Simplicity is a concept that few games can pull off without being called "simple." Gamers consider the term derogatory rather than a badge of honor. It's this much maligned adjective that has come to define the best and brightest of the twin-stick shooter genre. Giants of the field such as Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 have proven that to be brilliant, a dual-joystick shooter must do a few things perfectly rather than everything well. Waves subscribes to this theory admirably, succeeding in creating a sense of easy to learn, hard to master while carving out its own identity in a bloated and overcrowded genre.
Describing Waves in layman's terms will do nothing to distinguish it from the tepid dime-a-dozen releases that use the right-stick for more than aiming. The striking thing about Waves is its restraint rather than its features. Waves has five modes, four buttons, three in-game songs, zero tutorials, and an abundance of variously colored hexagons. Its spartan arsenal of features belies its sense of focus.
You have three tools to succeed and plant your score at the top of the leaderboards: a slow-motion meter, an area-of-effect bomb available after you reach a combo of x10, and your right stick that handles the shooting. Using a keyboard is not advised under any circumstance; not only will you fail miserably, but you will be doing an insulting disservice to the refined controls that a gamepad offers.
"Hexagons, meet Geometry Wars."
Each mode pertains to developing skills. What Waves deals in is skill and reflexes rather than the weapon management or strategy. The crux of the game lies in the aptly titled "Crunch Time," where you are given three minutes to attain your highest score. The other modes serve to develop your muscle memory to help you perform where it matters while being legitimately engaging in their own right.
"Rush" and "Bombing Run" emphasize the importance of building combos and effective control of your spherical ship's physics respectively (the latter being a bit of a sticking point for a Geometry Wars fan like myself), while Challenge mode teaches the player the importance of time and combo efficiency. "Survival" is pretty self-explanatory, but it gets to the sheer craziness that is Waves at its best in a matter of seconds. Although the modes are an effective teaching method, the combination of them and the tool tips aren't enough to educate the player organically about the core systems, forcing even a genre fan such as myself to resort to the Hints and Tips section to find out how combos work. Even a one-off tutorial would have helped in this regard.
Player information aside, Waves boils down to rote muscle memory and instinct. There are ways of exploiting combos and slow-mo for survival and a great score, but predominantly, Waves is played via the seat of one's pants. In every mode you kill geometric enemies that increase your level; with each level gained (and the shower of "Woot!"s that accompany them) the number of enemies grows. More enemies means more insanity plus brightly colored explosions, which equals more fun, and Waves is supremely capable at ramping up the intensity according to this formula.
Just because Waves is a Geometry Wars "clone" does not mean it fails to rise above its inspirations.
The enemies do plenty to ratchet up the white-knuckle high-points of Waves, being color-coded to denote their behaviurs which range from the unpredictable to the aggressive. The element of pure luck is something more complex games have difficulty recreating, yet Waves elicits it on a consistent basis due to the erratic nature of your adversaries.
Waves' leanness and restraint is exemplified in its graphical presentation. Although art design is never something one would normally attribute to a twin-stick shooter, Waves possesses a striking aesthetic. There's a heavy nightclub-meets-hexagons vibe which matches the hyperbolic, thumping electronica that complements the explosive showers of vibrant particles. It's a shame that there are only three tracks – only one of which that remains truly memorable – as they contribute immensely to the game's offbeat and crazy tone. The demonstrably British quips that populate the menu text and score comments do much to atone for this blunder. "John Woo loves this game he does."
Where plenty of small scale games like this attempt to do more and rarely succeed in doing it superbly, Waves keeps its horizons narrow and simple. In other genres, this would be a slight upon a game's name, but within the realm of dual-joystick shooters, you won't find a more tightly focused release this side of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2.
Publisher: Squid in a Box
Developer: Squid in a Box
Release Date: November 16, 2011
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)