Ufo Pilot 2:
The Phadt Menace
A little-known sequel to an even lesser-known original, UfoPilot 2: The Phadt Menace is a fun little action shooter that pays homage to the classic Defender, with gravity-based elements reminiscent of all those "moon lander" games that you've probably played throughout the last decade. You're tasked with leading rescue missions to save your fellow pilots, who are being held as prisoners-of-war by the Phadt Armada, a hostile alien enemy. Developed by Spell of Play, the game features an original soundtrack and physics-based graphics presentation, leaning heavily towards the arcade motif, but less cartoon-like than most shooters. This may be, in part, because of the physics/gravity engine (it's difficult to articulate without being a developer, but the game looks like it feels and plays, with debris from explosions affecting the environment in small, pixel-sized amounts).
Like most action games, the story takes a backseat to the gameplay, which is pretty fulfilling if you're a fan of gravity-influenced flying and blowing things out of the sky. However, this isn't your typical run-and-gun shooter, which might appeal to fans that have been yearning for something a little different. There's a lot of unique environments like underground caverns and above-ground ruins to fly around in; a stark contrast from most shooters that just throw you in deep space with some asteroids to crash into. The goal of each level is to rescue a certain number of captured pilots that are being held in little bunkers scattered throughout the map. There are always five prisoners in each bunker, and you've got to fire a single shot at the bunker to destroy it and free them. (Yea, the irony of blowing up the building your buddies are being held in seemed a little odd to me, too.) Once a bunker is destroyed, they'll run out screaming like lunatics. To rescue them, you've got to land somewhere close to them, and they'll automatically start running to your ship. Once aboard, you can either fly to another bunker or unload them at the mothership, depending on how much cargo room you have left. Conceptually, it seems simple enough—until you factor in the dozens of things trying to blast you out of the sky.
From the first few levels you'll be met with laser and missile turrets, tanks, falling rocks and even other alien pilots (that amusingly cruise around in ships that look almost exactly like the ones from Tron). But perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome is your own flying skill, which will probably lead to your destruction more often than enemies, at least until you get the hang of it. Your thrusters are controlled by pushing the right mouse button, allowing you to fight gravity and follow the direction your mouse is pointing. The left mouse button fires your lasers, so it takes a bit of practice to use both these abilities in harmony, yet independently of one another. You also have three special weapons (gathered as power-ups): bombs, heat-seeking missiles and a unique "bounce" weapon that ricochets of surfaces a few times. These weapons are deployed using [Z], [X] and [C], as displayed on your in-game HUD. Additional power-ups include invulnerability shields, extra lives, anti-gravity boosters and armor replenishment.
The game features three modes; Classic, Time Attack and Arcade. You'll probably want to start with Classic, since it allows you to play in whatever style you like, at your own pace. At the start of each level, you're presented with an upgrade screen that lets you tweak six different aspects of your ship; weapons, armor, engine, payload, spin and target. Weapons and armor are pretty self-explanatory. Upgrading your engine gives you stronger thrust, while payload dictates how many rescued pilots you can carry at once. Lastly, "spin" refers to how fast you're able to turn—or pivot—your ship (which is more important that it sounds), and upgrading "target" lengthens the distance between your aiming reticule and your ship, helping you to shoot more accurately. The catch with upgrading is that you're only given 12 points to spend, regardless of progression. While this allows a strong start, it also discounts the possibility of becoming "stronger" in later levels. It might seem like a dumb move on the developers part, but therein lies the real challenge at the heart of the game; dynamically adapting both your ship and play style to overcome different obstacles, depending on the level. Sometimes you'll need brute force to defend yourself from heavy alien resistance, while other times the level design will call for greater finesse and control of your ship, or even stealthy tactics to avoid confrontation altogether.
Analysis: For a small indie arcade game, the music and graphics in UfoPilot 2: The Phadt Menace are surprisingly good. The backgrounds are a far stretch from breathtaking, but the animation and explosion/particle effects are pretty cool and uniquely stylized for this game. It really fits the theme of a physics-based arcade shooter, although there's obvious room for improvement (max resolution is a paltry 640x480). Presentation aside, gameplay can be frustrating because of what a cruel, unforgiving mistress gravity plays in this game. You might find yourself banging into things left and right, which drains a hefty bit of armor. Landing is also a challenge, since anything but a delicate touchdown will damage your ship a little (and you'll be trying to land a lot, since rescuing pilots is half the game). Fending off attacking aliens and zeroing in on turrets also takes a bit of practice, but becomes really rewarding once you get the hang of it. Additional options would have been a great feature, such as the ability to tone down the gravity, or turn it off completely. The Arcade mode offers a different flavor of gameplay, automatically upgrading aspects of your ship as you progress, among a few other variations from Classic.
You don't have to be a glutton for punishment to enjoy this game, but it's not going to be the easiest arcade shooter you've ever played. The rough action doesn't overshadow the strategic elements so much as to ruin the game, although you might disagree if you just spent the last half hour blowing up into the side of a wall. Thankfully, you can try it before you buy it by downloading the demo, available through the hUb distribution client (similar to Steam). It's a commendable effort that adds a unique dimension to the Defender and Asteroids era of games that many arcade fans still love to this day.