We're all old and wise enough to know better than to expect great software at a console's launch, right? Sure, sometimes we get lucky and end up with a really great new game or two on day one, but for the most part buying a console the instant it debuts is about bragging rights and banking on future prospects, not about locking down an instant library of must-have classics for the ages.
With our expectations thus tempered, we don't have to talk ourselves into believing that the shiny new PlayStation 4's launch lineup consists of anything more than lightweight diversions that we'll almost certainly never revisit once the console's library matures. Fittingly, then, the most entertaining original title in PlayStation 4's launch day library has no ambition to be anything but a lightweight diversion. Housemarque's Resogun is comfortable in its own skin, and that skin is quite lovely. However, it's stretched across a frame that looks suspiciously similar to the arcade classic Defender.
Yes, at heart, Resogun is little more than a simple shooter from 1982 designed to be played in two-minute spurts (two minutes if you were good; Defender was crazy hard). You fly around a cylinder and can only shoot in two directions. You can drop a limited number of bombs and use a super-attack. And... that's it. That's all there is to Resogun.
And that's all Resogun aims to be. It aspires to deliver a preposterously splashy take on old-school arcade action, and it succeeds admirably. Resogun doesn't need cutting-edge next-gen hardware to be great; the core action could easily run on ancient arcade hardware reasonably well. It offers a bare minimum of features: A handful of stages, three ships, two modes of play, and leaderboards.
All the extra power the PS4 offers does not in any way improve the substance of this game. The developers' choice of platform does not result in any kind of interesting design or mechanical innovations. There's no clever motion control, no brilliant online features, no inventive use of the Dual Shock 4 touch pad. You just fly back and forth and shoot stuff. All the PS4 does is make the whole affair look intensely hyperactive.
Resogun owes as much to Geometry Wars and its ilk as it does Defender; the flashy twin-stick shooters of last gen live on here, but now there's even more pizzazz and visual noise to befuddle your poor eyes. What used to be flat effects that simply cast rays of light have become chunky voxels: 3D particles that cause the screen to ripple as fragments of vanquished gush forth in frothy waves of tiny cubes, spilling across the ground and off the sides of the playable area. Dozens of enemies work their way across the screen at any given time, spraying bullets and shedding light, and the overwhelming visual stimulus is part of the experience. It's busy, needlessly so, but that's kind of the point.
And Resogun channels the spirit of Defender neatly, making for a game that's about more than just shredding squadrons of enemy fighters. At various times, foes called "Keepers" emerge to snatch imprisoned human survivors from their pens and spirit them away to god knows what kind of fate. It behooves you to prevent Keepers from absconding with their prey, since humans that you manage to rescue tend to reward you with special perks.
While the rescue element may not be particularly original, it elevates Resogun to something more than a mere shooter. Keepers can appear far from your current position, even simultaneously, forcing you to scramble to reach them before they escape the playing field with a captive in their clutches. And a liberated human doesn't simply grant you points; they drop to the ground level of the playing field and run about madly, forcing you to track them down and collect them... something made rather more difficult by the fact that your ship's bullets (which you should be firing at all times, because it's that kind of game) will fling humans into the air, where they can potentially fall into dangerous spots and die.
As a shooter, Resogun is as tough as you want it to be (beginning with "fairly intense" at its easiest levels and running up to "white-knuckled madness" at more advanced levels); but dodging enemy fire isn't too unreasonably difficult. The difficulty creeps in when you start worrying about protecting and collecting humans, as your need to reach them in the available window of time (sometimes as short as a couple of seconds) will often cause you to play sloppily and make stupid, fatal mistakes -- just like chasing a roaming power-up in a Super Mario game. Even if you know better intellectually, the urgency of the situation will get the better of you. The trick to victory in Resogun is less about insane reflexes and more about discipline.
The one downside to Resogun's mission of defense is that knowing which newly spawned enemy is a Keeper can often be baffling. Many Keepers enter the field of play along a fine green filigree of light, and gunning them down yields an obvious liberated human. But at other times, you won't be able to tell which enemy poses the threat, and you'll find yourself frustrated as you're told a human has been lost before you can even pin down the danger. On the other hand, occasionally you'll find you've liberated a human without even realizing it. So that's nice.
Minor frustrations with visual cues and clutter aside, Resogun aces its simple ambitions. It's immediate, accessible, and thrillingly difficult. The wicked challenge of protecting vulnerable humans without smashing into an enemy or losing your combo counter gives Resogun that most precious quality among arcade-style diversions: The ability to worm its way into your mind and keep you coming back again and again.