Steel Rain X Review

By Kelly Packard,
Every shoot 'em up has its hook. In Xevious, it was the combination of both land and air combat. In Ikaruga, it was the color polarity mechanic. In Gradius, it was the sheer variety of weapons and power-ups. In Polarity Flow's Steel Rain X, the gameplay heavily revolves around its three different ship forms.

Each ship formation — conveniently called A, B and C — has its time and place. Mastery of these three letters dictates your success in the game. Each formation has unique abilities, to put them in their simplest terms: A is your standard ship with the standard fire mode you'd expect in a shmup, a machine gun that does average damage; B fires armor-piercing shots, the key to making quick work of shielded enemies; and C has a very short range, but very powerful laser that fires both behind and in front of you. It can also destroy bullets, which is necessary. Ignore the bullets for too long and you'll find yourself in bullet hell instead of a shmup.

Steel Rain XSteel Rain X

While this is all simple enough, using the right formation at the right moment is another beast entirely. Each level is a colorful array of bullets, enemy ships, friendly drones, power-ups and money dropped from fallen foes. The game doesn't feel too easy on the Normal starting difficulty and one trick ponies will have a hard time progressing without learning to switch up their ship usage. If you're not a specialist in the shoot 'em up genre, or you're the opposite and you're a hardcore enthusiast, there is a difficulty slider that goes from zero to 10 that should please both ends of the spectrum. There are also three more options in addition to the slider: Easy Mode, Normal Mode and Hardcore Mode, which will further tweak the difficulty settings to your liking. Achievement hunters will be pleased to know turning down the knob on the level of challenge won't jeopardize their ability to earn any of the game's 12 achievements.

Although Steel Rain's main attraction is its campaign mode, which sees the player completing three levels on eight different planets to make up 24 levels in total, there is a surprising amount of side content. Immediately upon completing the first level, the game lets you know you're able to purchase upgrades for your ship instead of starting anew with a vanilla ship every time. These are upgrades to the ship's armor, wings, and more. There are consumables to be purchased and used, like repair kits and Steel Mode power-ups, which provide a variety of benefits to the user upon activation. There is also a skill tree — yes, a skill tree — that offers additional upgrades and abilities. Like upgrades, these might improve the quality of your vessel but also might help you in other areas, like earning more money.

Steel Rain XOoh, pretty colors

There is plenty on which to spend that money. Once you've completed all three levels on a given planet, therefore wiping it of enemy vessels, you're able to colonize the planet for yourself. The colonization mini-game, for lack of a better word, is another sideshow to the main event. While colonization starts off small with building a place for your citizens, it escalates into research structures that speed up your research and development and even the production of resources, which you can then trade off for money or experience. The research and development tree unlocks more features for both your ship as well as the colonization and research production mini-games.

While the purchasable upgrades and skill paths are great to be able to improve your ship, and trading is a good way to earn money aside from grinding levels, after a while the research becomes more of a pain than anything else. It's not money-based but time-based, so "researching" often just equates to leaving your game open for several hours at a time while occasionally switching your research path once a prior one completes. Pursuing certain research paths and building certain structures are mandatory to progress at certain parts of the game and it is easy to research the wrong path by mistake. After making this mistake, I had to wait a while before I was able to research the correct path and progress in the campaign — a couple hours of researching in exchange for 20 minutes of shoot 'em up gameplay. After this, I found out I needed to research another area and build a specific building before I could progress again.

Steel Rain XAnd this is the red level

That's not to say you can't play the game while your research is ongoing, but if you're not particularly interested in the side content or setting high scores on prior levels then you'll most likely opt to set down your controller and walk away for a while. If you're an achievement hunter, you'll have little interest in side modes like Survival and Arcade, because there are no achievements attached to them. If you're genuinely here to play the game as opposed to grab some score, you might get more out of these game modes.

The topic of research brings up another issue. Steel Rain X is the port of the PC game Steel Rain, but you would quickly realize this yourself when playing it even if I hadn't told you so. While certain menus have been optimized to work with the d-pad of a controller or the analog sticks, other menus are a mess. Both the research and development tree and the colonization portion essentially have you controlling a mouse with your controller instead of being easily able to tab between selections with a d-pad or joystick. The research and development tree is massive. We're talking about a screen so expansive it has its own minimap to navigate. Slowly dragging a tiny cursor across more than a screen full of research options takes way too much time and makes navigating that page an unnecessarily arduous process.

Steel Rain XTrust me, once you attempt to navigate this menu, you'll know what I'm on about

Another remnant of the PC version can be found when tutorial popups occur. The game directs you to press "shoot" to dismiss the popup. The shoot command in Steel Rain X is cn_RT or cn_A, but nothing happens when you press cn_RT, which is arguably the more-used variant of shoot for Xbox players. While it's nice they've added this extra control option, the developers clearly did not think to extend the control to the other times you're advised to "shoot." While these menu issues may not seem like a big deal at first, they quickly become an annoyance; you're forced to spend a lot of time in these places because the game requires you to be active in colonization, researching and upgrading your ship, as well as continuing along the skill tree.

This is great for players looking for a deeper experience with their daily dose of holding down cn_RT as they dodge enemy bullets and ships, but if you just want to shoot stuff, well... you're going to run into problems with that. It's impossible to progress very far in the campaign without being forced into these other complex aspects of the game that actually require a bit of micro-management and strategy if you want to maximize your earnings and keep your ship on par with the enemies you're facing. Depending on your preferences as a player, this is either going to greatly please, or, if you just want to run through the levels, displease you.

Steel Rain XHello, Mr. Boss

If you're an achievement hunter who isn't interested in the genre, I'm betting you'll wish there was less as opposed to more content as you will spend hours engaging with everything Steel Rain has to offer; gamers are estimating their completion times in the neighborhood of 10-15 hours. All in all, it's not a lengthy one, nor is it a difficult one, with a meager 1.6 overall ratio as of this writing. None of the 12 achievements have been reported as buggy or unobtainable, and in fact the achievements are so straightforward that no one has even bothered to post any solution guides.

Summary

Steel Rain X is a shoot 'em up that has plenty on the side, too. You'll build your own little empire of colonized planets, manage resources, produce and trade goods, enhance your ship through research and development trees and more. If shoot 'em ups are your thing, you're probably going to like this game, but to love it, you're going to have to enjoy the variety of other genres thrown into the mix. The schmup gameplay itself has solid mechanics, but sometimes the side content can be made a tedious thanks to a menu system that wasn't optimized for consoles and some functions that require more waiting than playing. If you're contemplating if this one is right for you, the question you need to ask yourself at the end of the day is, "Do I want to do all that, or do I just want to play a shoot 'em up?"
6 / 10
Steel Rain X
Positives
  • Core gameplay is fluid and fun
  • Plenty of things to do
Negatives
  • Menus and certain functions not ported well
  • Side activities can be more tedious than fun and sometimes get in the way of actually playing the game
Ethics
The reviewer spent 12 hours flying and shooting through the campaign, engaging in the multitude of side content as well as a little bit of time idling through some research and development. Seven out of the possible 12 achievements were earned along the way, and she's working on finishing up the rest as we speak. An Xbox One review code was provided courtesy of the publisher.
Kelly Packard
Written by Kelly Packard
In a few descriptors: college student, longtime gamer, writer and junk food enthusiast. I contribute to TrueAchievements as a news writer and reviewer. Usually, you can find me knee-deep in a multiplayer game while ignoring my growing backlog or on one forum or another discussing all things gaming.