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 Post subject: Gaia Seed (PSN Download)
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2011 12:46 am 


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Joined: 03 Oct 2007
Posts: 46
Game: Gaia Seed
Platform: PSX (Japan only), PSN (Global)
Developer: Techno Soleil (distributed worldwide on the PSN by Monkey Paw Games)


"...Where the **** would I go?! I'm on a big blue ball!..."

It's no secret that Japan loves shmups. A lot of the most beloved shmup franchises of all time either started in Japan, like the R-Type and Gradius series, or never really emigrated outside Japan, like the Dodonpachi games and the Touhou games. Japan has faith in shmups that other regions just don't. So, when the PlayStation Network decided to start releasing Japan-only PSX releases for download at 6-10 bucks a pop, it was no surprise that a lot of the chosen titles were shmups.

Being as big a gaijin as the day is long, I hoped rather vainly that the PSN descriptions would point me in the right direction. However, I forgot that the PSN writeups are supposed to sell you on buying a product and aren't necessarily there to give you a truthful account of the game's characteristics. But I had faith when I bought Gaia Seed: it was apparently an important high water mark in the world of shmups full of detailed sprite art, had good music, and had good controls and hit detection, the writeup said.

But a high water mark? Well granted, it had a limited run which drove up its price when it was a disc title, people look upon it fondly, but is it really worth it?


Story

Well, the story is...ah...er...well...sorry, but even the excuse of being a Japanese import doesn't save Gaia Seed's story from being obtuse, even for shmup standards.

Remember that other Japanese hit shmup with a premium price tag? Radiant Silvergun? Remember its story having something to do about the Earth and the Xiga prism thing and we're not quite sure if anyone learned anything in the end? And how about figuring out how the hell the true ending to Sin and Punishment 2: Star Successor is supposed to make us feel, considering the original N64 Sin and Punishment story? They're all pretty straightforward compared to figuring out just what's happening in Gaia Seed.

The story I'll try to describe comes from what I could best gather from numerous playthroughs to try to interpret the cryptic, hopelessly-Engrish narration with Japanese subtitles. I can understand them trying to make it sound like it's not a Japanese guy in the cockpit of the ship you fly in Gaia Seed by having a guy speak English, but the choice to have a guy who probably didn't have much practice enunciating English helped about as much as reading the assembly manual for a piece of IKEA furniture that you don't own, and what exactly Techno Soleil wanted to say in said narration by picking the option to turn the voice fully Japanese and the subtitles English (which, by the way, you access in the options, AFTER the title screen and opening roll) is still really, really cryptic.

So, apparently in the future humanity runs Earth to its limits in terms of research and population, and deep in some secret lab, scientists labor away with some sort of technorganic computer called the Gaia Seed to figure out how to revive our mother planet. Now, how does this translate into a shmup? A good first bet would say that the bio-computer-tree-whatchamacallit goes rampant and starts destroying humanity with crazy biohorrors and cataclysms where the Earth splits open and goes sentient or something, and our hero is part of some last desperate attempt to stop Gaia Seed from going Skynet any further. No, you're wrong. Another "smart money" bet strongly suggests that there's some faction that doesn't want the Gaia Seed to revive the planet for some reason. Pick one: warlike social Darwinist faction, cyborgs, robots, terrorists that think the Gaia Seed project is humanity playing God, et cetera, and you will have to drive them off until the Gaia Seed project is complete. No, this is a losing bet as well. Or maybe you're supposed to be part of a group bringing the Gaia Seed to some place amongst the stars that humanity can eventually populate, and you must protect it from mysterious aliens or hawkish factions of humanity or something. Wrong, you don't win the chance to double your money.

Here's the real second act to the story: humans discover there's another Gaia Seed. In URANUS. Surrounded by its own space fleets and defensive equipment...for some reason. We're not really told why or how. You're instructed to get to this other Gaia Seed, to fight its defenses, to do whatever in order to complete the Gaia Seed project.

