Anonymous D Studio's Starwish is a lot of things. Part visual novel, part RPG, part arcade side-scrolling shooter, it's an unusual hybrid to say the least. The story follows you as Deuce, part of a group of pirates that oppose the galactic Federation that's marked you as traitors and villains. Your day-to-day routine of salvage and skirmishes is interrupted when you get wind of some suspicious activity from the Federation that implies they're spending a lot of time and energy looking for something... but what? More importantly, what could it possibly have to do with you and the eclectic bunch of people who have made the pirate Mothership their home? The answer will take you places you've never imagined, and maybe even to the End of Time...
The basic gameplay has a few options to choose from, though I chose to go with the basic [WASD] for ship movement and mouse-click to fire. Killing enemies automatically nets you cash and experience, and blasted foes will also occasionally drop bonuses that will give you extra money, shields, and so forth if you grab them in time. You have two bars to be concerned with; your shields, which automatically regenerate, and your health which does not. If your shields are taken out, your health will be damaged, so try to avoid running into enemies, projectiles, and immovable terrain. Don't worry; if you get shot down, you'll just return to base to try again. After the first "tutorial" battle, new locations will open up for you to choose from, but the goal is always the same; The game autosaves for you periodically, but you can also choose "save and exit" from the Mothership screen if you want to take a break.
While Starwish bills itself as an "RPG shooter", a more accurate descriptor might be "Visual Novel Shooter With Some RPG-sy Type Stuff". Between levels, you can pop into various places on the Mothership to talk with the other crew members and learn more about them, purchase upgrades, allocate skill points, and more. You can skip the story sequences with a click of a button, but be careful; not only will you miss out on a lot, there's no way to replay any dialogue you might have missed. I accidentally closed my browser tab at one point in the middle of a conversation, and though the game kept my progress to the last area I'd beaten, it didn't let me see the rest of the scene and I had clearly missed out on a sizable chunk of dialogue. That might have been the loudest profanity Ned Flanders ever heard.
Analysis: More than anything, Starwish succeeds on the strength of its cast and story. Surprisingly, the writing is actually pretty darn good despite a tendency to dump large chunks of exposition in your lap at a time... admittedly something that might have been unavoidable considering how complex the story gets towards the end. The cast is large, quirky, and mostly extremely likable in a goofy anime-ish sort of way. While you might not expect it, there actually are multiple endings for different characters in the game, but whether you get them largely depends on how you spend your cash and who you spend most of your time with. The downside to all this is that if all the chatter bores you to tears and you just want to "blow junk up", as the professionals say, you'll find yourself hitting the skip button quite a lot. There's no real interaction in those scenes, and the absence of decision making does make it feel like you're watching a lot of extended cutscenes more than anything else.
The actual shooty-blasty-kaboomy gameplay does feel like it could have been fleshed out more, even with the impressive array of weapons available for upgrade. There's a disappointing lack of interesting temporary power-ups to nab during battle that makes it feel like it's missing a key part of what made classic space shooters so much fun. Because of the art style, a lot of smaller enemies and their projectiles can be all but invisible on certain stages, and it might not always be immediately apparent what is background and what is an obstacle. Moreover, there's a fair amount of repetition to the point where levels wind up feeling basically identical despite their different appearances, and it doesn't help when the bosses begin to repeat. Most players probably won't even find the game much of a challenge until the third set of levels where the amount of enemies and bullets onscreen could technically be called "redonkulous".
In an industry where microtransactions are becoming the normal in some fashion or anything, I find it more than a little astounding that a game as big and lovingly crafted as Starwish is was free, because it's something I would have happily paid for. Work began on the game in 2009, and considering it's largely a one-man show (the developer wrote everything, drew everything, and programmed everything himself, music was created by Auriplane) it's got to be incredibly satisfying to see all that effort pay off in a big way. Starwish is impressive and just plain fun, with a cheery, action-packed sci-fi/fantasy story.
While the marriage between old-school arcade shooter action and drama-heavy visual novel storytelling might not be a perfect one, Starwish still succeeds more than it fails. If I don't see a sequel at some point in the future I'm going to be very disappointed. (Starring Deadeye. DEADEYE FOR PRESIDENT.) In the meantime, however, if you like classic side-scrolling shooters and have a fondness for space opera adventures, you really need to give Starwish a try.