Hunters: Relic of Stars
by Polly

Not many Flash games these days dare to strive and be something a little more ambitious than tower defense, sprite hacks, mindless enemyless fetch quests with "deep" concepts, knock-off hentai visual novels, and let's play farty stupid super time dress up snore fests. I've found diamonds in the rough here and there, but for the most part, popular trends in Flash gaming (much like mobile gaming) bore me to tears.

Which is a good thing we have Flash developers like i Productions/Rhete around, who routinely deliver on the kind of gaming experience I want, Flash or otherwise. i Production games typically shy away from trends and stick more toward what most of us consider, ya know, "games." Something you'd likely play on a console or a curious oddity you may stumble across on Steam for a few bucks. From The Adventures of MikeMan 2 to the epic (everyone's sick of that word, but I'mma use it anyway, CAUSE I AIN'T CARE!) Project Inthri shmup trilogy, there's just always seemed to be just a bit more ambition behind these projects that set them apart from your typical "play it for five minutes and forget it" fare. With Hunters: Relic of Stars, a project that took a little over three years to complete from start to finish, one can't help but feel that those ambitions have truly outgrown the medium. Hunters: Relic of Stars isn't just a "Flash game," no siree. It's simply a game not needing any medium-based indentifiers in front of it. It's just that damn big.

As I've mentioned in our preview back in January, Hunters: Relic of Stars is a reimagining of the short (but very long for Flash) film Hunters: Episode 1. Though a lot has changed from the original story, the basic set-up remains the same. It's honestly about as cliche'd and straightforward as you can get. You got some mysterious orbs, a female lead that gets drawn into a bigger plot than she initially realizes while out on a routine breaking and entering case, some crazy people hunting her down for unknown reasons, and an even crazier person who just can't quite get the message, "Alright, this bitch will never stop outclassing me!" Simple as it is though, it's the amount of character and quality of direction that sell it as something the player can easily sit through and enjoy as a pretty fun space adventure.

The voice cast deserves particular praise, as well as their director Deven Mack (or as we all know him, D-Mac), for taking a rather straightforward tale that mixes bits of drama and light comedy and making it enjoyable. Carina's (Rina-chan) interactions with her companions as well as enemies are always entertaining (Leading male Avior and one overly polite masked man spring to mind) and her seemingly self-appointed arch-nemesis Mizar (Francine Louise) brilliantly straddles the line between real and cartoon insanity and obsession. Though it's not the focal point, the story bits are fun, never run long, and are highly worth experiencing your first time through the game.

Moving onto the graphical presentation, Hunters is of a similar style seen in all games under the i Productions label. You can expect to see a lot of bright and vivid colors, strange mechanoid and alien enemy types, and anime-inspired character designs. Environments have taken a bit of a step up since the Inthri series, with a bit more background detail and some really nice looking environmental effects. Since this is a platformer, Carina as well as her enemies needed to have a bit more range in movement, and the visuals provide just the right amount of animations for running, attacking, and jumping around, and added points for the fact that sprites aren't mirrored when facing opposite directions. Also, if you watch closely, you'll even catch some interesting details in character movement, such as during the first fight with Mizar, she'll be working around with the controls in her robot as she attacks you. In what seems to be the norm for i-produced games, the bosses steal the show here again, and why shouldn't they? They come in all shapes and sizes and sport so much character that they can't help but draw attention to themselves due to their size as well as a few sporting quite a few really nice looking animated effects. Though it may seem simple and unimpressive to some, Hunters' visuals and style get the job done at presenting its sprawling outer space adventure land, and that's all they needed to do.

If Hunters' functionably simple visuals don't impress you (you little 14 year old child), then I daresay that its sound department may just have something to perk your ears right up. All music in the game is plucked from Newgrounds' audio portal which, until this game, I had no idea sported such an array of really great tuneage. The soundtrack is composed of over 40 selections, and damn near every event and boss encounter in the game has its own unique theme. The in-game musical styles are more often than not upbeat and dancey techno tunes that drive the action forward, with cutscenes having quieter, more soothing ambience and subtle melody. There's not really a single tune that doesn't fit the situation, whether you're leading an assault on an enemy stronghold, hiking around in the mountains, or hanging out underwater blowin' up fishies, and nearly every track's got a damn good hook that'll get stuck in your noggin for quite some time. Sound effects are about what you'd expect for this kinda game and serve their purpose well, but that default handgun can get downright grating at times.

