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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