The year is 1619, and mankind has reached the New World. No, we're not talking about the Americas--we're talking about Mars. As a British colonial on the lam from king and country, your best chance for amnesty lies in uncovering the secrets of the legendary lost colony of Roanoke. However, a whole host of allied Spanish/Martian forces stand between you and those secrets. Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony may have an outrageous premise, but it's a top-down shooter loaded with style and solid gameplay. Straight from the minds of indie developer Final Form Games, Jamestown is simply a blast to play whether you're a genre veteran or newcomer.
You start the game with the beam ship, and the other three are locked. Every ship has two modes of fire. With the beam ship, the first is a wide cone of bullets. This is great for dispatching large groups of lesser enemies and causing general mayhem. The second mode is a high-powered beam that fires in a straight line. It excels at taking down single targets but slows the movement of your ship while active. Overall, the beam ship can dispatch most enemy types with ease while not being as complex as, for instance, the gunner. This ship fires two lines of bullets at all times, while its secondary fire lets you change the direction of the second line to hit targets to the side or even behind you.
The other two ships--charge and bomb--work best as part of a group. Jamestown supports up to four players in local cooperative play, which can lead to one hectic battlefield if you have that many in play. Sadly, online multiplayer is absent so you are stuck playing with friends at arm's length. Charge fires bullets in a straight line while charging a large energy ball. Its secondary fire releases this ball, which slowly moves forward and deals high damage. Bomb is an odd ship. It fires a lone string of bullets forward, which can be detonated with the secondary fire to create a small chain of explosions. No matter which ship you choose, you have three ways to play: keyboard, gamepad, and mouse. The first two work well, though the mouse takes some getting used to because you're not in direct control of your ship.
In lieu of having bombs or other special weapons, every ship in Jamestown has a vaunt gauge. You fill this gauge by collecting the golden nuts and bolts that spill out of defeated enemies. Once full, you can activate your vaunt, which has a variety of effects. The most obvious effect is that it projects a circular shield around your ship that absorbs all incoming fire and convents it into bonus points. Activating vaunt also starts a point multiplier that continues to build as you get kills while in this mode. Finally, it increases the damage output of your weapons, letting you plow through foes with impunity. The effects of the vaunt gauge are limited; once activated, the gauge begins to deplete. You can refill it by collecting additional nuts and bolts or choose to end it early. Ending it early creates a smaller shield around your ship for a brief time and cash in all of the points you've collected.
The vaunt is a wonderfully diverse tool that can be used offensively or defensively. It's a panic button for when you're under fire as well as your one-way ticket to the top of the leaderboards. But even with the power of the vaunt gauge, chances are you will get stuck in Jamestown now and again. At times like these, it's best to hit up ye olde shoppe and cash in some of the currency you've acquired at the end of each level. This currency unlocks new ships, challenge stages, and more. The different types of challenge stages--while tough--are another way in which the game teaches you new tricks. Survival stages, for instance, pit you against an overwhelming number of enemies and force you to nimbly manage your vaunt wisely if you want to survive. Together, all these challenge types serve as a form of high-intensity training. If you pass a few of them, suddenly the part you were stuck on won't seem so bad.
The true genius of Jamestown lies in how it manages difficulty. Instead of throwing you into the deep end, the game gradually builds you up through five difficulty levels. Four of these are available from the beginning, so if you want to jump straight to the penultimate difficulty, you can. Otherwise, normal mode is a great place to start. It provides plenty of challenge without burying you with bullets (that comes later). Even so, you still have to act quickly because your ship explodes after one hit. Thankfully, the game doesn't kick you straight to the game over screen. Jamestown grants you a few credits in case you need to limp your way across the finish line.
At certain intervals during the game's five-mission campaign, you're required to complete the previous stages on a specific difficulty before advancing. This tough love builds up your skills as a player, which you'll need by the end. With each successive level of difficulty, the game layers on additional bullets and enemies. When you finally reach the last stage, it's a beast. All of the skills you've learned thus far are tested, while a few new tricks are thrown in as well. Once you (finally) finish the campaign and return to that first stage on normal difficulty, it's satisfying to see just how far you've come. There are plenty of ways to increase the challenge even further, but by catering to both ends of the spectrum, Jamestown opens itself up to players who may feel intimidated by the genre.
All of the destruction and chaos in Jamestown is presented with great pixel art. Each stage is immaculately detailed, right down to the sashes on the red coats' jackets and tentacles on the Martian forces. And with the numerous explosions ripping through each stage, you might mistake this for a top-down version of Metal Slug. Somber orchestral tracks are juxtaposed throughout against the ridiculous storyline and grow bombastic in the game itself. Filled with style and substance, Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony is a great top-down shooter.