While nowhere near as popular as it used to be, the shoot ’em up/bullet-hell genre has been enjoying a nice resurgence over the past few years. Housemarque’s Resogun was one of the standout PlayStation 4 launch titles, while the fast-paced Velocity 2X and compilation R-Type Dimensions were both well received. Those games mostly play by the established rules of the genre, though, which is what makes a release such as Project Root an intriguing addition to the market.
Developed by the team at OPQAM, Project Root is a mash-up between traditional shoot ’em up gameplay and the more open-world nature of a space simulator. The traditional overhead bullet-hell camera is used here, but instead of being defined to one specific course and path, players are free to explore the area in search of their target. Missions typically come in one of two varieties: destroy X or protect X. A little basic, yes, but there’s only so much you can do with the genre. Besides the main mission, each level also features a handful of bonus objectives that can be completed for additional points.
While the cross between the two genres is good in theory, OBQAM wasn’t able to fully blend them together. The major issue here is that the traditional overhead camera works just fine for the former, but for the latter, it is a major burden. The player’s ship is always positioned at the bottom of the screen, which is done in order to give you a better look at your front and sides.
However, since this is quasi-open-world, enemies can also come at you from behind. Even worse is that they tend to spawn right behind you, and with little time to react, can severely damage you. It’s one thing to be caught by an enemy’s shot I can see coming, but it’s ridiculous to expect me to dodge a barrage of rockets coming from behind my spacecraft with little warning.
The player’s ship has a few different weapons for warding off enemy forces. The ship is always equipped with a machine gun that can blast aerial crafts, and a mortar that is used to target land-dwelling foes. Special power-ups such as homing missiles and screen-clearing laser blasts can also be rummaged from fallen enemies. Generally speaking, it’s a solid set-up.
It’s the mortar that I take issue with, though, and it’s unfortunate that it is such a necessity. Despite being used alongside the machine gun, the mortar is slow, inaccurate, and has little range. Faster enemies can easily pivot out of the way of the blast, and the only way to damage most foes is to fire in front of them and hope that they meet at the exact moment of impact. A good shoot ’em up relies on precision, and forcing me to rely on dumb luck and cheap tactics is not ideal.
The frustrating camera and inconsistent weapons are just two of the pieces that make up the biggest strike against Project Root: its unfair difficulty. I’m okay with a game presenting a challenge. Heck, I was a fan of R-Type Dimensions, and both of the titles in that compilation are blisteringly difficult. However, the difficulty curve here is absolutely ridiculous.
Even playing on easy mode represents a severely difficult task, as the lack of continues and the reliance on upgrading your ship frequently lead to frustration. If there were checkpoints or something of that sort in each level, I would actually be okay with the lengthy missions of Project Root. However, since there are no checkpoints, dying means you’ll need to restart from the beginning. This would be acceptable if missions were short, like those found in Velocity 2X, but the levels here frequently top the 30 minute mark, and can even stretch up to an hour. There is nothing fun about losing 45 minutes into a level and having to restart the whole thing over again.
The game’s ship upgrading aspect is an intriguing feature, but could have been better implemented. Starting off, your ship is borderline useless. It’s slower than most enemy cruisers, has little fire-power, and wilts under the tiniest of blasts. You don’t even have a full health bar at the start of the campaign, as you need to upgrade that later on. Frankly, you’ll need to grind and grind and grind in order to even have your ship stand a chance. With each mission being challenging, though, it’s tough enough just clearing the early levels in order to reach the lowliest of upgrades.
On top of the completely unfair difficulty, Project Root is also a technical mess. A handful of technical issues are noticeable during every single mission, and range from non-issue (audio glitches) to gameplay changing (massive bouts of slow down). The most troubling glitch, though, belongs to the enemies who can pass through walls but still damage you. It’s bad enough that enemies can spawn behind me and open fire, but now I have to avoid ships that fire though walls? Maybe these glitches were intentional, though, because OPQAM certainly loves making things sadistically challenging.
From a visual standpoint, Project Root is decent, but nothing to get excited over. Everything looks solid enough, with some of the visual effects coming from explosions being quite pleasant to look at. It lacks any sort of flair or personality, though. Shoot ’em up titles usually have some pretty unique visual trappings, whether it comes from the ships or the locations, but this is as plain as plain can get.
As for the audio, it is absolutely abysmal, as the same two tracks are repeated over each of the missions. Not only is there little variety, but they are both terrible to listen to in the first place.
In case you were wondering, the game does feature something of a storyline. You are a young solider in a group of rebels out to take down Demetrio Watts, the president of the Prometheus Corporation, an energy company with a sinister motivation. Instead of being told through cut-scenes or even in-game chatter, it’s told through ugly images and tiny little text that only appears mid-game. As you can assume, trying to read miniature text in the middle of a bullet hell game is a quick way to reach a game over screen.
Project Root is a frustrating release, because beneath all of its technical issues and unbalanced gameplay, is a solid idea. Taking the gameplay of a shoot ’em up and placing it in the world of an open-world shooter could breathe new life into the genre. As it stands now, though, the unfair and unbalanced difficulty make the game borderline unplayable.
This review was based off the Xbox One version of the title, which was provided for us.