Communications with a research colony located on an alien planet have ceased. Sketchy reports suggest that a parasitic life-form has taken over all of the wildlife and machines in and around the colony. A female bounty hunter is sent in to investigate the situation and recover the research. That's the basic premise behind Scurge: Hive, Orbital Media's sci-fi-themed action adventure for the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS.
An action adventure involving an alien infestation and a female bounty hunter--that sure sounds like Metroid. Certainly, the comparisons between Nintendo's Metroid series and Orbital's original creation are unavoidable. Both games task you with exploring a large alien complex, gathering weapons, and gradually unlocking new areas, all while blasting wave after wave of icky creatures. Both games offer a similar take on the old-school "run, jump, and shoot" formula. And both games feature slick graphics, a marvelous soundtrack, and a hackneyed, albeit intricate, plot told through high-tech cinematic scenes. Scurge: Hive isn't afraid to ape the Metroid blueprint, although it does introduce its own nuances.
Most obvious is the overhead isometric perspective, which lets you run, jump, and blast away in a manner that has more in common with The Legend of Zelda than Metroid. Playing as Jenosa the bounty hunter, you still have to jump between platforms, climb up ledges, and push objects around, but the almost three-dimensional perspective gives greater depth to the research colony and its surrounding environment. It also gave the developer the freedom to introduce some truly brain-teasing spatial puzzles. To complete each of the game's six chapters, for instance, you "merely" have to activate the power terminals located inside each wing of the lab and defeat the bosses that have taken up residence inside; but getting those tasks done requires jumping through the mental hoops required to get to the keys, unlock the doors, and resituate the power generators located in the rooms along the way.
Further following in the footsteps of Metroid and Zelda, Scurge: Hive isn't split up into a succession of self-contained levels. Instead, you explore a single, large complex where new doorways and areas become available once key abilities have been acquired. After you get the fire upgrade from the desert area, for example, you can use it to burn away the underbrush blocking the caves in the forest area. New surprises are constantly cropping up in areas that you've previously explored. Besides encouraging backtracking and exploration, this format helps immerse you in the gameworld better than a disjointed sequence of separate levels would. As it is, each section of the complex has its own style of architecture and terrain, as well as a unique assortment of enemies, so it's not as if you're stuck seeing the same blue steel hallways the entire time. The story is told gradually, with new bits and pieces revealed when you enter rooms or access certain computer terminals for the first time. Waypoints on the map keep you moving in the right direction, and boss battles mark the end of one chapter and the start of the next--but you're always free to deviate from the plan and explore wherever you want.
Of course, there are loads of ugly, man-eating aliens to deal with, too. Each room or area is full of a dozen different types of them, which respawn every time you leave and come back. Some will try to hurt you by bumping into you. Others do their dirty work by hurling energy blasts or acid. A few will actually try to grab Jenosa and chew on her. Overall, there's a good variety of enemies, and most look appropriately gross and disgusting. Jenosa's weapons do an excellent job of splattering her attackers, however, so you'll rarely find yourself up-close and personal with a group of baddies for more than a few seconds in each area. These smaller creatures are mainly fodder to keep you on your toes. Boss battles are a different matter. While you're exploring the research complex, you'll eventually come across one of the six larger Scurge creatures that have taken up residence inside one of the base's many power reactors. Each boss is massive, ugly, and has multiple attack patterns. Some old-school reflexes and quick thinking are required to dodge the bosses' attacks and figure out which abilities to employ so that you can actually damage these beasts. In one area, for example, you'll face off against a worm that will try to suck you into its mouth. By latching onto a rock with Jenosa's tether rope, you can avoid becoming worm food. Boss battles provide an exciting change of pace from gunning down fodder enemies and solving switch puzzles.
Much like Samus of Metroid fame, the female lead in Scurge: Hive comes clad in a cybernetic suit that lets her withstand quite a bit of damage and dish out energy blasts to any unfortunate opposition. When the game opens, Jenosa has a basic energy weapon and can peform simple actions that allow her to jump across gaps and grab onto ledges and pipes (which she can shimmy across). As you go through the game, you'll add other weapons, tools, and abilities to Jenosa's arsenal. In general, each weapon lets you vanquish certain enemies more quickly. The one exception is the ice beam, which lets you transform enemies into heavy ice cubes that are perfect for activating the switch panels set into the floors in some rooms. As for tools and abilities, the three worth mentioning are the tether rope, boost boots, and time displacement upgrade. With the tether, you can catapult across large gaps and drag around objects such as generators or enemies that you've frozen with the ice beam. After you acquire the boost boots, you'll be able to perform a double-jump that will enable Jenosa to reach those lofty platforms that have been teasing you since the first area. The time displacement upgrade, meanwhile, adds a Matrix-style twist to Jenosa's repertoire. When you activate it, the screen turns gray and enemies move at a snail's pace. All in all, Scurge: Hive gives you a healthy assortment of weapons and abilities.
