Ever just want to stop and enjoy the scenery in your beautiful Western-themed game? Good luck doing that in High Noon Revolver. Developed by Mike Studios, this side-scrolling shooter doesn't mess around, forcing you through an 8-bit bullet hell that'll really test what you're made of. It has a few problems dragging it down, but at a great price point, it provides plenty of content.
High Noon Revolver combines elements of side-scrolling and space ship shooters to form a high-octane, auto-scrolling gauntlet of cute and deadly enemies. Levels consist of three planes that you can alternate by jumping and dropping. They're punctuated by heavenly interludes that allow you to purchase upgrades using gold that gets randomly dropped when you shoot enemies and objects. Your ammo is unlimited, but your clips aren’t, and you won’t be making any distance shots to start with. Projectiles come at you from every angle, and when you die, it’s back to square one every time, so dodge-rolling is crucial. I should also clarify that there isn't a story, which is something games can get away with as long as the aesthetic focus is tightened to compensate.
Unfortunately, once the first level is completed, High Noon Revolver outright rushes away from its self-touted Western theme, never really embracing it until the end. This aesthetic decision greatly robs the game of an identity, but other presentation elements fare much better. In its 8-bit motion, Revolver does an outstanding job of blending the past and the present. Explosions send chunks of debris scattering while nearby enemies fire lasers and toss dynamite, all sharing the screen with you and your own projectiles. It's more onscreen action than a classic console could ever handle, but the sprites themselves are animated within the parameters of yesteryear. The end result looks like a gorgeous tech demo for some kind of supercharged NES.
Little of that onscreen action is just visual flair, though. I mentioned earlier that dodging is important, and by that I mean you need to watch those projectiles if you want to get anywhere at all. It's one hell of a tough game, and not always fairly so. As soon as you boot it up, the game recommends that you use a controller. I concur, given that playing with a keyboard is an absolute nightmare, but even then there's a certain looseness to your character's movement due to oversensitive controls. Tilt the analog stick even slightly downward, and you'll drop to a lower plane. This happened at least twice per stage even after hours of play, and I was amazed at how little it helped to switch to my controller’s d-pad. In a game like this, where every move counts, such an issue is kind of huge.
Ultimately, though, this control problem does not frustrate nearly as much as it would seem on paper. Something about the pace of the game, the ease by which you can lose and regain life, makes even the most unfair of situations seem fleeting. Then there’s the music, which aside from being easy on the ears, boasts stunning production values. Heavy guitar riffs play along intermittent bells and synth accompaniments, and while it’s unfortunate that we quickly explore non-Western areas, the benefit is a more diverse set of melodies and instruments. Those woodwinds had me floored. Sound effects are less impressive, but presented nicely. The fact that they change pitch goes a long way towards keeping them fresh, or at least non-repetitive.
Also keeping you encouraged is the steady rate at which you collect loot and upgrades. To be clear, everything resets when you die (aside from characters you unlock; more on that in a bit), but this never really feels cheap. Instead, you’ll spend every playthrough feeling utterly badass as you accrue new abilities to face tougher challenges. The enemies are faster, tougher, and more numerous, but you’ve bought that speed-up perk coupled with a solid long-range modifier. It’s disappointing, then, that the upgrade system is so blatantly unbalanced. Two of the most advantageous upgrades - a max HP increase and a modifier that allows you to double jump while shooting a spreadshot below you that doesn't eat from your ammo clip - are also among the most inexpensive. For almost twice as much gold as the latter, you can pick up a poison gas aura, which takes so long to kill enemies that it only does so in theory. Such absurd upgrade balancing is so easy to spot that you’ll quickly catch on to which ones are worth buying. But still, it’s a sucker punch to gameplay variety and experimentation.
You rapidly unlock new characters in High Noon Revolver, and much like the upgrades, some are clearly superior to others. However, this aspect is more thoughtfully built into the game. Keeping in mind that you retain none of your upgrades upon dying, it makes sense to have a different character to fall back on. It would have been nice if stats were separated by characters as well, but at least it shows what percentage you've played with each one. If you haven’t beaten the game with the crappiest character, then you haven’t really experienced the entire challenge. It’s not an enormous incentive to keep playing, but it’s there.
Further extending the replay value is the addition of local multiplayer. With double the firepower on your side and the players' ability to revive their comrade, the game becomes immeasurably easier. This could have introduced a competitive element, but your scores are shared. And even if they weren't, the game is so difficult that any conscious attempt at competition would probably just get you killed. By extension, don't expect this to inspire much back-and-forth dialogue. Conversation requires attention on something besides the game, and you just can't afford that here. As a result, co-op does extend the replay value, but not as much as it would in a more easygoing game.
In spite of its issues, I had a good time with High Noon Revolver. Not all aspects of its frustration-fun continuum are as thought out as they initially seem, but it succeeds where it needs to the most. It’s a high-octane reflex romp that makes short work of inattentive players, and once you’ve won, it coyly tempts you to do it again with a handicap. Better balancing and a tighter aesthetic focus would’ve resulted in something great, but what we’re left with is still pretty good.