Xbox Live Indie Games has made itself a haven for various things, not all of them good. It’s particularly infamous for the malformed abominations churned out by certain apathetic developers with a taste for easy money. Among the more worthwhile types of game that have made the indie channel their home are retro 2D shooters and genre-twisting experiments. Birth Order grabs at both of these and hopes for the best.
I never really got into scrolling shooters the first time round. The likes of R-Type were mighty names that loomed on the fringes of my gaming awareness but never crossed my path. In that sense, I come to XBLIG shooters as a combination of fresh-faced shooter newbie and wizened gaming veteran. To my eye, Birth Order manages to do a lot of things right and I applaud its efforts.
From the outset Birth Order plays its cards close to its chest. The short tutorial explains the basic shooting mechanic well enough – enemies are marked with an image of one of the face buttons, and you must press the corresponding button to shoot at them. Your weapon auto-aims at the relevant enemies, leaving you free to focus on dodging incoming fire and deciding which enemy types to prioritise. Weirdly, this is the only thing the tutorial shows; all the other features and quirks have to be worked out for yourself. None of it is particularly baffling, but it’s an odd choice to have a tutorial that explains nothing except the one thing that doesn’t really need explanation.
Beyond the tutorial you find yourself on a game board, which is where the ‘Huh?’ moments begin. Each space represents a level, and you must survive these levels to pass beyond them. The entire board is hidden, except for a small area surrounding you, and another area that’s surrounded by locks. It’s mentioned in passing that you’re hunting your brother, but this has no connection to anything the game has told you so far. No explanation is given as to why you want your brother dead, or why he’s surrounded himself with locks then scattered the keys all over the world. Well, I suppose maybe you don’t want him dead. I’ve assumed you do, but maybe it’s just your birthday and this is some kind of large-scale treasure hunt that your sibling concocted for you. That would explain the Birth Order title. Either that or he’s demanding that you reproduce – but we don’t want to go there…
The other odd feature that’s never really discussed is cards. It doesn’t take long to notice that enemies occasionally drop what appear to be playing cards, and it’s absolutely imperative to pick these up whenever possible. Your card collection can make the difference between success and failure, not just overall but in each individual level. Cards are accessed from the map/board screen, and have a variety of effects. Most will give you a bonus effect for one level, such a shield or a drone that grants you additional firepower. With no way to tell which levels will be tranquil walks in the park and which will be auditions for Ikaruga, you have to guess based on gut instinct, and it can be frustrating to use your last shield card on a level that a sleepwalking five year old could have completed playing only with their feet.
Other cards are more permanent. They might expand your ship, lay waste to a section of the board or bestow some of the mysterious stars that you’ll collect throughout the game (it’s not clear what stars do, but they’re shiny). Perhaps the most important form of card can only be obtained from the bosses that roam the board like belligerent drunks looking for a fight with the birthday boy. Assuming you can take them down (which often requires a card or two, at least for me) you’ll gain a key card which removes one of the locks around your brother’s treehouse—er, I mean evil lair.
I don’t know what happens once all the locks are gone, because I’ve never got that far. Birth Order is hard, let’s not be coy about it. The weird part of the difficulty is that it’s so erratic. The exact layout of the board and the contents of each level are randomised each time you play, so although the game does broadly start get harder as you go along, sometimes the first few levels will be surprisingly brutal just thanks to the randomisation factor.
Despite its quirks of unpredictable difficulty and lack of explanation, Birth Order is easy to recommend to those of you who enjoy 2D shooters. Even those who don’t might find enjoyment here anyway thanks to the replacement of shooter standards with button-matching and card-collecting elements. At 80 Microsoft points, Birth Order is both one of the better XBLIG shooters and one of the more successful gameplay experiments.
If you ever figure out why we’re meant to kill/hug/impregnate our brother, let me know…