I like my pixels big and meaty. Not pong racket meaty, mind you – just meaty enough to see. Um. Like minced meaty. It’s a throwback from having spent my formative years in 16 bits.
I doubly especially like to rain smite upon pixels such as those aforementioned. Another 16-bit-induced dementia, no doubt, and one amply catered to by the low-fi takedown of the Serious Sam franchise that is The Random Encounter.
Created by Dutch devilment studio Vlambeer (hark back to the delightful hick-dipping of Radical Fishing and the visceral pilot plungery of Luftrauser), laden with buffed art assets laid a pixel at a damn time by Paul Veer and Roy Nathan de Groot, and trumping along to a fuzzed chiptune score set up by prolific bleep muso Alex Mauer, the game is a turn-based role-playing shoot-‘em-up, or what I like to call an old-school shmuRPG.
Tied to a teasepole and stripped back to its bare essentials, Serious Sam: The Random Encounter is a lighthearted romp in the serious tradition. Sent to the future to outbitch nemesis Mental, you guide Sam and, eventually, a couple other gun-toting fellas through a series of top-down levels, fighting a staggering glut of unhinged enemies and boss monsters within the constraints of a turn-based mechanic done not merely right, but awesome right. That’s probably a first.
An aside: I don’t hate random turn-based battling. I like it as much as the next action RPG fan out there. I’ve had some great random turn-based times, some of them even with my clothes on. It’s just that I’m driven to pangs of cyanide by the traditional menu-driven slog through battles I can neither predict nor avoid nor fast-tap through.
But The Random Encounter, while featuring both turn-debasement and, well, random encounters, makes combat bloody enjoyable – which is a spiffing trick, seeing that the game is almost entirely about that.
Battles are broken up into five-second skirmishes, each of which starts with some obligatory menu-hopping. You can opt to fire using the gun you’ve got equipped (deciding on a direction to fire in, too), pick a new weapon, or use an item. Choices made, the game hits de-pause and Sam and team sprint in reverse, firing all manner of hell back into the chasing hordes.
Now regard the awesome bit: During each active combat phase you get to move your team up or down, dodging incoming bastardy and positioning your gun-spitting for better effect. It’s frenetic and appealing, and it transforms the periodic pause from a bore into a welcome breather. When you’re facing something tricky, or the invariable certain doom, you can pull out an item to buff your characters, revive a fallen friend or just generally bomb the shit out of everything.
Between battles you go walkabout, nabbing guns and items out of crates, solving “puzzles” and stumbling headlong into more battles, sometimes with really big beasties.
That said, fuck me, it’s proper hard. Your team mates move only in unison, and it’s blistering work to keep them all out of the firing line. Impossible, I’d hazard, but I’m a pretty dismal shmuppet, I am. I coughed up some fell language after being crushed repeatedly by certain members of the game who shall remain unnamed. They know who they are. Bastards.
The game feels pretty unfair at times, but it’s not an outright sadist; you get three lives, and if you lose ‘em you have to start the level over. Levels are ickle, so this is nothing to headbutt your screen over.
I worried some that The Random Encounter would get tedious, and indeed I don’t think there are months of immersive play here, but the title’s too fast-paced and effacingly full of itself for this to be a deal breaker. It helps that the game’s fisticuffing core is candy-coated with a good sense of humour; Sam and his posse comitatus break into some hilarious dialogue, fittingly dry and ignorant of the fourth wall.
The game’s both a tribute to and a parody of the hallowed shmuRPG genre and the parodic Serious Sam series itself. It makes no bones about what it offers, and it does what it promises well.
Also, it’s as cheap as a cheap burger. I love cheap burgers.
Grab it on Steam.