Zotrix, a retro shooter co-published by Retoism and UFO Interactive and developed by ZeroBit, begins by players learning about how mankind starts to populate the stars only to find that you are not alone in the galaxy, and out of nowhere an alien force embarks on a mission to destroy colonies. To combat this threat, a space station was sent into deep space (with others following closely behind) so that you can strike back at the alien invasion.
Before arriving on PlayStation 4, Zotrix was released on Steam, where the typical control scheme on PC was WASD, with a mouse used for pointing in the direction of where you want to shoot. This works perfectly for the PC as it’s a very smooth, quick, and accurate system. Unfortunately, mapping the control scheme to PS4 hasn’t quite worked out.
The initial screen, which shows you the controls, tells you that the right stick is used to ‘move/crosshair’, so my immediate reaction was: “I have to move a crosshair, on a gamepad?!”. It’s not impossible, but it is very difficult to do. At first I thought that this might have been a mistake on the developer’s part and it would be like every other twin-stick shooter where you move with the left stick, point with the right stick, then press the shoot button. That’s not the case.
When trying to shoot in a particular direction, I’d often see my shots gradually veering away from the direction I was pointing at, because of the crosshair issue and the fact that there is no crosshair displayed on the screen. This makes the shooting mechanics very hit and miss and makes it very difficult to know if you are pointing in the correct direction or not.
What I also found very strange was that you have two weapons, a primary weapon and a secondary weapon. Usually in games of this ilk, you use either the left or right trigger for each weapon, but Zotrix has mapped the primary weapon on both the triggers leaving the secondary weapon set to the square button. Considering that you have to constantly use the right stick, it makes it difficult to use your secondary weapon thus causing you to frequently get hit by enemy bullets. This wouldn’t have been too bad if you could change the game controls but you can’t, which makes it even more frustrating.
Speaking of the options, it really is very light, and I mean very light. There are only two options and they’re sound sliders, music and SFX. OK, I know that this is a classic retro shooter but just two options? There is no need to have an options menu if it is just going to have basic sound controls. The biggest mistake they have made is not allowing for different control schemes.
When you do start to get into Zotrix, you realise that at first it is very simple and easy to get into, then things start to get hectic and it slowly builds up to becoming a bullet-hell shooter. Playing through the Arcade mode is the best option to get acquainted with the game. You go through level after level building up your score. At the end of each level you can use your amassed points on upgrades for your ship, but only one upgrade can be chosen so you need to choose wisely.
During each mission or level, your ship starts off with the upgrades you currently have (if any), and then you have the enemy waves start coming at you. These waves appear at the same locations each time you play the level – randomised levels would have been nice to make it more of a challenge. As you attack each wave of enemies, every bullet you fire causes your spaceship to float backwards ever so slightly. This is a nice mechanic as knowing that you’re drifting means that you have to keep nudging your spaceship back to its position while shooting at the incoming wave.
There have been some points where a wormhole has appeared and I could just sit in the corner of the level and just hold the fire button for the next couple minutes doing nothing, but other than that you need to keep moving around frequently in order to dodge enemy bullets.
Having the mechanic to dodge bullets by placing your ship lower down in space is a nice touch; it means that you can get out of harm’s way and still attack the enemy, but this is where a strange issue arises. When you use space dive to avoid the enemy bullets, the enemies stop firing at you. This causes a bit of an exploit. Pressing down either R3 or L3 continuously means that per level almost no enemies will shoot at you. Whether this was intentional or not it makes the game very easy.
Sometimes during a level you’ll come across asteroids ranging in various sizes and they’re pretty easy to destroy, but weirdly enough they’re all lined up in rows, or in a few of the levels I’ve found that they move around like the enemy. It was very strange to see something like that and certainly was an oddity considering that asteroids ought to be randomised and certainly not follow a spiral path – that is unless these asteroids have engines, which somehow I doubt.
The graphics are nice and colourful, each of the ships range from small torpedo-like shapes to large square-shaped cruisers, and they all fire dot-like bullets at you reminiscent of the 80’s styled, top-down retro shooters and Japanese bullet hell shooters.
When you upgrade your ship or add components, you can see them on your ship as you play each level. If you get an upgrade pickup then your lasers are upgraded and, depending on the level of the upgrade, it changes the appearance of not only your ship, but the lasers being fired too, including their firing rate and velocity. You can also purchase an item that lets you fire either behind you or have a gun that constantly revolves around your ship firing in the direction it’s pointing at.
While you’re firing upon the enemy, if you take too many hits then you lose a life, however, you don’t lose a life like you would traditionally; instead the ship icon in the bottom left will show your health level and a number denoting your life count. Only when this hits zero are you transported back to your previous station without any of the disposable upgrades you once had.
