"Hey there friend, turn that frown upside-down! Have I got a happy little arena shooter for you!" ... is what I would say if not for the fact that Viricide, by Eli Piilonen of 2DArray, is a bit more complicated than that. And quite a bit more grim.
You play a nameless user tasked with cleaning up EXADI, a super advanced artificial intelligence, after a particularly nasty virus rampaged through her system and left a number of her programs badly damaged. You do this by piloting your way through 16 stages (or "waves") with an antiviral unit and taking down the green anomalies that quickly converge on you to attack. Between each wave, EXADI speaks to you, and you gradually come to realise there may be something else going on, and maybe the line between man and machine isn't always so clearly drawn.
Controls are simple; use [WASD] or the [arrow] keys to move, click and hold the left mouse button to shoot, aiming with your cursor. Hit [P] to pause the game. Shoot enemies as they appear and collect the white bits they drop to spend on upgrades. A single hit takes you down, which can be frustrating, but you still keep all the bits you earned during the wave and can retry without penalty. Depending on the upgrades you choose, the game doesn't really start getting difficult until about halfway through, which should give you ample time to beef up your skills.
Analysis: I'd actually been playing Viricide for the better part of an hour before I looked to see who in the world had made such a simple little arena shooter with the melancholic narrative, and once I realised it was from the same mind behind everybody's favourite little depressing platformer from last year, The Company of Myself, it made more sense. With its simple presentation and premise, you wouldn't expect Viricide to try to reach you on anything other than the most basic level of enjoyment associated with gaming, but Eli is quickly establishing himself as someone who takes common concepts in unusual directions. Considering the subject matter that lies at the heart of EXADI's narrative, it's no surprise that it might be touchy for some people to deal with. It can also be a bit of an unpleasant discovery when you finally get to the root of the matter after the first few comical dialogues from EXADI herself, but then, that's probably the intention. Spend a moment considering the game's title and you'll probably be able to figure out what the story's really about, and whether or not you're comfortable enough with it to actually proceed.
If you just want to play Viricide and enjoy it without dwelling on the story, you can do that too, but it probably won't have as much of an impact. The gameplay is fast and fun but exceedingly simple, the sort of thing you can sink an hour or two into, but without much reason to replay when you're done. If you stripped out the story and doubled the available levels, Viricide would not be out of place in an arcade, but would need a bit more variety to its gameplay to really shine. The upgrades available are pretty standard, bare-bones shooter fare, and it can get repetitive. Fortunately, the waves tend to be short enough that reaching the next piece of the story remains a good incentive.
Viricide's success hinges on whether you empathise with EXADI herself, and in that respect, the game does a good job, largely due to a believably emotional performance from a voice actress called Sapphire. The change of tone in music midway through is also subtle and a nice touch. The ending feels a little abrupt, but I have to ask myself how I would have preferred it to end, and to that I'm not sure. Viricide is a poignant exploration of emotion and what it means to be human that isn't exactly going to put a spring in your step for the rest of the day, but provides a different experience from your average shooter.
Thanks to Ryan for sending this one in!