Review: Space Marshals

I’ve been playing a game called Space Marshals this week. It’s an isometric twin stick shooter from a company called Pixelbite.

It appears that Pixelbite do their games App Store-first. They’ve just released a sequel there, in fact. It also appears that they’re bringing pretty much all of their Apple-first releases to Android. And that’s good news, because Space Marshals is one of the best games I’ve played on my phone.

Marshals starts with a tutorial in the form of an actual prologue, which is probably the first clue that it’s worth paying attention to. Criminals hijack the prison ship you’re held on, and from there you quickly get into team introductions and a crash landing on the planet where most of the game takes place.

The writing is immediately snappy. We meet T.A.M.I., the exasperated AI who acts as mission broker, as it reaches out to and releases the eponymous Marshal. At first I thought they read your Play account and used your last name, which seemed like an awesome touch, but it turns out the guy’s name is actually Burton, so…ah well for that.

The other friendly characters have well-rendered and unique voices – Ava, the pilot, who is almost palpably sarcastic; Gavin, the grey-haired, weird-hat-wearing, slightly pathetic…tech?…and a few others who show up in good time.

Speaking of hats, the game uses loot in some really interesting ways. Each mission has a set of rewards which are locked according to your performance on a particular run-through. The clever bit, however, is that the particular level of your performance does not necessarily correspond to the level of your reward.

That’s where the hats come in.

Hats, to be clear, are not going to give you any fancy powers. But you’re still gonna want the good ones. You want them because the game uses a high-angle isometric camera, and the dominant piece of artwork that you see is that gas mask or cowboy hat or crazy alien face.

See, the Marshal theme isn’t just a clever excuse for some robot gunplay, it informs the visual style of the game. Bad guys are desperadoes of various stripes. Outdoor levels are desert shooting galleries. And your character gets hats. Lots of ’em. Some of the best reward tiers are taken up with beauties like the Outback and the Ski Mask.

Normally in a game like this, you want to replay every level to get all the numerically superior gear, but with Marshals, that relationship is quite different. A lot of the best rewards are actually available at the first or second tier, which are (relatively) forgiving. But there are hats.

The loot system is part of a tight tripartite mission structure. First, there are the mandatory goals of each mission. Progress through the three chapters of the game require satisfaction of these goals. Second, there’s the optional goals which tie into the loot system – finish the mission with fewer deaths or in a faster time, find all the high-priority targets, and you get the chance to take a different piece of gear at the loot screen. The game tracks how many of the rewards you’ve gotten for each level, so there’s some replay value there if you have a bit of the completionist in you.

Finally, there are clues scattered in out-of-the-way locations in each mission. Sometimes you’ll walk right by them without really noticing their presence. I don’t know what these are for yet. It’s possible they’re for nothing, but they show up in your mission hub as a counted quantity, so I’m hopeful they’ve got at least one trick up their sleeve, a sort of Star World-esque unlockable mission of some kind for full completion.

Those missions are also pleasingly quick to play through. Today I ran through one of the early missions while waiting for LGW to get ready for the car. They do get a little lengthier near the end of the third chapter, but even at their full size they’re pretty bite-sized.

The game suffers a bit on a phone, even one as big as mine (a Galaxy Note 4). That visual style that works so well with their loot system? Yeah, that doesn’t scale to a small screen super well. It appears they’ve used a tighter camera in their free-to-play (ptooie) game, Xenowerk, but that game is not only F2P but also lacks Space Marshals’ light-but-entertaining story element.

Despite obviously not being designed for it, however, the game runs like a dream on a 2-year-old phone, and there are absolutely no problems understanding the action, reading the text, or enjoying the artwork in all its glory.

Space Marshals is worth the $6 I spent on it; in point of fact I would happily pay the $12 I wasted on The Banner Saga a while back on a game like this instead, and I’d do it frequently if the games were available. It’s definitely a glad-to-buy for me. Check it out, and if you have an iOS device, check out the sequel!