Roguelikes and shoot ‘em ups seem to be coming back strong in the indie gaming scene, and each of these efforts are experimental and yet very derivative. Still, not all of them execute their vision as well as they hope, and even when they do, the intended audience often provides a fresh critique of things which the developers would have likely taken for granted. Black Paradox has a lot of well-intentioned ideas, but the execution of those inventive ideas results in a gameplay experience which doesn’t quite achieve the pace and flow expected of a shmup.
Black Paradox is a roguelike shmup where players take control of the titular Black Paradox, a bounty hunter who drives a spaceship car akin to the DeLereon to take on the toughest outlaws in the galaxy. Black Paradox has a strong ‘80s cyberpunk aesthetic which quite often pays homage to ‘80s pop culture in the most unexpected ways – I would not have picked up on the Twins (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, 1988) reference had I not caught the Sunday night rerun recently. The art style is a labour of love for sure, with vivid character designs featuring artistic use of grain-sized pixels to bring a sci-fi game world to life (the starry night backdrop is perhaps the coolest you’ll see). The hard techno music also fits with this ‘80s cyberpunk theme as the beats tend to be on the heavier, punchier side.
As a shmup Black Paradox follows a roguelike structure where players navigate randomly generated layouts and enemy patterns before facing one of the main bosses. The kind of stage pattern and enemy formations you get is a draw of luck, where some variations are noticeably easier than others. This means Black Paradox does away with memorisation of set patterns as is the case with traditional shoot ‘em ups, instead forcing players to get accustomed to enemy types and their attack styles. It’s a different style of challenge for sure. Repeat playthroughs treat players to new areas, enemies, and importantly, new weapons to play around with, and while each of the many weapons offer something fun, some are clearly more advantageous in boss battles than others. Again, part of the luck of the draw is getting a specific weapon pickup.
Even though players will be having a case of Groundhog Day in trying to best Black Paradox, there is a sense of progression as you can grind for currency, which thankfully you do not lose upon defeat. Players can hoard funds to purchase permanent upgrades for their vehicle, but the process of accumulating enough funds to get the good components is quite the grind. Still, at least the upgrades make subsequent playthroughs a more conquerable affair. Disappointingly, the satisfaction of conquering one of the bosses is short lived as they’re all meant to be taken down in one sitting, meaning that the game does not save your progress in boss conquests. With enough playthroughs and upgrades it is eventually possible to nail the entire game in one short sitting, but it takes a lot of luck, and hours of grinding for currency, to reach that point.
The shooting action is generally enjoyable, and each of the main bosses have a lot of personality in their design, bringing an interesting challenge with their respective combat styles. The variety of upgrades and weapons you can pick up help keep things interesting too, as do the range of enemy types and environmental hazards you can encounter. Still, the roguelike aspects often result in a hot mess of enemy patterns and environmental layouts, with some combinations being more sensible than others. Perhaps the element of luck is what is expected from a roguelike, but it does hamper with the sound design expected of a punishing shmup.
The title Black Paradox isn’t just a reference to the protagonist, it is also a reference to the special attack which ultimately doesn’t quite feel all so special. It’s never quite clear what it’s supposed to be, but it is a special ability which takes a very long time to charge, and once activated summons an interdimensional clone which unleashes a very brief barrage (hardly a few seconds) of attacks. It does come in handy during boss battles, but ultimately it doesn’t quite make the impact it is hyped up to.
Further to that, the aforementioned graphics, while admirable from an artistic standpoint, often interfere with the actual gameplay. The pink and blue bullet patterns you generally see in Japanese shmups are not a consequence of artistic laziness; they’re deliberate because from a gameplay standpoint these colours proved to be the most visible to a player who has to respond with razor precision. The bright neon colours in Black Paradox prove to be a double-edged sword in that it’s very easy for the bright enemy projectiles to get lost in the vibrantly colourful backdrops. To make matters more challenging, the hitbox detection of the Black Paradox vehicle itself isn’t proficiently designed for a chaotic shmup environment. In fact, it is a case of art superseding game design.
Black Paradox is an admirable effort on many fronts and a worthy challenge which rewards extended time and effort. It doesn’t quite achieve the compromised balance it attempts to, and often the artistic ambitions get in the way of its many gameplay ambitions. Ironically enough, all of the contrasting visual and gameplay elements in Black Paradox make it a shmup experience that is, quite literally, paradoxical.