There’s no atmosphere in space, and yet…

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Blast off and strike the evil Bydo Empire!

It used to be all so very simple: You flew in from the left, everything else came in from the right, and both sides shot at each other until there was nothing left to shoot at. Shmups were proper games – games that put hairs on your chest, blisters on your thumbs, and granted you a vague sense of credibility from your peers if you were any good at the tough bits. Back in those happy tape-loading days any home conversion that broadly resembled the arcade original would have been awarded 83% in some nonsense category like “Moveability” and considered an excellent port.

So what the heck happened? R-Type may be a genre classic but by the time Tactics (AKA “Command” for my US friends) came around in 2007 not only were traditional shmups clinging on to relevance by the very tips of their fingernails but the series itself had officially been buried five long years ago with the spectacular PlayStation 2 send-off R-Type Final. Those unforgettable bio-mechanical designs may have the sort of pedigree that demands respect but there’s no way Irem could offer an all-new game like that on the PSP and seriously expect it to sell well enough to treat the staff to frivolous things like “wages” and “job security”, not in the days of Bioshock and Guitar Hero. So this is how we arrive at R-Type Tactics, a follow-up that is on paper everything R-Type is not and was never supposed to be – a methodical turn-based strategy game with a surprisingly heavy emphasis on bringing the lore that has been patiently bubbling away under the surface of the series since forever into sharp focus. Konami may have dipped their toes into this territory first (and Final can’t be accused of shying away from the narrative side of things either) – but this is a legendary arcade-born shmup series, for heaven’s sake! What do people think of when you say “Side-scrolling arcade shmup”? R-Type! Gradius Darius! Some smart-alec shouting “Progear!” or “Blazing Star!” from the back of the room! Action shmupping is woven into the very fabric of R-Type’s being – R-Type means shmups, shmups means R-Type, and that’s the end of it.

And if you’re anything like me you’ll sincerely believe that – right up to the point you first play Tactics. Fiercely loyal to the overall style and even the fundamental gameplay beats of the original yet nothing alike all at the same time, it just somehow still feels authentically “R-Type” in spite of the obvious differences. Who knew horizontal shmup design could fit a strategy game setting like a glove? The stages feel like you’ve already flown through them years ago, strongly echoing past designs without mindlessly aping them. Charge shots, supply bots, attaching a Force unit to the front (or rear) before sending it off to ram into an enemy… if you recognise something, from the biggest multi-part boss to the most throwaway of one-shot enemies, you can be sure it’ll behave as it’s supposed to or that the little trick you used to pull off will still work here – it’s almost eerily intuitive at times. Even the new things you won’t be familiar with like ore salvaging and ordering damaged craft to retreat to the safety of a giant carrier ship for in-battle repairs fit in so well it feels like they’ve been a part of the series since the beginning. There really is no clear line separating “real” R-Type – all space battles, Dobkeratops, and that iconic R-9A Arrowhead – with the new additions at all. This has the very welcome knock-on effect of making every craft, and by extension every tactic you can come up with, feel like equally valid choices when you’re out in the field – you’re not waiting for the two or three starring-role ships you recognise to have a turn just to get the job done properly.

But all of the above isn’t even the best bit – and I appreciate how saying the perfectly-balanced blending of classic shmupping with strategising isn’t the highest point of a shmup-strategy game might be something of a worry, but stay with me here – the best bit of R-Type Tactics, even better than the excellent wargaming part, is the incredibly oppressive atmosphere that practically drips out of every last mutated pore.

The best way I can describe it is like this: You know how Super Metroid has a really strong but almost entirely wordless story? A non-story story, if you like: There’s the dramatic opening, all slaughtered scientists and screen-tilting escape, learning how to wall-jump for the first time purely by mimicking the little Etecoons, all that fighting Ridley business and the baby metroid’s heroic Samus-boosting sacrifice – these are all obvious and impressive spectacles, even when the game is still restrained enough to show rather than tell. But what really makes Zebes live and breathe are the small details you don’t even have to pay any attention to – the crystalline air of Brinstar, the silence of the wrecked ship, the oppressive heat of Norfair. These things do not matter in the grand scheme of things and yet they all add an enormous amount of character to Samus’ task, turning moving around while shooting at endlessly respawning enemies into exploration. Into adventure.

