The byte-sized Serious Sam: The Random Encounter [Review]

25 Oct 2011  by   Paul Younger
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It’s pretty rare for me to receive a game in the morning and be writing up its review in the afternoon, but that’s where I found myself with Serious Sam: The Random Encounter. From that, you can ascertain that the game is not a lengthy one. In fact, before we go too much further, please take this thrilling spot quiz:

Serious Sam: The Random Encounter (TRE) costs $5 USD/£3.50 GBP and is roughly an hour and a half long. How does this make you feel?

(a) Outraged! For $5 the game should last much longer than that! A pox on you Vlambeer, may all your programming code turn to oatmeal.

(b) Well, that seems quite short, but some ‘AAA’ titles cost $60 and last about five hours so I suppose it depends how good the game is.

(c) Mitt Romney.

If you answered (a), then this game will not be for you. If you answered (c), you’ve somehow confused IncGamers.com with a Gallup poll (but political mavens can still enjoy TRE, it features lots of back-pedalling). People who answered (b), you’ll presumably be wanting to know whether the game is any cop.

Well, I certainly had a better time with it than with Serious Sam: Double D (an indie title, like this one, commissioned by Croteam to help promote Serious Sam 3), but the game doesn’t quite live up to the potential of its premise.

The pitching-it-to-bored-Hollywood-execs summary of TRE is this: Serious Sam as turn-based RPG battles. At the very least, that’s a concept laced with interest-piquing pheromones. Will Sam be smashing gnaars with an oversized sword, or donning a ridiculous hair sculpture that requires the full might of Pixar to animate it properly? Sadly … no, wait … Happily, he will not. Instead he’ll be tramping around top-down 2D maps collecting items from boxes and running into lots of (wait for it, here’s the title payoff) random encounters.

When these occur, Sam and his pals (you’ll pick up buddies Bim and Bam along the way) are transported to a turn-based, side-scrolling firefight. Each one plays out like a streamlined JRPG encounter, with player options limited to aiming one of Sam’s traditional guns (shotgun, rocket launcher and the like) at the right area of the screen, swapping to a different weapon, or using a special item.

Once you’ve made your choices for each party member, the action un-pauses for five seconds and your team furiously back-pedals away from the onrushing hordes while carrying out your orders. Having the characters run backwards in every single encounter is a simple joke, but, like several other visual gags and nods to Sam’s heritage in TRE, it’s keenly observed.

A modicum of tactical thought creeps in via the choice of weapon for each battle (shotguns work best at close quarters, while the cannon is devastating but needs a turn to charge up), and whether to risk swapping to a different firearm. Doing the latter eats up a couple of precious seconds, by which time you might have been sat on by a rampant kleer or twelve.

It’s technically possible to dodge incoming bullets by moving up or down the screen while you’re letting loose your own stream of gunpowder-propelled greetings cards, but this doesn’t last as a viable technique for avoiding damage. Around about the time when you have a small row of guys to control and enemy fire is covering roughly 90% of the screen it becomes close to useless.

For these later levels it’s necessary to have saved up your power-ups from earlier, otherwise you’re simply not going to get beyond them. Whipping out the ‘serious bomb’, dealing ‘serious damage’ or even calling upon hundreds of Kamikaze bombers can get you out of an otherwise hopeless situation, but if you used them cheaply, you’re in trouble. It doesn’t exactly help that every death starts your guys off without any of the armour they may have begun the level with. And by ‘it doesn’t exactly help’ I mean, ‘you may as well give up’.

During the last couple (out of nine) maps your ‘revive’ power-up also becomes utterly pointless. In any late-level situation where you’re needing to bring a couple of guys back to life, it’ll just revive them in front of a rampaging horde. Which is a bit Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life in the middle of the sun.

Impressive, sure, but not very helpful.

Finishing the main game unlocks an ‘Endless Mode’ whose name serves as a succinct and useful description of what it entails. While the combat in TRE is smart and punchy enough when serving as a means to an end (journeying through time to shoot antagonists in the face), it didn’t really grab me enough to want to exhaust a challenge mode.

So although Vlambeer’s pixel art is delightful, and despite the chiptune score doing its damndest to keep an upbeat tone, it’s going to be tricky to stop your mind wandering to the question “did I really get my money’s worth here?” TRE is fun while it lasts; but it doesn’t last very long. At all. And it’s rarely a good sign for the summary of a game to be synonymous with punch-lines for lazy sex jokes.

The next query to float through your brain chamber will probably be “so when is Serious Sam 3 coming out, anyway?” That may be the outcome Croteam intended when they sponsored these titles in the first place.

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