The third act and the three endings are just as cryptic, and without spoiling anything, there are big creatures, angels, and becoming "one with the Earth" involved, and I don't know how it's all supposed to fit together, really. If the question of Gaia Seed's story is an environmentalist one, why is Uranus apparently polluted with as much technological junk as Earth appears to be? The inhabitants of Uranus (who we never see save for their war machines, by the way) apparently haven't cracked the Gaia Seed project either, since the only thing approaching a thriving natural environment and thriving city we see in the whole game is still just a projection onto a gigantic mass of TV screens, Invader Zim episode Planet Jackers-style, and the rest appears to be pretty cloudy and desolate. What do we do with said other Gaia Seed when we find it? Destroy it? Capture it? Will having two Gaia Seeds fix everything? And why Uranus? It's never explicitly stated if mankind's colonized other planets in the story of Gaia Seed, and if they did, the story wouldn't make sense anymore because mankind would be scattered across space and thus be at less of a risk to run any single planet into the ground. Is Uranus full of some kind of alternate human race? There are ships scattered around that are basically your ship except with green trim instead of gold that you kill for power-ups, and human and Uranus battleships look really, really similar. We fight not only mechanical weapons systems, but biological monster weapon things, too. Are THOSE made by the Gaia Seed? Is that just Uranus' wildlife? I'm probably overanalyzing the story of Gaia Seed quite a bit, but I claim that Techno Soleil started it. This story's supposed to be gripping somehow, with the emotional, somber, generally "war is bad, m'kay" way it's narrated and the sober, low-energy music used at its start, and for something to be gripping you can't be tossed out of it even if you make yourself think about it for a while. Gaia Seed's story just doesn't do it for me in that regard.

Summary: 5/10. It's functional, but that's about all I can say about it. At least it gives the player an excuse to fly into space and blow stuff up.


Graphics

Gaia Seed's graphics, as the PSN blurb promised, are beautiful. They don't present the rich level of detail one gets from, say, a Metal Slug game (not really a shmup, I know, but I'm using it as a yardstick for sprite art), but there is still a lot of detail, and a lot going on in the background environments. The first stage has us flying through what looks like some patently enormous metal grid in space, and the separate elements in the background scroll properly and give us a good sense of depth, as well as show us space junk/wreckage floating in the background. In the second stage, we get to see a panoramic view of a space fleet battle raging in the background right before jumping into the thick of it. Later stages give us backgrounds that one doesn't know what the hell they are at first, or even after several playthroughs, the aforementioned desolate areas and environments that turn out to be masses of TV screens when enemies start punching out of them, your ship is pleasantly-designed and so are the bosses, and overall Gaia Seed is indeed easy on the eyes. Multiple background layers, especially when trying for pacifist runs on bosses wherein you simply warp from one level to the next, don't affect framerate, although that might be due to playing Gaia Seed on a PSP or PS3, and overall make for very impressive visual effects.

From a practical perspective, everything is easy to pick out, and the overall palette allows players to easily see where their shots are going, where they are, what's a threat and what isn't. The player ship has a shape that's only mirrored by enemy fighters that drop powerups when they die and has a unique color palette, and both its yellow and blue lasers, as well as the yellow and green missile weapons, are easy to track. Enemy bullets, laser bullets, wide beam shots, missiles and homing lasers are all easy to see and allow the player to focus on dodging and shot placement, as you should in any shmup. Your two bomb-ish attacks are also good visual effects, and no single effect upstages any of the others, so everything looks perfectly coherent. There are one or two segments that also look like they were made using polygons upon which patterns made of pixels were placed, which adds to the feel of at least one level.

The opening and endings are also made entirely with pixel art, which does the whole game a service, as, again, no one graphic upstages the others. You really get the feeling you're playing a complete package from a visual perspective.

Summary: 10/10. Sprite art rules the day, and it's all very good. If nothing else, Gaia Seed provides that eye candy factor that is so crucial for shmups, both classic and modern.


Sound

The music of Gaia Seed does deserve merit, just as the PSN blurb promised. The background music is atmospheric and fits the tone Gaia Seed is going for, and all the tracks sound unique. Gaia Seed also scores points with me by doing what I love with the bosses: all bosses have their own theme songs. Individual theme songs can really nail down a boss' identity and the pace the player should adopt, and while that isn't quite true here in Gaia Seed, all the boss battle themes are at least just as atmospheric and as pleasant a surprise as the level themes.

Everything else is as muted and oddly serene as the soundtrack. Yes, all the sound effects appear to be the typical shmup set of "pew pews" and explosions, but they're nowhere near as loud or visceral as in, say, your standard Thunder Force title, nor are they as alien as your typical R-Type game. Even your bomb-like "Intense Fire" super attacks are sort of quiet.