If, by chance, you did lose a life, your weapons are downgraded instead of you having to restart the level, which allows for a much more fluent gameplay experience that is much welcomed compared to similar games. Most games remove your ship, stop your control inputs, respawns you in place and then re-enables your control scheme. Instead your spaceship flashes and you’re invulnerable for a short time while you can get to a better position to give you the time to recompose yourself.
If at any time you lose all of your lives during a mission, you are returned back to the station you were previously at. Thankfully, for those that struggle with these kinds of games you won’t have too much of a hard time as there is not any penalty for dying; just a reset and a loss of your expendable items.
After each story-based mission you enter the station that you were heading towards. Depending on the station that you are currently stationed in, you will see your resources and spaceship, missions available, and various other areas of the station at the bottom. When selecting a mission, the entire centre of the screen shows the mission details. If one of your quests, shown in the operations progress, is along a route to a station, then the mission details will highlight this.
The map screen allows the player to choose a route to get to another space station. By doing this they get to see the difficulty of the mission in-between the travel, the resources that they can acquire and the space station’s information, including what they can purchase for their spaceship. While this is all very simply laid out, it gives just the right information required for the player to continue on their way knowing what to expect when they arrive.
The only finicky thing about the network map is selecting the station in the first place. Too often have I pressed up or down only for it to highlight the ‘help’ button and having to go through the text tutorial over and over. Pressing left and right also randomly chooses a station and then goes to either the back or help button too. It would have been much easier to have a button used for back and help, then just simply have the analogue stick with the cross button to select the station you want to find information on.
You can keep constantly moving between different stations multiple times racking up your resources so that you can improve your ship and eventually take on harder routes. This is where the issue lies, and it’s a big issue. Unless you frequently check the map screen then choosing the wrong station to go to – even if it’s a level one difficulty route – will land you in an impossible situation where you have to simply restart the story mode because you can’t continue.
There is an instance right at the start where you can choose one of four missions to either: Arban, York, Durovnik, or Hamburg. The first campaign mission wants you to go along to Arban, so taking that is pretty simple, you arrive there and then all is done. Now here comes the difficult part. There are four more missions that you can choose, two of which are rated with a difficulty of 2 and the other two are rated at a difficulty of 3, so I decided to choose London and off I go.
I arrive at the station, get some upgrades, then noticed that there were three stations to choose from, each with a difficulty rating of 6, 8, and 9 respectively… surely not? A difficulty 2 to a difficulty 6? That right there becomes an impossible situation because the safest route back to a difficulty of even 3 is to take the difficulty of 6 which then leads to a difficulty of a 7! It is imperative to check your map and plan well in advance, find yourself a triangle route and stick to it until you get enough resources to power through the game easily. But doing that takes a long time, and it’s a required grind in order to not end up in a situation which leaves you restarting the entire game.
Once you have been grinding away you will need to spend your hard earned time on upgrades in order to survive that steep difficulty curve, and heading into the Station Store is the perfect place for it. You can purchase various weapons, secondary weapons (limited ammunition), decoys, and shields, plus the spaceship upgrade if it’s there. If you don’t have enough resources, then you can go to the resource trading screen to sell and buy various resources to help you purchase that item.
Going back to the issues with the control system in the game, not only is it present during gameplay and the map screen, but it’s even worse when it comes to the store, the resources, and even more so at the loadout screen before you set off on your way!
Pressing up or down should be predictable, but, just like the map screen, it seems to randomly choose an element before deciding that up and down work as intended. Then you have to scroll through every single box before you can get to the items in the store. Purchasing an item is a hair tearing experience too where you have to select the item, then move across to the ‘add to cart’ section, then scroll back to the items if you wanted to purchase something more.
Why this was done I don’t know but it would have been easier to have the details show up automatically when the item is selected Then, when pressing the item, have it automatically added to the cart instead of scrolling back and forth.
There is another simple exploit to the game based on the resource system too. Once you feel that you have enough money and you know you can safely get to a station without a problem, buy up all of the resources that are cheap on one station, and sell the whole lot at the station that’ll take it off your hands for a much higher cost. This removes a lot the grind and you can start upgrading your spaceship to the max in no time whatsoever. You can do this well before mission 10, in which case you’ll become almost invincible.
All-in-all Zotrix is a fun game to play, with lots of replay value and two modes that will keep you going for a good few hours. The sounds are nice and punchy, and the 80’s thumping soundtrack is brilliant. Unfortunately though, Zotrix is marred by the controls and a nightmare of a navigational user interface.