You're feeling fully fizzed up, and the future funk is blasting. All that's left to do now is face off against a lugubrious army and save the world. Sound easy enough, right? That's the life of Ria, the protagonist of PopSlinger, a vibrant side scrolling shooter based on 90s Japanese culture, pop art, and retro iconography.
In PopSlinger, the player controls Ria, a magical girl with a soda gun. She is paired with a magical guardian and sent off to defend her home from an invading trans-dimentional force. A beat-em-up style shooter, the player progresses along a series of maps, shooting slime monsters of various colors. Should they combo together kills of a certain color, they unlock additional powers.
There are few confections and consumables I enjoy than a soda. I'm a big fan of the carbonated soft drink, both as a food item and as a cultural concept. So when I heard about a game called PopSlinger, where the player uses a variety of soda flavors to fight monsters, I was interested. When I then heard that it was set to the tune of future funk, a genre I'm quite fond of, I was excited. But "was" is the key word there. Like an open can of Coca-Cola, my enthusiasm fell flat unexpectedly fast.
But like with all things, I like to look at the good side of things first.
To be a bit frank, there isn't a great deal going on with PopSlinger that were good. Sure, there are a handful of components that are acceptable. But good? No. There is potential to praise for the combo system, admittedly. But as far as good things go, the best they had was the music.
Let's start with the combo system. Enemies in the game has a specific color. It's not hard to tell which is which. While these colors don't change how the enemy behaves, it does tie into the combo system. There are 8 slots available to the player. As they kill an enemy, a slot is filled with the enemy color. If the player fills the first four slots with a single color, they unlock a bonus power. This can range from shields to additional attack power. It can then go a step further. If they follow up that 4 color combo with another, they get even more powers. They even provide a chart for suggested double combo matchups to go for.
The combo system is a clever idea, one that opens up the player to the idea of doing more than just shooting blindly. There's satisfaction to be found when you get rewarded for achieving a combo, too. Unfortunately, the combo system is almost ruined entirely by other issues, but I'll get to that later.
The apex of what PopSlinger has to offer is undoubtably the music, produced by the relatively underground Future Funk/N-Disco artist Skule Toyama. The music choice fits wonderfully into the intended theme and style of the game. The bumping beats and melodic vocals accurately portray the same vibe from 90s style anime.
More than that, it helps elevate the game. Few pieces of media nowadays really utilize future funk for their music. To see it used in a very fitting way really helped PopSlinger stand out to me, which I appreciated. While the actual musical composition wasn't exactly mind-blowing, it was easily the best part of the game.
But some good tunes aren't enough to save an entire game. PopSlinger is still full off problems. And when you add them all up, it creates a rather unintuitive and unenjoyable experience. The level design works almost against the combo system, the way enemies behave is sporadic, the boss battles are unreasonably messy, the overall diversity of action is almost a flat line, the art is unimpressive, and the story, oh man, that story. Since I mentioned the combo system earlier, let's start there.
Like I said before, the game rewards the player for defeating enemies of the same color in a row. One problem, however, is that the enemies in each level are predetermined. Every zone will have the same enemies of the same color, and future ones will spawn in the same way every time. In theory, you could take advantage of this by intelligently going after certain enemies you know will appear. And you can see evidence of this in the enemy selection. The first level, for example, clearly give you 4 purple enemies in a row, to encourage the combo.
This falls flat hard, however. If you somehow break the combo given to you, from damage or from killing the wrong enemy, the rest of the level is essentially forfeit for combos. That 4 purple, 4 yellow, 4 red enemy line-up now becomes 3 purple and 1 yellow, followed by 3 yellow and 1 red, and so on. The levels are designed around assumed perfection when it comes to combo combat, which is nearly impossible, given the unpredictable nature of enemies. It wasn't long before I gave up trying to achieve combos because the extra effort either endangered myself or grew frustrating.
Which brings us to the enemies themselves. The enemies aren't terribly complex. Some move around, some shoot at you, some have more health. Standard stuff. But they lack the standardization necessary for these types of enemies to feel good to fight. The hit boxes, both for the player and the enemies, are weirdly large. There are plenty of times when a shot that doesn't seem like it should make contact does, presumably due to overly large hit boxes that don't account for the up/down perspective. Even if you manage to dodge a shot, shooting back is an even tougher challenge. Enemies move in random directions that are vaguely near the player. They give no indication as to where they will be moving next, simply jerking up, down, forward, and back. There's no reason to their movement.
This made it terribly irritating when trying to line up shots against oncoming blobs.
These annoyances go twice as hard for boss battles. These tougher encounters have significantly more health, they move around the map much faster, and their special abilities fire too fast to penetrate. Even with early game bosses, trying to manage a shot on them without taking damage myself was a constant struggle. And with limited health, it was often a losing struggle.
The saddest part about that, to me, is that the bosses were the only real mix up from the usual action. Sure, more enemies would appear the deeper you get. But as I mentioned, they aren't terribly diverse or original. They certainly weren't any more fun to fight against. So outside of boss fights, it was just more of the same kind of gameplay I experienced on level one. After a handful of worlds, all with the same gameplay loop, it was becoming more tedious than titillating.
But to be fair, that might not be entirely the gameplay design's fault. It could be more an issue with the art style. PopSlinger has a very clear inspiration to its style: 90s anime and other retro Japanese culture concepts. From the neon and pastel, to the CRT visual effects, it clearly wanted to emulate that style. And in a way, it does. But it does it with a lack of refinement that feels more like a high school practice art book than anything.
Sure, they have the colors down pretty tightly, and they make use of classic patterns and shapes popular from the era. But none of it combines in a clean way. Items and UI elements look more like mobile app cartoon graphics, while the world itself is blocky and geometric in a way that disregards perspective or other art fundamentals. The art style doesn't stray enough between levels, either. While conceptually, each zone was different, they all were a stylized blur in my memory by the end. And to be perfectly honest, I'm not a fan of how people are drawn, either. I can't exactly place why, it might be something about proportions, but I don't like it.
But even with all of that, none of it shakes a technicolor candle at the hot mess that is the game's narrative story. Immediately, the player is dropped into concepts like an army from another dimension coming to invade, being some kind of soda-based chosen one to fight them (why soda isn't explained), being given some kind of no-nonsense spirit guide, and sent off to shoot things. Little to no elaboration is given of why any of this is the way it is, the player is not eased into the knowledge, and more lore is introduced without stopping to explain what they already have. The protagonist character is completely unfazed by all of this as well, to the point to even aid in the confusion with their disregard for why things are happening.
I wish I could tell you more about the plot. But I can't. It was all such a jumbled mess that retaining whatever meat may have been there was beyond my own mental fortitude.
PopSlinger is awful. The music was the only redeeming quality. Everything else is overwhelmingly unrefined and downright unenjoyable. Almost nowhere in the game is anything refined or hashed out for the sake of clean design. Part of me feels bad for being so critical (regardless of how honest it is) because I half expect this to be the product of a group of newcomers making their first attempt at being a game studio. If it is, congrats on publishing a game. It isn't easy. And I hope that my feedback can help when working on your next project. But knowing a developer's background shouldn't keep a game from being critiqued fairly. As such, I rate the game as follows:
PopSlinger runs, it's not buggy or broken, so it doesn't get a zero. But beyond that, it doesn't offer anything worthwhile. Everything is a mess and the more you play, the more frustrating it gets. Do not play this game. It's not worth it. Maybe go follow Skule Toyama on Twitter, though.
But if you do want to buy it anyway, perhaps purely to support small game studios, then you can find it on the Nintendo Switch eShop for $15. More information can be found on their official website.
A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of this review.