R-Type Tactics uses many similar silent techniques to create its own world – a world of isolation, despair, and decay. Your personal mission logs make it perfectly clear that you start this fight for survival from a position of desperation, a wholly unsuitable fleet sent out because there’s no one left alive to even try, and subsequent entries only go to show how every “victory” is pushing your further and further into enemy territory with ever-decreasing hopes of success. And if you do fail along the way? While not changing the overall mission path the outcome’s still treated as canon – your self-insert commander treats it as a chance to retreat and reorganise, to prepare for the next attempt. It all feeds in to the crushing helplessness that surrounds your unlucky mission – not even outright failure is enough to grant your crew a moment’s reprieve.

I’d like to take a moment to emphasise how committed the game is to these minor but exceedingly relevant details, using the mission log confirmation text as evidence. There’s no real need for anything beyond a blunt “End”, “Next”, or “Confirm” notice once you’ve read up on your current situation, and yet the game insists on going to the trouble of labelling your tactical authorisation as “Regroup” or “Deploy” as appropriate. That in itself is a nice touch, a sense that the game is trying hard to remain in-character as much as possible while blurring the line between you-the-player and you-the-commander. Then, just once, instead of a measured “Deploy” or a down-but-not-out “Regroup” your only possible reaction is to “Watch in horror” and you have no choice but to push the button to confirm…

Even terrain gets in on the act too, and the descriptions can be beautifully verbose: “The Space Corps’ mightiest weapon, powered by solar energy. All who witness its power are overwhelmed.” – there’s just no need for “You can’t move into the hex with the massive cannon in it” to be written up in such an elegant manner, and yet there it is. Shorter descriptions are often equally mood-enhancing – “An area where Bydo corpses were deposited” brings an unexpected edge to an otherwise unimportant clump of organic matter, for example. Even something as simple as “Subzero air” – used in one level to describe a completely standard “empty/nothing special” kind of terrain makes the icy caves of Triton feel just that little bit colder. It’s fair to say that most snippets of text are more utilitarian than the examples given above, but there are always enough for it to be worth having a quick check around the battlefield just in case.

Thirty rewarding missions in and your fleet are exhausted, far from home, and faced with one final all-or-nothing push to decide the fate of humanity itself and… you win! Wahoo! The ending CG shows your victorious armada… being dragged down and Bydo-ised. Oh. Now if the story had ended there we could have come to the conclusion that a noble sacrifice had been made and as sad as that was at least your grand campaign had concluded successfully and your team would be forever remembered as brave heroes. But…

R-Type Tactics hasn’t finished with you yet.

As a player this is great news! You’re instantly gifted a wholly canonical “New Game+” mode, one that continues immediately from where the previous ending left off – a built-in sequel, really. Your commander though – you, as the game presents it – has awoken in a living nightmare, desperately clinging on to their last fragmented shards of consciousness – explicitly written as “[Current Commander Title] [Your Name Here]’s Residual Sanity” in the mission log header. Only you’re not insane, evil, manipulated against your will, or thirsty for bloody vengeance – you just really, really, want to get you and the (former) people under your command back home. These Bydo – you – aren’t vicious alien aggressors but the broken remains of humanity’s saviours trying to return to the place they fought so hard to protect, defending themselves against unfathomable attacks from people who should be their allies along the way. And it’s not until the end of the final mission – not until they’ve seen the sunset on Earth once more and dared to dream of returning to their families, not until they’ve fought so long and hard and done everything asked of them and come so very close… It’s only then they realise they can’t stay – because they aren’t human.

If this were any other genre, if any other game had the heroes fall at the last hurdle and awaken a mutated husk of their former selves only to be attacked at every turn by previously friendly forces without understanding why we’d call it a brave body horror themed twist and applaud them for it. If it had happened in a Silent Hill game we’d have think pieces for decades after the fact droning on about how visionary the script writers were and how harrowing it was to be forced to live through every last moment of their terrible experience. Do you want to play a war game that makes you really feel the futility of conflict in your very bones? That rather than defined forces of good and evil everything’s just a vast expanse of grey? That we need to understand how much pain we inflict upon ourselves with pointless battles? R-Type Tactics will scratch those peculiar itches very well even when the message is not-so-subtly hidden under a veneer of sci-fi tech and space monsters.

If R-Type Tactics had “only” been an excellent strategy game that would mean it was an enjoyable and affordable PSP exclusive that was well worth anyone’s time, so do go pick it up if you haven’t already done so. It’s far more ambitious than that though, completely reinventing a rightfully celebrated classic without losing sight – not even for a second – of where it’s from. If Final was a celebration of R-Type’s shmupping, of endless specialist ship variations and Force-ramming waves of enemies, then Tactics is the lore-rich companion piece expertly feeding you delicious story-morsels, a masterclass in emotive yet “passive” storytelling that’s been overlooked for far too long.

“All you want is now to go back home to your beloved planet earth you can think nothing else”

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