When people ask me what my go-to kind of games are, my answer is usually the same: “story-heavy and rhythm games.” I like a game that weaves a good tale, and I love music. On the opposite end, I tend to avoid fighting games and arcade-y score-chasing titles, as they tend to be the opposite of what I look for in a game.
There exists a few exceptions to that rule, and one of them is bullet hell. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m a sucker for shoot-em-ups with thousands of bullets flying around in colorful patterns, requiring laser focus and twitch input to navigate through. I don’t load them up often, but every once in a while I’ll start up a Touhou game or what have you and spend the evening narrowly grazing projectiles while blasting enemy ships out of the sky.
Many of the more well-known bullet hell titles and series originate in Japan, but one relatively popular release hails from a studio out of Philadelphia. Originally released back in 2011, Jamestown became a bit of a cult classic, gaining attention when it was included as part of a Humble Indie Bundle (back when those were a bigger deal than they are today).
The game has received a number of ports and updates since, and the one we’re looking at today is the latest of these: an upgraded port landing on the Nintendo Switch.
Developed and published by Final Form Games, Jamestown+ is set for release on December 12th, 2019, for Switch and PC via Steam. The Switch version was played for this review.
American History In SPAAAAAAACE
Jamestown+ follows Walter Raleigh, an Englishman who has narrowly escaped execution at the Tower of London and now finds himself in the new world colony of Jamestown. In an effort to receive amnesty for crimes he committed, Raleigh sets out to investigate what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke.
If you’re familiar with US history, some of these names and locations are likely familiar. However, there’s a twist: the Jamestown colony is actually on Mars! So what we have here is an unusual blend of US historical figures and locations with sci-fi tech and aliens.
Much like, well, pretty much every other shoot-em-up I’ve ever played, the story is more of just a framing device for the gameplay rather than a reason to play. What little plot there is is just a few lines of dialogue between missions; put together it totals no more than ten minutes or so of reading.
The most I can say for it is that the premise is just so off-the-wall that it’s kind of charming, but it’s not really present in the gameplay aside from British soliders running around in some levels and a few stages named after well-known colonial locations.
Grazing the Spanish Armada
The bullet hell genre is a fairly formulaic one, but Jamestown+ at its base isn’t an exception. You’ll be flying your way through five stages (as well as a couple of bonus ones if you so choose), weaving through walls of bullets to shoot down anything that moves. However, the game tosses in a few twists here and there that helps it stand out from the pack.
The most notable change-up is the lack of something I’ve come to expect in most shoot-em-ups, a screen-clearing bomb or attack. Jamestown+ does’t have this, substituting it for what it calls “vaunting.” Once you’ve filled up a meter by collecting enough gold from shooting down enemies, you can activate your “vaunt,” increasing your attack power and activating a bullet-negating shield around your ship for a few seconds. While it still serves the purpose of a bomb attack by wiping out the bullets around you, as it doesn’t clear the full screen, you still have to keep an eye on your surroundings and prepare what whatever’s heading your way once the shield disappears.
Another change up, and once that I much appreciate, is that Jamestown+ is a much more forgiving game than some others in the genre. You’re not required to clear the entire game in one go with one set of lives; each stage is individual and gives you a full set of continues. For those looking for that traditional experience, though, there is a “Gauntlet” mode that serves up all the stages back to back on a single set of lives.
There are also five difficulty levels available, ranging from “new to shoot-em-ups” to “holy crap I’m not gonna survive.” The final two stages of the game will not unlock, though, unless you complete every previous stage at at least the “Legendary” difficulty (the third out of five). Really, if you have any experience with bullet hells at all, I would recommend jumping into Legendary right off the bat anyways. I did a run on “Normal” (the first difficulty) initially, and after getting used to the game’s layout and controls, I coasted through the three stages available without taking a single hit.
Those looking for a challenge, have no fear! Bumping things up to “Divine” gives a true punishing bullet hell experience – one that I was unable to complete any stages on at the time of this review, unfortunately. Completing all stages at this level unlocks the final one, “Judgement,” which introduces bullets that are impossible to block with your Vaunt skill…so have fun with that one.
Jamestown+ also offers up a wide variety of different ships you can control, each with their own playstyles. From standard bullets and lasers to one that swings a giant crystal sword around, there’s a nice selection of play styles to mess with here. If you’re just looking to clear the game, though, may I suggest the first ship that comes available to buy early in the game, the “Gunner.” This ship features a powerful gun that allows you to select the direction it fires in, making some of the more challenging portions of stages much easier.
Of final note, this is a rather short game if you just blow through it front to back. Even including my initial “Normal” run, then going back and replaying the first three stages on “Legendary” to unlock the rest of the game, I got to the credits roll in about an hour. Add on another 20 minutes to tackle the two bonus stages, and you have a pretty damn short experience. However, if you’re a score-chaser, or want to practice your skills to take on the higher difficulties, you’ll likely squeeze many more hours out of this game.
The Beauty of Mars
As part of the early wave of indie games, Jamestown+ sports a 16-bit graphical style, and it manages to do a lot with it. Every stage has its own unique vibe, character and enemy sprites are easily identifiable and rarely get lost in the bullet chaos, and there’s all sorts of subtle animations going on in the backgrounds of stages that help bring them to life.
The game also runs smooth as butter on the Switch. It’s not something one would think they have to worry about, as this game is eight years old and doesn’t look particularly demanding, but you truly never know when it comes to bullet hell games. They are based around flooding screens with thousands of sprites and particles after all. Luckily, never once did I encounter slowdown or stutter.
As far as soundtrack, the music here is one of the highlights of the experience. Jamestown+ features an orchestral soundtrack, with excellent and occasionally even emotional movements. Many of the compositions feel like they’d be right at home alongside classical symphony pieces. The track for the final level in particular is a standout, a soaring piece with a chanting choir, with its movements lining up with the action in the gameplay itself.
Not Your Dad’s History Class
Overall, I can see why this game continues to receive updates and ports even eight years after its original release. Jamestown+ is an incredibly well-polished and engaging experience, offering up both a great entry point to the bullet hell genre and a satisfying challenge to veterans.
I do wish the game would have explored its wild colonial-history-meets-sci-fi premise more. Also, the short runtime for an initial playthrough is likely to turn off those who don’t want to commit time to score chasing or polishing their skills for higher difficulties.
Despite those nags, though, Jamestown+ is a game that I can easily recommend to just about everyone, shoot-em-up fan or not. My playthroughs for this review were a great time, and I’m looking forward to going back and cutting my teeth on the higher difficulty levels.
Review copy provided by Final Form Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Final Form Games.