The moment when I find people of color proudly featured in a video game title screen, I take immediate notice — especially when they are the dominant presence. So when I read a Kill Screen feature on the release of the new Laser Disco Defenders game, I couldn’t believe I never heard a single peep about it before. As it turns out, developer Out of Bounds only announced the game in March, and here we are looking at a brisk path to an August release.
Functionally, Laser Disco Defenders is a score-attack, twin-stick, bullet-hell arcade shooter, with a vibrant but minimalist art style reminiscent of a Cartoon Network show from the ‘90s. The aesthetic is largely beholden to the “Space Disco” genre, and the four playable characters include a solitary white male (given the rarity of this description in games, it’s worth mentioning). That being said, there isn’t a terrible amount to say about the game’s racial representation: the characters are simplistic, iconic, and, well, they are there. That’s really as far as any representation topics progress here, and while the Afrofuturist content amounts to little more than set dressing, it’s socially aware set dressing all the same.
LDD is hard, but I wish I could chalk that up solely to the elegance of its systems. You begin Story Mode from the same first level every time — the Crystal Caves — which leads you through nine procedurally generated bite-sized maps before shifting to the next area. Laser turrets are the most frequent enemy, but there are some other entities that emerge, including guitar-swinging critters and a Laser Lancer that delights in reflecting projectiles with its shield. Opening the portal to the next level requires complete extermination, but the maps are usually direct, and move you through each chamber of enemies with minimal backtracking.
Completing achievements unlock clothing options — providing the only gameplay alteration, as there are no item drops aside from the occasional health pickup — and these outfits and accessories grant some thoughtful changes to the way you approach a playthrough, including adjusted gravity (moon boots, of course) or a gaudy medallion that protects you from a single hit before breaking.
Sadly, the major antagonist of the game is its controls. Twitchy, hair-triggered, and fickle, I would compare them to Vlambeer’s Vita port of Nuclear Throne, in that precision is nigh impossible on the device. This is because you will often nudge your aiming reticle ever so slightly when pressing a shoulder button, due to the dimensions and weight of the PS Vita. In Nuclear Throne, this is alleviated by aim-adjust options, certain homing weapons, and the general chunkiness of most projectiles, but these options and qualities aren’t available here.
Your aim is also compromised by the 2D-platformer movement, which never quite aligns with the gameplay; it’s almost like LDD wants to be an omnidirectional shooter, but sports floaty gravity mechanics that never support the agility expected of the player.
When you’re boosting through the game and attempting to aim at an enemy, you’ll often wriggle your (finger) gun’s axis when you shoot. Through considerable practice you can compensate to manage this offset, but it never stops feeling fiddly and inexact. It also doesn’t help that pointing your aim directly above you rattles your aim even more, as the game tries to decide if you’re looking up and to the left, or up and to the right.
The most interesting system is the permanence of the lasers themselves, since every single shot fired will never disappear, bouncing and cavorting throughout the level, damaging enemies and yourself if you’re not careful. Combining these lasers with the enemy’s own quickly turns most levels into erratically blooming shards of light. For the most part, this is an inspired idea, and compels you to want to make each laser count — which is another reason the aiming issues detailed above seem so pervasive. When you factor in the way that the screen continuously reorients in the direction of your aim — perhaps another nod to Nuclear Throne, as the camera positioning feels identical here – you set yourself up for countless off-screen laser surprises to your backside.
I’ve spent quite a number of hours navigating through LDD’s colorful early levels, and while never successfully reaching the third biome, the game is infectious after all is said and done, from the upbeat soundtrack and character design to the satisfaction of keeping a high multiplier rolling. It gets under your skin with a case of “one-more-game-itis,” mesmerizing and rewarding in its best moments, in spite of its faulty accuracy. While Laser Disco Defenders has become a permanent install on my Vita which I intend to eventually complete, I would sympathize with the player who chooses to put it down after missing a half-dozen laser blasts on a stationary turret.
Note: Played through the first two areas several dozen times – never quite got to level 12. Review copy of the game on PS Vita provided by publisher. I still have it installed, let’s see how far I get.
Moving on, Alexander Birke of Out of Bounds Games took some precious time to answer a few questions from Black Girl Nerds:
BGN: My first question is about the Afrofuturist qualities in the game. The culture of these characters is a vibrant detail for a video game, a medium where people of color are often not the standout, and rarely portrayed as leaders. Recently, Ubisoft’s announcement for Watch Dogs 2 caught attention for being another new release where a person of color is the primary (if not solitary) controllable protagonist.
