Rochard review: Saddle up for adventure in space


[originally posted at Total PlayStation]

The metaphor of outer space as the old western frontier is not a new concept – “space westerns” have been represented numerous times in many forms of media, and it’s not hard to see why. The emptiness of space makes for a fitting analog to the open prairies, and the rugged loner archetypes of the old west feel as natural in the cockpit of a spaceship as on the saddle of a horse. From its opening sequence, Rochard sets the tone immediately with a country blues tune, and it takes the metaphor one degree further with its main character, John Rochard (voiced by His Dukeness, Jon St. John), a good ol’ boy space miner filling the role of the lone cowboy. He’s down on his luck – what western hero isn’t? – and his company desperately needs a big find. Of course, he gets his break, but not without a whole mess of trouble.

While the game will take you to several different locations across a stretch of the galaxy, there’s no vehicle flying or combat to speak of. Rochard is strictly a 2D platformer with a heavy focus on shooting, gravity manipulation and physics puzzles. John’s weapon of choice, the combination G-Lifter and Rock Blaster, is a marriage of two iconic video game weapons: Gordon Freeman’s Gravity Gun and Master Chief’s Covenant Plasma Rifle. Through the levels you’ll find several upgrades for your items, giving John a wider range of abilities and tools to call on as he shoots up space police and tries to save his company and coworkers. Grabbing objects with your G-Lifter and shooting them in various directions is simple, intuitive and plenty of fun, especially when you direct a big crate straight into the head of an incoming enemy. The other basics of gameplay, such as reducing gravity’s effects to increase your jumping ability, also feel natural and engaging. It’s certainly a pity that the two most fun upgrades, the grappling hook and the ability to sling around your human enemies, only arrive late in the adventure.

Rochard is a short game. I beat its five chapters in a little over five hours, and indeed, there is a trophy for rushing to the closing credits in under three. Each chapter has its own unique look and feel as you traverse your way through space mining facilities, space mine shafts and space casinos complete with space Indians. It feels like a perfectly acceptable length for a game of its scope and ambitions, and not a moment of it feels tired or rehashed as the level design and obstacles are clever and not repetitious to the point of tedium. Rochard ushers you along at a well-paced canter, introducing new concepts to keep things fresh just as you’re beginning to feel that the previous concepts have worn out their novelty.

However, the novelty might wear thin in some of the harder rooms. I found myself retrying a few locations over and over again, and the load times between each attempt tried my patience at times. As the game progresses, your enemies come loaded with increasingly stronger firepower while your health bar, even with upgrades, doesn’t seem to keep pace, meaning your deaths will come more quickly and frequently toward the end of the game.

Speaking of the end, Rochard’s is as abrupt as it is telegraphing a sequel. The story takes a weird if predictable turn, and the exposition along the way isn’t all that interesting. Your companions feel more like cardboard cutouts filling requisite roles, as the story doesn’t spend enough time establishing believable relationships between the characters. When (spoilers!) a tertiary character dies near the beginning of the game, the effect felt more heavy-handed than weighty, as my predominant thought through the scene was, “Who is this guy again?” The antagonist’s motivation feels similarly contrived, as he goes through the evil motions apparently for the sake of being evil. There was one notably long cutscene that overstayed its welcome, but thankfully you can skip them whenever you please, which is especially merciful when you die immediately following one and have to rewatch it each time.

Though it has a few mild shortcomings, Rochard is a compelling adventure that stays fresh and interesting from start to finish. Sure, some of the longer rooms might feel a little unfair, there are a couple cheap puzzles and the amount of time you spend in low-gravity can sometimes make the game feel like it plays in slow motion, but those small quibbles are easily forgiven in the face of fundamentally fun gameplay, attractive art direction, some great late-game puzzles, strong voice acting and a fantastic soundtrack. Developer Recoil Games should be commended for such an effort, and at just $9.99 on the PlayStation Store, your commendation is easy to give.