This doesn't hurt Gaia Seed, since this all does fit the music, and it's a bit of a wonder the game as a whole manages to stay so sober and serene without lulling the player to sleep outright. If it does anything to the experience, it does make it a bit less visceral, but again, it's clear Gaia Seed doesn't particularly want to be a thrill ride.

Summary: 9/10. In shmups it's easy to turn everything up, but Gaia Seed proves there's something to be said about turning things down. While this can deflate the action in some moments, Gaia Seed still manages to impress with its musical stylings, which are very artistic, if not catchy.


Gameplay

Gaia Seed's gameplay is particularly simple. You have one movement speed, one of two guns and eventually one of two missiles. You have shields and several lives, and if you take damage you can recharge your shields by simply not getting hit. You start with a rapid-fire weapon that eventually spreads out into a 4-way shot and can either keep that or switch to a powerful, straight laser. All powerups are gathered by picking up capsules dropped from destroying ships that look exactly like your fighter, except with green trim instead of golden trim: red for the spread gun, blue for the laser, green for a four-way non-homing missile and yellow for a two-way non-homing missile with a blast radius. Both guns have four power levels, which you gain by picking up a powerup that matches the color of the weapon you're currently carrying, and if you die, you lose one power level for your gun and lose your missile powerup. It's a simple system for your standard modes of fire, and while very simplistic it doesn't feel too bare-bones either. It's a shmup that can communicate itself fairly well without needing to be too complicated, as either of the four possible gun-missile combinations is sufficient to lay down a large field of fire to take care of most enemies. For harder targets or clearing the screen of attacks, you can unleash the Intense Fire ability: a bomb-like screen clearer followed by a high-strength super attack.

However, it is in the Intense Fire abilities where the red item does start to show its merits. It is a homing attack which can suppress a wide area of targets with highly-damaging shots, unlike the blue laser's manually-aimed straight super laser, and so doesn't require you to trade indestructible fire with bosses or large enemies, such as wide laser beams or homing lasers. Since Intense Fire recharges without you having to do anything just like shields, Gaia Seed rewards a cagey, strategic play style which revolves around combining laying down rapid main weapon fire with unleashing Intense Fire attacks. However, you can effectively skip having to pay attention to any of this strategy since you can simply time out bosses. Getting the best ending involves not fighting the final bosses, but oddly the game doesn't reward you for doing a full pacifist run, which is entirely possible. The scoring system manages to drop the ball there, since for all intents and purposes it is as if you can altogether avoid actually killing bosses for no good reason.

Replay value is limited. Once you've played it through and gotten all three different endings, there are no extra scoring systems to play with in order to ratchet up your score, nor are there extra ships to use, nor pumped-up weapons systems to try out. One could try for a pacifist run like I suggested to eke out getting the best ending in a far more inconvenient way than you're supposed to in a fourth possible playthrough, but the game won't really reward you for it the way, say, Ikaruga does. There's more than one way to play Gaia Seed, but only one is really rewarded.

Summary: 8/10. When you get right down to it, Gaia Seed is 3/4ths of a full shmup. There are some interesting ways to play the game: ways the game doesn't recognize. What we're left with is functional, but one could very easily question why it's there.


Conclusion

Proof that rarity doesn't always equal quality, when one gets right down to it, Gaia Seed is a good shmup but it doesn't really deserve its expensive tag, nor its praise. Other games aren't as streamlined, nor do they carry the mystique that comes with a $100+ price tag in their prime, but at least some games in its price range, like Radiant Silvergun, could back up their cost with more depth and more advancement. Were Gaia Seed as deep or engaging as its visuals and soundtrack, it would be more well-known, like Silvergun or its more famous modern stablemate, Ikaruga.

As Gaia Seed stands, though, it's an interesting anachronism. In a generation where the world laps up shallow, pretty faces and incomprehensible stories with vaguely environmental or antitechnology agendas, Gaia Seed seems ahead of its time, but in many other areas, in this same world where expectations are higher than ever before, it's firmly locked in the past. For this it remains interesting, but the world's moved on and Gaia Seed hasn't aged well. Being simply interesting is not the same as being truly excellent.

Final Verdict: 8/10 (not an average of individual scores)
_________________
"Enjoy a nice Brown Betty with DEATH! But, but mostly eat death." ~Crow T. Robot~


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