Did you consider the political weight of Laser Disco Defenders‘ character representation? Is it primarily an aesthetic choice, or was there a deliberate decision made to provide this take on action-game protagonists for a statement? If it didn’t start that way, do you feel it has evolved into any kind of a political statement as we approach its release?
Alexander Birke: Having persons of colors in the game is the result of an organic process. As you can read in the devlog the placeholder art I made myself was with the classical John Travolta-inspired disco dude in a leisure suit which ended up being Tommy named after a Danish disco star. It was very much affected by the exposure to disco I had growing up in Denmark.
I do believe it’s important to do proper research when you are making a game so I also immersed myself in the music and culture of disco. I didn’t actually know how much disco owed to African American culture before I saw a documentary on Soul Train. When Daisy was coming up with the characters, I told her to make them as visually different as possible and based on the research I had done she came up with Baker and the rest of the characters.
For a while Tommy was still the leader mainly because he was the first character I came up with myself, but as we got to know the characters more it became clear that he was the Spock of the crew while Baker had all the characteristics of a leader so it made sense to put him front and center. His visual design is also much more captivating so that’s why he is also used in all the logos for the game. Donna also started out being caucasian, but we decided to change her skin tone since it just seemed more true to the source material. Because it’s disco, it just felt like the right thing to do and I am happy that the game can have a cultural impact in this way. The fact you have picked up on it is a testament to this.
I actually think diversity leads to good game design since it makes characters stand more out from each other which makes the game easier to read. I play Overwatch a lot and that game has strong silhouettes in the character design. A big part of that comes down to them trying to make the background, race and gender of their characters as diverse as possible.
Was there something about Vita production that was decided early on in the campaign? I’m (personally) a lover of the Vita with an interest on the dimensions and light weight of it, the excellent battery life with the newer model, and the superb screen and its visibility. However, my main reason for using it lately has been its expanding library of indie titles both old and new, a creative roster which Laser Disco Defenders joins in a few days.
What are your views on the system itself? Are you releasing on it because of its growing momentum as an access point for players of indie games, and/or for any other reasons?
Why Vita? When Excalibur Publishing and I was negotiating what platforms to launch on they wanted Vita along with PS4 and PC. The reason for this is that the more platforms you are on the more visibility you get. The Vita is a good fit for the game as well. With the two analog joysticks that are surprisingly precise for their size and the shoulder buttons it is really the only handheld the game works on.
We decided to release on the Vita first because it would allow me to optimize and adjust the gameplay to what the Vita’s hardware can handle instead of having to cut features out if we did the Vita version as the last one. it also felt good to give the Vita players a game first for a change. It’s been nice to see how excited Vita players are for the game.
The game seems to be focused on challenging the player, and features elements of bullet hell and procedural difficulty evolution. Lately there’s been some attention to what Danielle Riendeau refers to as “difficulty fetishization” in gaming. How do you see this concept in the current gaming landscape, and how do you think of your game in comparison to others? Do you play any challenging games right now, and have any of them influenced the development of Laser Disco Defenders?
I think the recent popularity in difficult games has come after a period where games tried to appeal to as many people as possible. The success of Dark Souls is probably a big factor that made it popular to challenge the player again. A lot of indie games have focused on difficulty because it is something they can deliver on while AAA games still need to ensure they have a wide appeal. However I didn’t focus on creating a difficult game with LDD but something with a great flow to it.
If you take your time, the game is a lot easier but you won’t get as high a score since your multiplier will run out. That’s how I have tried to make the game challenging while still giving the player some room to make it easier for themselves if they need it. I think that is one of the best ways to handle it really, award the player on a sliding scale of how well they do instead of just having it be a victory/lose condition. The 3 star level rating you find in so many games now is a good example of this.
Another problem is fluctuation in difficulties. I love rogue-likes such as FTL and Darkest Dungeon but one thing that annoys me in a lot them is that the level generation and loot system are too random, so the difficulty fluctuates a lot from run to run. It is part of the appeal since it forces you to try out new strategies but it can also easily become unfair. I played a fair amount of Enter The Gungeon and while the game is really solid in how it presents itself it just varied too much in the loot and level generation so many runs would be too hard.
During the design of LDD, I actually had to put a lot of effort into the level generation to make sure I could make levels that had a consistent difficulty. It’s also why there’s no loot system in the game and the player picks their items from the start. It also fits better with the disco theme that the player chooses an outfit before they head out onto the dance floor, so to speak.
Leonardo Faierman was born in Buenos Aires, raised in Queens, on the playground was where he planned most of my schemes. He writes video game and music reviews, poetry, comic books, bad dreams and good copy. NYC is his serpentine loa. Check out his website, Snowdazecomic.com.