Jamestown PC Review

By: George Weidman

Two decades ago, whenever I closed my eyes and pictured the perfect game, it looked something like Jamestown.

It’s a shame that I didn’t play this thing in time to put it on our best of 2011 list, because it would’ve been all over that thing. Being suckered into Steam’s coal-crafting racket had the wholesome side effect of exposing hidden indie games that I would’ve ignored otherwise. I bought Jamestown about a month ago as part of the fourth Humble Indie Bundle, but given my track record of never getting around to playing the first Humble Indie Bundle, I wasn’t in any hurry to check out Jamestown. As it turns out, it came out a good half-year ago, way back in June. Who knew? I, for some reason, didn’t. And that kind of scares me. I certainly would’ve passed it by if it wasn’t a part of Steam’s holiday achievement shenanigans.

The thought of missing this game fills me with a tinge of shame, and that’s not just because Jamestown is a good game. It’s also an exciting and invigorating sign of the times we live in. It’s a glimmer of hope that the gaming industry isn’t lost, that games made with love and passion are just as good as they always were, and that the explosion in indie developers combined with the rise in digital distribution has changed the industry for the better. I’ve had four weeks to stave off the honeymoon excitement from my first play-through of this thing, and it won’t go away. Jamestown is just that good.
I love this game, and it’s actually not that hard to explain why. Jamestown is simply a well-polished exhibition of good design decisions. You can find them everywhere from the accessible and effective three-button control scheme to the slick menu interface that makes setting up a four-person local co-op game anticlimactically simple. It’s what happens when a game is made by a small team of people who love their craft and know their genre, and as a result, their game oozes charm from every pore. But none of it would be possible without the sheer ambition of Jamestown’s overarching premise.

So Imagine This…

The year is 1619, and you’re on planet Mars. The indigenous Martians loyal to the Spanish crown are skirmishing with British colonists over the New World, and Sir Walter Raleigh is seeking redemption through acts of bravery on this dangerous front. He joins forces with John Smith, Virginia Dare and Joachim Gans, and together they fly a foursome of hovering gunships through Spanish territories to unravel a vast conspiracy that threatens all of Mars.

All this nonsense is delivered to us with complete deadpan. It has an intro where a night sky and ominous cello music slowly fade into the title. The music is all eager military drums and somber trumpeting. You can feel the gritted teeth and gruff voices conveyed in the writing, easily matching the “smile once and I’ll punch your face in!” seriousness of other shooter franchises. And because of that, it’s hilarious.

With this kind of setting, there’s no way it couldn’t be. It’s a 17th century neo-classical steampunk space drama with a cast of obscure historical characters who are presented in the gamiest of games: a Japanese-flavored bullet-hell schmup that scrolls past as many exploding spaceships and betentacled monsters as it does wooden galleons and British redcoats. And it’s so well-done, so finely polished and paced that it may be the smartest and most brilliant bite of interactive comedy since Portal.

But Jamestown’s appeal doesn’t just lie in comedy. Thanks to a sweeping soundtrack (dare I call it “epic?”) and similarly grand pixel art, it’s just as legitimately stirring as it is funny. The menu music is wistful, poetic, and eager all at once. The “level completed” music is a jolly Western jingle that just screams “accomplishment!” The ominous cello music that fades in the title—it actually succeeds at getting you pumped, just before you’re laughing your face off at the reveal of the actual plot.

Jamestown stirs up a heap of positive emotions that, when thrown together, simply feel wonderful. The writing elicits laughs, the music elicits chills, and the frightening thrills of nimbly gliding in and out of its screen covered in bullets provide the stress and panic. By the end of the second level, I was experiencing a kind of emotional liveliness that felt like pure childhood.

For King and Country!

Jamestown looks and plays like a legitimate arcade game from the 90’s, but there’s a layer of polish in there that could have only happened after a decade’s worth of perspective. The shooting mechanics feel crisp and satisfying and are based on simple rules that become hard to master. It’s perfectly enjoyable alone, but the game seems thoroughly designed to be enjoyed with friends. The co-op modes add in a few extra rules about reviving other players that smooth the unashamedly steep difficulty curve and set the stage for complex cooperative strategies that turn it into a beautiful team-building social experience. My advice: don’t play through it alone. Grab some some friends for your first play-through; if it’s not one of the most gratifying gaming experiences in years, it’ll at least be a really fun night.

Final Thoughts – Is it Worth your Money?

Jamestown’s five short story levels can be rolled through in about an hour, but there’s a healthy assortment of bonus levels, unlockables, and extra difficulty modes to keep the game alive for days. The insanely tricky final level won’t be beaten on the first twenty tries, and extends the life of the product a bit while also making the ending incredibly gratifying. Each of these level is polished to such a staggering degree and there’s enough variation between difficulty modes that I can see myself re-playing Jamestown again and again for years.

