I have a deep, abiding love for top-down, twin-stick shooters. I love the power-ups and the spray shots and the strafing and that sweet feeling of taking down a wall of enemies with just a sliver of health to spare. Unfortunately, Zotrix doesn't seem to understand on a very fundamental level what makes my heart go all pitter-patter for those games.
At first glance, Zotrix seems just like a typical arcade space-shooter. The gameplay is pretty much what you would expect from the genre. You'll spend your time zipping around the lower third of the screen, dodging incoming bullets and collecting temporary gun power-ups as a torrential downpour of bullet hell-style enemies swarm in from all sides. Between levels, you'll have an opportunity to browse a shop and purchase more permanent upgrades and items for your ship. There are several types of items available including shield generators and secondary weapons like missiles and drones, but you'll quickly discover that all but the most expensive items are relatively useless. Instead of innovating in its gameplay, Zotrix tries to shake things up by introducing a Story Mode.
After the destruction of their Mars base by an alien race known only as the Zotrix, the remnants of the human race set out to explore the rest of the solar system. As a newly recruited space commander, your assignment is to ensure the safe transport of resources and cargo between space stations. You'd think with that premise that Zotrix would be populated by irritating escort missions, but rather fortuitously, the space freighter that appears alongside you in each mission is totally unaffected by anything on screen. Unfortunately, the missions that do appear in Zotrix's Story Mode can be condensed down into a simple "go here, then go there" formula. You'll find yourself moving from one area to another with only the very weakest of explanations for your travels. With no likeable characters to root for or observable consequences to your actions, Zotrix's Story Mode lacks a sense of urgency.
Zotrix tries very hard to find a workable combination of its arcade action and its interstellar micromanagement system, but the balancing of resources is frankly atrocious. Missions award credits and resources, both essential for buying permanent upgrades in the shop. Two or so hours into the game, you'll find yourself awash in credits but begging for even a handful of resources. So to get the resources that you need, you'll need to take on yet another mission to go to yet another space station that happens to have a better credit-to-resource trade ratio. Once you complete that mission, you are awarded even MORE credits, further compounding the balance issues. This cycle of mission to spaceport to mission never really ends and you quickly find yourself questioning if it's really all worth the trouble.
But the issues with Zotrix don't stop there. When you aren't dealing with the boring quests of Story Mode, you find yourself contending with the game's lackluster controls. When strafing, instead of maintaining your direction of fire as is customary in twin-stick shooters, the shooting direction adjusts with your movement. This makes accurately targeting incoming enemies a tremendous hassle as you'll be constantly readjusting your firing hand every time you move. To make matters worse, Zotrix has some intense difficulty spikes. Small waves of enemies will unexpectedly give rise to unavoidable swarms. So collecting power-ups isn't just a nice bonus, it's a requirement for finishing most levels. More often than not, once you've doubled up on your firepower you'll just find yourself hunkering down in a corner and spraying bullets across the screen to deal with incoming enemies.
If you are at all familiar with classic bullet hell games, you'll know that tactic shouldn't work for long, as bullets will eventually reach you, necessitating carefully dodging. But in Zotrix, your bullets can hit other bullets. Yes, you read that right. You can shoot bullets with your bullets. This oversight feels almost like a slap in the face when coupled with the myriad of other problems with the game.
The secondary Arcade Mode might be the only redeeming factor for Zotrix. Gameplay remains the same, but Arcade Mode removes the need for credits and resources, opting instead to allow you to spend your score points on one of four randomly-selected upgrades or items between levels. The removal of the fiddle-faddling with resources is a welcome breath of fresh air. If you're looking to have fun blowing stuff up in space, Arcade Mode is far superior to Story Mode.
Graphically, Zotrix is nothing to write home about. Some of the pixel art is kind of nice in a retro way, but the most accurate descriptor for the game's overall visual aesthetic is "inconsistent". It doesn't seem to know if it wants to emulate an early Windows game or a 1990's arcade game and the end result feels cheap. The music is possibly the highlight of the game's presentation. Its groovy techno vibe may not match the game's hodgepodge of art direction, but at least it's something pleasant to listen to as you mow down enemies.
Finally, Zotrix started out as PC game, originally releasing on Steam in July of 2015, and nowhere is that fact more obvious than in its abysmal menu system. Zotrix is incredibly poorly adapted for a PlayStation 4 release, neglecting to implement the very basics of navigable menu design. Trying to select parts to purchase in the store is like trying to get an unruly toddler to take a nap. The D-pad fights you every step of the way, moving your selection across the screen seemingly at random. With the variety of wonderful adaptations from PC to PS4, there is simply no excuse for this level of dysfunction. If the developer didn't want to rework the menu system for a mouseless platform, they should have looked into porting this to the Wii U instead.
Zotrix really is the game incarnation of the old adage "jack of all trades, master of none". Stuffed with needless resource-trading and redundant missions, Zotrix neglects what makes an arcade shooter fun. Considering the four or so months the game spent in Steam Early Access and the time the developer had to refine and polish before releasing on PS4, Zotrix should be a hard pass for anyone but the most adamant of arcade enthusiasts.
- + Arcade Mode fixes a lot of what doesn't work with Story Mode
- + Solid techno soundtrack
- - Godawful menu UI and game controls
- - Base gameplay lacks polish and appeal
- - Poor balancing leads to repetition and frustration