Review: Serious Sam: The Random Encounter

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The Serious Sam series has plenty of opportunities to frustrate, but in my experience, rarely does. Even on the higher difficulties, encounters are tuned carefully around your movement and arsenal, ensuring that savvy players can weave through hordes and obliterate their foes with little to no attrition. It’s kind of a key point to these games, and something that The Random Encounter misses entirely. Don’t worry, though, because The Random Encounter misses a lot of other important design points too, so I don’t think it’ll take long for anyone to sour on this game. Seriously, if unavoidable damage, underpowered weapons, and tedious battles are a turn-off, you’d best look elsewhere for your Sam fix.

Somewhere between the original Encounters and Serious Sam 2, it seems Sam has decided he’s on the wrong track to take down Mental. An unnamed scientist gets the bright idea to send him to the future instead of the past, and Timelocks our boy straight to…desert ruins? Wherever Sam ends up, it looks suspiciously like The First Encounter’s environs, except for the retro RPG maps and the two sidekicks waiting to join up for the gibbing. With new partners in tow, Sam takes the battle to huge hordes and towering monsters in the search for Mental. Will he finally catch up to this villian? I dunno, ’cause this one pissed me off about 40 minutes in.

Here’s the thing. Serious Sam is a game about options in the face of overwhelming adversity. You never end up in a situation where you’re completely doomed, unless you put yourself there. You have superior mobility, superior firepower, and whatever flashy reflexes that you, the player, bring to the bloody, blasted table. None of this is the case in The Random Encounter. Here, battles are fought in a scrolling version of an old Final Fantasy encounter screen, with enemies charging in from the left, and Sam and his cohorts backpedaling away on the right. Every five seconds, you can issue new orders to your crew, which really just boil down to shoot, switch guns, or use an item. Between turns, your boys blast away while you maneuver them up and down in a futile effort to avoid enemies. Futile, because you’re playing a bullet hell with a party of three on a single control scheme, and enemies that get around you are guaranteed to hit you.

And enemies are most certainly going to get around you, because your weapons are a sad, pale facsimile of the guns in the real Sam games. The minigun and shotgun can do work, but the rocket launcher fires a tiny spread of three rockets per turn. The sniper rifle fires once every five seconds. The cannon requires two entire turns to fire a single, narrow shot. And the laser cannon has been reduced to little more than a flashlight, not even doing enough damage to reliably dispatch frogs and instead weakly pushing them back. You’ve got to aim them all, too, and your aim is locked in for the full five seconds, so fuck you if you line up a sniper shot and the enemy decides to weave out of the way. This makes the grenade launcher completely useless, by the way, because you pick a small spot on the screen to launch the grenade, and then it takes nearly the entire turn to land and detonate.

Look, if you’ve fucked up the guns in a Serious Sam game, you’ve already lost. But this isn’t the only design crime The Random Encounter commits. Swapping weapons takes several valuable seconds out of a turn, meaning in most cases you won’t be able to respond to changing situations in time. Items take an entire turn to use, an entire turn where you cannot shoot, meaning anything besides a Serious Bomb or Serious Speed is probably going to be a waste. You have no ability to manage your party outside of battles either, so if you needed everyone on shotguns at the end of the last fight, you’re going to have to waste the beginning of the next to get them on more generally useful guns. Winning battles restores health and armor, but only based on how well you do. That means battles you just barely survive won’t reward you with anything you need to keep going. And I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear that the random encounter rate is tuned real high, meaning you’ll have a fight every three or four steps.

It’s a real shame, and not just because bad Serious Sam games are tragedies in their own rights. I don’t think the concept itself is bad, but the execution definitely destroys whatever potential it had. The graphics are nice and retro, and the sound design is decent enough. I’m personally a fan of seeing games transcend their genres, and there’s surely a way to make a Sam RPG work. The Random Encounter ain’t it, though, and I wouldn’t recommend you waste your time giving it a chance to show you that, either. Poor balance, frustrating mechanics, and a lack of serious action make this one spin-off that didn’t need to happen.

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