When the big game houses compete over who has the most grandiose and the most somber first-or third-person action extravaganza to immerse players in during the gaming flood of fall, indie developers come to rescue and keep up more traditional genres alive. Vertical scrolling shoot 'em ups are one of those old favorite genres, and while Dimension Drive by 2Awesome Studio is not a retro game as such, it has a very old-school attitude and level of challenge written all over it. But that’s not all. It has a very special trick up its sleeve to make it stand out of a shimmering sea of indie shmups.
Once again, evil aliens have conquered the universe and it’s up to one brave soul to stand against their sinister plans: Jackeline “Jack” Tywood, captain of a legendary space vessel Manticore. To give the story some credit, the narrative between levels tries its best to make use of some world-building and serious tone to liven up its age-old premise. It doesn’t hurt either that Jack is a super-cute babe, illustrated as sassy and fiery without any unnecessary sexualization. It’s a good incentive to keep on tackling the steep challenge of the game to see more of its story unfold.
The gimmick of Dimension Drive is written to its title. The playing screen is split into two views, representing parallel dimensions, and Manticore is able to switch instantly between them. The ship position is reflected on the other screen, showing a glowing purple blob to give indication where you will warp to. Why would you need to do that? To avoid obstacles, as one screen will have open passages the other won’t; to dodge enemy lasers and bullets; and to reach secret areas to pick up energy cubes, a currency to buy new weapons with. Usually, though, a quick warp is needed to re-charge the ship cannons. While defeated enemies can leave behind energy remains to fill up the weapons, the switch is often necessary to navigate through or get rid of enemy formations.
While warping, you’d better to watch out where you will materialize, as you don’t want to hit space debris or collide with the boss enemies. Shields can soak up some of the damage, but head-on collisions take out a whole life, taking you back to the latest checkpoint. Once all lives are lost, the level must be restarted. At the beginning, Manticore is equipped with only Dimension Drive, but eventually Reverse Drive and Drift Drive are unlocked, giving more options to evade hazards with. Reserve Drive, especially, is an invaluable help to calm the action down as it turns the ship around to brake, stopping the screen from scrolling up. The basic cannon takes you only so far, so you want to keep on stacking those hard-to-reach energy cubes to afford better weaponry.
13 levels over three star systems doesn’t sound like much but think again. Can you spell h-a-r-d? True to old-school gaming, there might not be that much to play, but what's there is challenging, and then some. In modern games, usually even some sloppy playing can be forgiven, but Dimension Drive requires 100% focus. Keeping tabs on a dual playfield is way harder than you’d think. You will smash all over the place at first and get maddeningly frustrated, swear words flying over like laser beams in space. But with intense concentration, you begin to get grips on the required mechanics. Conquering levels that first seemed impossible is such a sweet and fulfilling sensation, with ensuing adrenaline rush making you tremble. Thankfully, levels are short, usually consisting of two to three checkpoints and a boss fight or obstacle course to navigate through. To add re-playability after completing the game, New Game+ sees you facing the challenge in mirrored levels so muscle memory won’t take you through them.
The graphics are clear and sharp with no extra frills to obscure the vision over the playfields. The music sounds delightfully like modern remixes of SID-tunes, not unlike in Turrican and other hectic shooters from Commodore 64 era. Unfortunately, couch co-op is somewhat a wasted opportunity. If one player is destroyed, the other one will blow up too, even if there were no perils, pretty much halting the level progress. It’s an unfair challenge to have both players perform perfectly in sync. You could also argue that switching between two screens is only a gimmick but the game is completely built upon it. Without this to make it stand out, Dimension Drive would be just another shooter. Thankfully, the fight over indie players’ hearts demands developers to come up with new ideas to separate their games from the crowd. Dimension Drive succeeds at that and it’s gratifying to see the game grow during its course beyond its trick.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.