Video games, like all forms of art, benefit from discordant notes, from setting up a familiar scheme or template and then, at the last minute, zigging when the viewer expects a zag.
That might be the easiest way to explain the appeal of “Point Perfect,” a quirky side-scrolling shoot-’em-up newly released for PC (available on Steam) by Highcastle Studios. Sidescrolling shoot-’em-ups, for the uninitiated, usually involve controlling a small spaceship, fighting waves of enemies, and dodging endless obstacles, all while trying to collect powerups to aid in your survivability.
All of which is the case here, save for a pretty big twist: Your mouse cursor is your ship, and you have to keep it moving frantically to avoid an inventive array of things trying to kill you. And unlike most games in this genre, you can’t simply hit a button to shoot a weapon at your enemies. Instead, you have to drag a box around one or more of them — think about how you select multiple files on your desktop — to summon some unseen weapon’s projectiles. (You can’t draw the box too big, though, at least not without collecting some upgrades, or it will turn from green to red and be useless until you reduce it to the right size.)
It makes for very challenging gameplay. Following the usual protocols of the genre — learning enemy attack patterns, figuring out when to go on the offensive to score more points and when to simply survive a particularly rough wave of foes — is more tricky than usual as a result of the novel system of control and combat. It is almost like switching to manual after a lifetime of driving automatic: The fundamentals are the same, but there are some added steps that, if you mess them up or do them out of order, will grind things to a halt pretty quickly.
It’s not that the gameplay of “Point Perfect” is all that complicated, it’s just that it gives the game such a different feel from the sidescrolling shoot-’em-ups of the past. Killing enemies is much more satisfing here since it requires not just shooting a steady stream of projectiles, but actually putting yourself in harm’s way to get that box drawn. The very difficult “boss” enemies at the ends of levels, especially, provided some interesting spatial-reasoning conundrums — how do you quickly get close enough and attack at the right angle to draw that box, all while dodging projectiles?
The game is presented in the low-resolution, 8-bit retro style that is all the rage these days. It’s not the most original approach, but the developers did a nice job breathing life into this pixel-y world. There are old-school touches throughout, such as the crude (in execution more than content) animations that taunt you when you lose. The music, too, is the stuff of retro bleeps and bloops.
For a game that is relatively small, “Point Perfect” feels replayable, partially because it’s so tough, partially because many elements such as the bosses are randomized, and partly because it’s addictive. I kept wanting to beat my high score, and the choice of three different “perks” at the beginning of each level (such as an extra life or an expanded targeting range) encouraged tactical experimentation. There are a bunch of trophies, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.
All in all, “Point Perfect” lends support to the idea that if you’re a talented enough developer, you really can build a whole game — albeit a small one — around a single innovative gameplay element. Because it feels small and a bit thrown-together, I kept expecting myself to put “Point Perfect” down, to cease with my frantic box-drawing. But I didn’t, and the developers deserve credit for keeping me hooked.Jesse Singal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.