What’s most gratifying of all is that Jamestown is just reassuring. Knowing that diamonds of this magnitude are out there in the rough, slipping under the radar and coming out of relatively nowhere, is nothing short of bittersweet. Final Form Games, a small studio of three professional developers who decided to leave their desk jobs and go indie, spent two years carefully revising and redesigning this two-hour experience until it was perfect. The quality of their final product reveals that their time was well spent, and that the next generation of game developers just might actually succeed at bringing us better and more exciting things than the last.

Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony Technical Summary:

  • Time Played – 8 hours
  • Widescreen – Yes
  • 5.1 Audio – No
  • Bugs – None encountered
  • Control Scheme – Mouse & keyboard, wide gamepad support
  • DRM – Steam
  • Game Acquisition Method – Purchased by reviewer
  • Availability – Steam
  • Demo – None
  • Review Specs – I7 860, Radeon 6800, 4GB RAM

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7 thoughts on “Jamestown PC Review

    • Jamestown without co-op is like Macaroni without cheese. 3-Players on Divine had my squad on the same level for hours; the feeling of elation when we finally make it through the bullet-hell/heaven/purgatory was just incredible.

      GOTYEY.

  1. I see someone caught the shmup virus, eh? I’ve been playing them intensively circa 2006 (of course, like every hellspawn of the ’80s, I managed to play them in the arcades as well, namely Raiden and a Raiden clone called Mad Shark, which I eventually replayed via Mame, heh) and the lack of publicity/promotion. What you mention that you only found out about this game through the Indie Bundle pretty much proves the point made by the fellow “schmukmup” community, which usually resides in the infamous/famous Shmups forums.

    Jamestown is, to my knowledge, the first western STG (STG = shmups as defined by the japanese, the words go for “ShooTing Games”) that was created to be an introduction to the renowned danmaku/curtain fire/bullet hell genre. Thus, it has an elegant and simple scoring system, it’s accessible as hell and has enough brutal difficulty to please the hardcore shooter fans as well.

    But that’s the problem, above you saw me throwing dozens of obscure terms. Shmups kind of shelled themselves far away from the mainstream, with CAVE being one of the last remaining developers making real arcade games, so most of the new stuff goes unseen or decidedly ignored as some “boring 2D game with SNES graphics” (although we can all concurr Jamestown kind of cues to Neo-Geo graphics mixed with the classic DoDonPachi).

    In short: I cannot stop recommending the game! The music is fantastic (no need to say “epic” if you don’t want to, there are plenty of nice adjectives to use :P), composed by a fellow latin american musician (GET THE OST, SERIOUSLY, it’s the OST of 2011 hands down), the graphics are amazing, there are dozens of challenges (I want to see people going for the 1-credit-clear on Divine/Legendary, the true shmup achievement!) and it’s incredibly fun with four people.

    It’s a game that encourages you to slowly build your skills and play in the harder settings once you feel confident. I personally feel they did a pretty nice job at that.

    • As an introduction to crazy Japanese manic shooters, it’s pretty damn effective. Though I’d like to check out more of this genre, I don’t know if I can leave Jamestown. There are still challenges to complete and difficulty modes to clear, plus, I just love the aesthetic. I love it to death.

    • I really wish Cave would get the stick out of their ass and release their games for PC instead of mobile and sparsely available 360 ports. While this is great, and certainly a better initiation to the genre, Cave is in a league of its own.

      For anyone who liked this and want more, I’d recommend picking up the Gundemonium collection on Steam.

  2. I played this with 3 other people in co-op around halloween, each person using a different control device: An Arcade Stick (VX-SA), 360 Controller, PS3 Controller & Keyboard. Played it through to the end on legendary and the controls & gameplay were perfect all around, throughout a wide variety of players/setups. It was a blast! (I used the keyboard so my guests could play with proper controllers, and it was still alot of fun and easy to control.)

    Great game & good review!

    • I had a similar experience. I have a mish-mash of different kinds of gamepads lying around my place, and Jamestown recognized and picked up every single one of them perfectly. And even if it didn’t, that “remap buttons” option on the player select screen makes setting up your friend’s input device so fast that it almost feels like a slap in the face to other PC games that attempt local multiplayer.

      I had a big co-op party night testing out a few of the rare examples of local multiplayer games on the PC. Between Jamestown, Trine and Magicka, I bet you can guess which one ended up being everyone’s favorite. If the small indie team behind Jamestown can make local multiplayer on the PC look so easy, then why haven’t the bigger companies been able to pull it off all this time?

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