Indie shoot ’em ups are dime a dozen so how do you stand out among the masses? For starters, captivating key art can catch attention when browsing digital storefronts. A vertically scrolling shooter Pawarumi by French indie developer Manufacture43 certainly scores there as its cover image features the game’s super-hot heroine, Aztec fighter pilot Axo. Beyond that, the actual game better be good, too. Pawarumi double-scores there as its massively entertaining, grandiosely presented old school shoot’ em up action with a clever twist more than matches the sumptuous promotional art. For once, judging something by its cover actually holds true!
Pawarumi’s setting is certainly interesting. The game takes place in a pre-Columbian inspired sci-fi universe where the empire’s top pilot Axo, controlling a legendary ship Chukaru, fights against the Council that mercilessly rules the nations under its command. What exactly is Axo’s role in the war, though? Her actions seem to take a toll on the oppressed lands, bloodthirstily waging war on what’s left of her world. The premise, the unique setting and the characters are something that would demand an accompanying graphic novel featuring the same gorgeous art seen in the game’s few story panels.
There are no skill trees, upgrades or even power-ups. Chukaru is equipped with a shield, a special attack and thee colored lasers, red, green and blue, all representing different elements and mapped correspondingly by their color to face buttons of the Xbox controller. The shield soaks up damage and when it’s depleted, the next hit will take you to the game over screen. However, the shield can be recharged by shooting enemies with lasers matching their color. Super attack energy is gained back by using a winning color against its opposing element (red/fire over green/nature, green/nature over blue/water and blue/water over red/fire). To deal more damage, though, you must use lasers the other way around. The trinity system is super-easy to grasp because any kind of laser will still deal damage, only their benefits are different. So, it’s not cruelly rigid as changing polarization in the shoot ‘em up classic Ikaruga that clearly has inspired Pawarumi.
There are five levels to fly and fight through (four in the easy difficulty) and each difficulty setting has a different ending. The levels are relatively short, with mid and end of level bosses to battle against that extend into cinematic, multi-phased fights. Pawarumi is very old school as the game over takes you back to the start. There are no lives, continues or checkpoints between levels. Thus, the gameplay loop is the most classic one: at each go with the game, you will get just that little bit farther than before. The level design is delightfully old-fashioned, too, with scripted enemy patterns that you will eventually learn. There’s no procedural nonsense of rogue-likes at play and that feels so good. The challenge is suitably measured and at times, the game can be even surprisingly forgiving; to avoid swarm of enemies or bosses’ sweeping lasers, there’s always room somewhere in the screen to retreat to. It’s all about positioning, memorizing and utilizing trinity lasers’ benefits in each situation. There’s even a training mode where you can practice unlocked levels. When you have finally tackled the game’s challenge, online leaderboards will give incentive to keep on replaying.
Pawarumi doesn’t look like your typical indie shoot ‘em up out there because its audiovisual presentation is absolutely amazing. 2.5D visuals with sweeping flybys and organic transitions create a staggering volume to the epic and futuristic Aztec world where the last battle to revenge the fate of mankind is played. Everything is big and bold so you don’t need to squint your eyes to make out what’s happening around. Trash enemies might not look anything special but who will have time to pay attention to them anyway as they are blasted into smithereens! The developers describe the soundtrack as “Peruvian Electro-Metal” and as strange as it might sound, it’s actually a pretty accurate statement. Drum machine, wild percussions and synthetized bass pound a thunderous and monotonous beat for panpipes and electric guitars to play an ethnic melody on top of it.
French games are often accused of going for style over substance but Pawarumi has both. Its amalgam of splendid presentation and old school knowledge prove that there still is a lot of life left in its age-old genre. Some twenty years ago, a shooter up to Pawarumi’s caliber would easily have been a retail game. Today, it has to fight for survival among thousands of digital games. It’s unfair because the game looks and plays so much better than your average indie title. Pawarumi might not change the face of videogaming or set a new trend, it’s just a damn good shoot ‘em up, just like they made them back in the day. If you’re an avid arcade game fan, make no mistake and add it to your library!
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.