The game's most unique feature--one that people will either love or hate--is the time limit that's imposed while working away from the many medical stations that function as de facto rejuvenation and save points within the research station. At the beginning of the game, you discover that Jenosa was infected by the Scurge virus the moment she entered the station. The practical effect of this is that there's always a counter that's constantly counting up to 100 percent while you play. When it tops out, Jenosa will start to lose health and eventually die. Contact with enemies and their acidic attacks can also hurt Jenosa and increase the spread of the infection. You can recover health and reset the infection counter to zero by stepping into a medical station, but that doesn't eliminate the infection. It only starts the counter from zero again. This adds a tense imperative to getting through rooms quickly, but it also forces you to retrace your steps if the only known medical station happens to be a few rooms in the direction opposite the next waypoint on the map. Thankfully, the amount of forced backtracking steadily decreases as you gain experience and build up Jenosa's resistance to the infection. Her stamina also grows with each level-up, allowing you to take more damage before scurrying back to the nearest medical pod.
Along the way, there are a few other potential annoyances that you'll have to come to terms with. The shape of the system's control pad doesn't lend itself well to diagonal movement, which can sometimes prove problematic when you have to shoot an enemy or grab onto a tether point that's situated at an angle away from you. Regarding the game's design, a feeling of monotony tends to set in from time to time as you battle the same enemies and solve yet another switch puzzle. That's especially true when you're merely gunning down creatures to gain the experience necessary to build Jenosa's stamina to a level that will let you go through an area without rushing to the sick bay all the time. For the most part, the developer did a good job of minimizing how often you'll notice those flaws. There really aren't that many situations in which you can't afford to miss with a few bullets or make another attempt to swing across a gap. As for the potential monotony, that's easily tempered by taking a break from playing every hour or two. The boss battles at the end of each chapter also make it easy to forget the work that you put into getting to the boss's chamber.
Another thing that makes slogging through enemies and puzzles easier is the game's overall presentation, which is, in a word, scrumptious. The 2D backdrops are colorful and loaded with detail. Many environments employ fog and scrolling visual effects that are impressive to see, whether you're playing the game on a Nintendo DS or the Game Boy Advance. Jenosa and her enemies move gracefully and have a good variety of animations. Bosses are absolutely huge and tend to span multiple screens. Story cutaways are dynamic and often alternate between showing the characters mouthing their words to depicting an action scene put together using in-game backgrounds and sprites. Obviously, the 2D backdrops and sprites don't tax the graphical capabilities of the Nintendo DS, but what the game lacks in the technical sense it makes up for in terms of sheer artistry. Special praise goes to the game's musical score. The various techno- and classical-themed tunes set the mood perfectly. They're dramatic and haunting, but they're also appropriately fast-paced when they need to be. They also sound rich and melodic coming out of the system's speakers, like actual music instead of the artificial beats and beeps that comprise the soundtrack of a typical GBA or DS game. Unfortunately, all of the sound effects seem plain by comparison, but the various laser blasts and girly screams do at least jibe with the action.
Going through the game's six chapters will take you approximately 8 to 10 hours. Between the solid dungeon-crawl design and the rich presentation, the initial ride is definitely compelling enough to warrant the time investment. However, beyond that it's tough to guess how much additional playtime you might be able to squeeze out of Orbital's handiwork. A few old-school bonuses unlock after you finish the game, including a hard mode, a boss rush mode, and a costume changer. These rewards don't add any new content to the main quest, but they can make things interesting if you're the type of person who enjoys playing through a game multiple times or setting your own speed-run records. For some people, Scurge: Hive will be a "once and done" affair. For others, it'll be the sort of game that gets pulled off the shelf from time to time to experience the story again and set new records.
If you do intend to pick up the game, you may find yourself wondering which version to get. For anyone who owns just a GBA, the choice is easy. For DS owners, the choice will come down to a trade-off between comfort and economics. Both versions are identical, for the most part. The DS version affords a slightly wider field of view and displays the map at all times on the system's lower screen. The GBA version, meanwhile, costs 10 dollars less. Whether your own comfort is worth the extra 10 dollars is up to you to decide.
All told, Scurge: Hive is the sort of action adventure that should appeal to anyone who's into the Metroid style of sci-fi dungeon-crawling. Replay value over the long term may be questionable, but the initial ride offers a satisfying blend of action, exploration, and puzzles. Furthermore, the stylish graphics and delicious music give the game the kind of artful presentation that only a handful of games produced for portable systems have ever achieved.