While the PS Vita is already struggling with new retail releases only months after its release, at least indie publishers are finding good use for the system, and StarDrone Extreme is one of the more refreshing titles I’ve played on the handheld since its launch. Mixing gameplay elements from pinball and breakout with intergalactic inertia-free space-based puzzle levels, prepare for something wickedly clever and terribly addictive.
StarDrone Extreme comes loaded with 60+ levels, ten of which are exclusive to the PS Vita. The goals in each level vary from collecting a certain amount of stars to destroying all the enemies or merely reaching the end within a certain time limit. You are ranked on your thoroughness and speed with bronze, silver, and gold medals, some of which are nearly impossible to obtain but incredibly fun to keep on trying.
Each level starts with you aiming and launching your ship much like the start of a pinball game, and just like pinball, what happens next is completely left to physics and a bit of chance. Scattered about each level are gravity beacons that you can attach to by touching them on the screen. For as long as you hold down you will orbit this beacon often allowing you to collect stars and plan your orbital escape trajectory. A short line indicates your launch direction, and you usually need to aim for another beacon or down some narrow space corridor to reach your next objective.
Some levels are out in the vastness of space and if you miss your next beacon you will drift out into deep space and have to restart the level. Other levels take place in tight interiors made up of linear and curved passages, often loaded with hazards that you must avoid, all the while collecting stars and trying to reach the exit in record time. In later levels you will have blocked passages that require you to find a color-coded key in order to pass. There are also turbo strips that will shoot you forward at great velocity and crystal shards you can smash through to reach new areas.
StarDrone Extreme is entirely touch-based from the menus to the gameplay. You touch and drag to launch your ship and then it’s just a series of taps and holds to orbit the various beacon until you eventurally reach the exit or complete the puzzle's goal. The game’s unique physics engine does everything else. The touchscreen is the default control scheme, but I found that my finger was always blocking my view of the game and interfering with me accurately breaking orbit at my desired angle.
The rear touch pad is a much better alternative, allowing you an unobstructed view of the game as well as minimizing fingerprints. There are two modes for the rear pad; the first requires you to touch the pad behind the beacon location. For those who have a problem “seeing through” their Vita you can go with the other mode that allows you to tap anywhere on the rear pad and the game will use its own special “prediction algorithm” to tether you to the beacon nearest your ship. It seems to work 99.5% of the time.
StarDrone Extreme looks really good on the Vita with a classic old-school arcade visual vibe not unlike Arkanoid or even an arcade shooter like R-Type. Some of the levels are enormous and a semi-transparent mini-map will show your screen location within the big picture. The rest of the HUD is minimal with score, timer, and health. The animation is fluid and fast and there are some impressive special effects and sparkly explosions that really make the Vita’s OLED screen shine. The sound effects are predictably arcade in nature with a bit of a sci-fi edge, although they do get repetitive if you play the game for any extended period. The music is also good, yet equally as predictable and repetitive. It would have been nice to have a custom soundtrack option so I could play my own music.
You can get StarDrone Extreme for $4 and it’s going to take you weeks to finish and months to master. Some of the levels are seemingly impossible, leading to my only real complaint; a lack of difficulty progression, as some insanely difficult puzzles are early in the game followed by others that are incredibly easy. Still, each attempt is always unique and different thanks to a complex physics engine and intuitive touch-gameplay.
If you’ve been looking for a reason to blow the dust off your Vita then check out StarDrone Extreme. It’s a great bargain for a whole lotta game, and the relatively short mission structure is perfect for portable gaming. You can knock out most missions in two minutes or less, but don’t be surprised to find yourself still playing this game for months to come.