Review: Black Paradox

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Review copy provided by developer via Curator Connect

I admit it, I’m a sucker for the whole 80s retro-future thing that’s been going on for a few years. Maybe it’s because I was one of those kids that would stay up too late watching inscrutable cyberpunk anime movies, maybe it’s because I treasured my Trapper Keeper above all other belongings, I don’t know. But whatever the reason, it drew me to the garish stars and junker space cars of Black Paradox like a moth to a neon flame. Presentation counts for a lot but this brutal shmup has way more to offer than just looks, teasing out its insane bullet-hell spectacles over seven levels of tantalizing difficulty.

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You are the titular Black Paradox, stylishly-helmed and leather-suited bounty hunter traveling the cosmos in your space DeLorean. The Hellraisers are, well, raising hell I guess, so it’s up to you to blow away their interstellar armada and bring them to justice on the business end of a laser cannon. You’ll have plenty more weapons at your disposal besides lasers, of course, along with drones, boosts, and your ride’s signature, paradoxical power. Each level offers an entire fleet of enemy ships, mines, and asteroids to blast through before facing the colorful space bandit at the end in a test of endurance and reflexes.

It’s a shmup, and if you somehow got here without knowing what that means, it’s a side-scrolling shooter like the old Gradius or R-TYPE games. You cruise ever rightward through the technicolor cosmos as enemy ships swarm onto the screen to take potshots at you, and you nuke as many of them as possible to keep things manageable. And manageable is going to be a stretch, because even the rank-and-file foes have bullet hell tendencies. Single bullets can blossom into deadly patterns of shots in an instant, and tiny ships can lay down huge beams or corridors of bullets. Your car is pretty long too and the whole thing is vulnerable, so careful weaving and prioritizing targets is key to survival.

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I’ll just come out and say it: Black Paradox is hard. Granted, part of that stems from the roguelike elements of randomized enemies per stage and one life to get through all seven stages. But paired with the intense bullet hell assaults is the general weakness of your weapons. Your starting gun belches a steady stream of shots but needs more and more focused fire the further in you get to take down even basic foes. The same is true for many of the game’s weapons, from machine guns and shotguns to homing missiles and acid throwers. Generally the harder a weapon is to use the more potent it is, and honestly the overall balance just isn’t there yet. Basic staples like the machine gun can’t keep up in the late game, while some exotic arms like the swarm gun and grenade launcher are ridiculous for clearing whole screens in a flash.

No matter what you’re armed with, you’ll need to make the most of your many tools and choose your upgrades wisely. You only get one new weapon per level and can hold two, so make sure one covers the weaknesses of the other if possible. Your special ability summons a clone of your car with a random weapon to help you out, which can get you out of tight spots and burn down bosses when needed. Each boss drops two upgrades to choose from which can include stat boosts, new abilities like exploding shots, or drones that follow your car and shoot, heal, or guard depending on their type. You also earn cash for blasting fools which can be spent on chips to permanently upgrade your ride, perhaps the reason for your weapons feeling somewhat weak from the start. I’ve only scored a few upgrades but the boosts to my health and firepower are becoming noticeable.

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For an Early Access title there’s a surprising amount of content and progression to be made, but it almost pales in comparison to the polish. Black Paradox absolutely revels in its retro future stylings, full of bold colors and eye-searing particle effects. Everything explodes into big, chunky flashes and most weapons fire with sprays of fire and rains of casings. Each ship is lovingly rendered from some car or barge or dumpster like someone slapped booster rockets on whatever they found behind the grocery store, with the insane bosses chief among them. Underpinning all of this is an incredible, pumping soundtrack that’s doing its best Carpenter Brut impression and really just slays every tune. Three hours in I still can’t stop myself from bobbing along to the beat while I explode entire constellations of bad guys.

If this is just the start of Black Paradox’s journey, then it’s setting off lightyears ahead of where most Early Access games end up. This is a solid, intense, gorgeous shmup that suffers only from some tuning concerns and maybe a lack of stages. Gamefeel is important and those first few runs where your guns don’t quite feel beefy enough could turn some folks off, I admit. But it’s absolutely worth sticking with, landing some upgrades, and feeling out the many wild and wonderful weapons. The fantastic presentation should do plenty to keep you in the seat of that DeLorean, and once you find your groove you might have trouble peeling yourself away from this neon cacophony.

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