Gameplay in Hunters is fairly easy to pick up and immediately get a handle on. It's an action-platformer in the style of Mega Man and Contra, mixing in some exploration elements from the Metroid series, so some pretty skilled running and gunning is going to be your key to victory. Speaking of keys, though it's not necessary, it's highly recommended that this game be played with Joy2Key mapping software so that you can use a controller for a more authentic old-school gaming experience. The controls are simple for jumping, shooting, and changing weapons, and aiming is in eight directions, so you've always get a handle on any given situation. What will feel sorely missed by some is the inability to lock yourself into position and aim, but there aren't many spots in the game where such a technique really feels necessary. Hunters is built around its simple control setup perfectly, giving you the right amount of snappy precision for the challenges that lie ahead.

And challenges there shall be! Since it follows old-school traditions, you can expect a game chock full of challenge that is in no way unfair. Each new stage of the game drops Carina into any number of fresh and interesting situations filled with new enemies, bosses, and obstacles she must overcome. While the game's opening stage may have a bit of a slow start, it's merely a warm-up for the rest of the six-stage adventure that will see her struggling against nature's nastiest winds in order to survive on a snowy mountain, braving zero-gravity using only her weapons' momentum to push her around, and engaging in one of the nuttiest reflex-intensive training sequences ever. Hunters is never content to sit still and do just one thing for long, even though its stages can easily break the 90-minute mark by the game's final sequences. It sticks to its core of action-platforming for the most part, but with the stage gimmicks constantly changing, and the fact that Carina regularly receives new upgrades to play around with such as weapons and wall jumping, keeps the game from every feeling stale. On top of that, there are also a few instances of the game that'll find Carina piloting her ship, in a radical departure from the set formula, turning the game into a side-scrolling shmup. In some games, these areas can feel a bit tacked on or be too much of a distraction, but Hunters' shmup areas never infringe on the "normal" game too often, and when they do they feel just as tight and fun as Project Inthri 3.

What really drives the package home, however, are the aforementioned boss encounters. Though bosses are used quite liberally throughout each stage, they always either add something new that you've never seen before, or are just so damn over the top insane that it's hard not to get a good rush of adrenaline going. (This. Game's. Finale. Is. Fucking. GRAND!) Hunters' bosses are mean, their attacks are downright devious, and the only way you're gonna eek out a victory is with quick reflexes and a good eye. Though some bosses may seem completely maddening at first, there's always a pattern to catch on to and a way to exploit it. Your key to victory is always to pay attention, and when you finally topple some of the nastiest baddies this game churns out there's always a rush of that old-school gamer satisfaction from emerging victorious from a knock down drag out fight.

Depending on your skill, Hunters can last a good five to seven hours total playtime just running through every stage. That, on top of the three graciously scaled difficulties alone, would be enough to go ahead and close the book and call it a finished game. However, since this review is lacking in phallic references, I feel compelled to say that Hunters only gets bigger the more you play with it! Once you've completed any given stage, you then unlock two special modes of play: Time Attack and Challenge Mode.

Time Attack mode is exactly what it sounds like. You're thrown into the stage, put on a timer, and given one life to make it to the end. It's a challenge that becomes more and more grueling the further into the game you are. The true stand-out though, is the Challenge Mode, which can, again depending on your skill, easily last longer than the main game itself. In Challenge Mode, you play the stages as you normally would, however at various checkpoints, restrictions are imposed on Carina to make things more interesting. These can range from simple limited ammunition runs where it's smarter to out-maneuver your opponents, to dramatic shifts in how the mechanics of the stage worked in the first place. These challenges are well placed throughout, and each play on the strengths of the stages and the engine to challenge you in lots of unique and sometimes surprising ways. Challenge Mode can easily breathe a whole new life into a game that many may feel compelled to set aside once they've completed it, but only TRUE MANLY MEN will dare accept the final stage's set of Challenges and emerge victorious. (Note: As of the time of this writing, I still have a vagina.)

Looking at the big picture, Hunters isn't anything I'd call innovative or ground-breaking. It's firmly rooted in old-school gaming traditions that we all should be familiar with by now, but that doesn't mean it's stale. It clings to its roots tightly and executes each of its aspects expertly, creating a sort of love letter to the games of old, while leaving its own mark and bit of zing in the process. It offers just as much, if not more, than other one-person indie projects like Touhou and Cave Story, and sports gameplay that is just as tight and genuinely fun as the games that inspired it. With its length, bounty of hidden secrets, and extra modes that keep you coming back for more, Hunters: Relic of Stars is really a total package.

And it has a big cock.

Summary: Just go fuckin' play it.

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