate, so you can’t expect it to come in the clutch for a last second save before you’re hit by a bullet; however, bombs actually do take a decent chunk out of boss health, so they’re handy as a weapon if you’re confident in your dodging skills.

I will also say that, at least on the normal difficulty, the game hands out these pick-ups like candy due to its unknown criteria. Unless you’re particularly bad, you won’t have much trouble playing through the game. I guess it’s accessible in this way, but also, the save game function pretty much just lets you pick things back up at the beginning of the stage, so it feels kinda unnecessary.

Ultimately? I… do not like HellStar Squadron very much. If I were to actually use a scoring system, it’d be a 6 at best, on account of feeling tedious to play and not leaving an impression. When it comes down to it, I think its biggest strength is the cheap $1.99 price; even if it’s not an impressive shooter, you can kill some time on the cheap with this game.

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