The vertical scrolling shooter is nothing new; for decades games have utilised similar mechanics with just a slight twist here and there in an attempt to keep things fresh. However, for the most part it is a genre that has been pushed to one side by the bigger, bolder first-person shooters, racing titles and open-world affairs; especially in recent years.
No matter what you say though, there can be nothing better than a good vertical scroller; one that works the mind and the fingers as reaction times come to the fore. That has been proven by the stupidly addictive Sky Force, with both Sky Force Anniversary and Sky Force Reloaded pushing the genre for all it has. Those games have now been joined in the market by I, AI – a game pushed out to the world by Satur Entertainment. It’s now made a move to the Xbox landscape via the porting team at Sometimes You… but can this bring enough of a fresh take to recommend it over the genre leaders?
I, AI is, if you hadn’t already guessed by that subtle title, a game that focuses on a sentient AI. First created on a space military station in the hope of creating the ultimate weapon, this AI has become self-aware, breaking out of the lab it finds itself in and heading off out into the universe in order to escape. And as per usual in videogaming terms, to find success in that escape it means dodging and destroying all that lies in the way.
The set up for I, AI is a simple one, and aside from a brief little cutscene at the start of proceedings, and then another sowing the seeds for future instalments at the end of the game and the conclusion of Stage 20, that’s about all you will get. But that’s not a problem, because narrative and lore isn’t in any way at the fore of this adventure. Instead, shooting is: shooting everything and anything that moves.
After taking control of a small ship, it’ll be up to you to help this AI navigate through the stages ahead; stages that are filled with all manner of foe, be it big, small, fast, slow, shielded, armed to the teeth, and those with a combination of all those ideas are present. With a forward firing weapons system being your initial hope, manoeuvring through the early stages is a cinch, as you move left and right to pile the pain upon those that fall from the sky. For each death you take, blue orbs become available for pickup and these when accumulated can be used in the in-game Hanger to upgrade the ship at hand. Battle your way through each stage, taking down end-of-levels bosses in the process, and you’ll see your orb collection skyrocket, and the chance to upgrade your ship all the easier. Fail and, well, half the orbs you collect are lost, and you’re left to try again.
In terms of weaponry, I, AI excels. There’s the main weapon which can be upgraded multiple times, and then a rocket system and plasma gun readily available to complement it. These all work as a forward firing trio and the more powerful you make these, the easier your time in I, AI. You’ll also need to throw some coinage into your armor, if only because the latter levels get increasingly filled with bullets and enemies, whilst a resurrection device is obtainable should you find yourself really struggling. Without that, death means the start of the grind all over again.
The main weapon, the rockets and the plasma gun are all actioned by a depress of the right bumper on your controller, but once your fingers tire of holding that it’s nice to see the options pushing forth an auto-fire option, if only because it just makes life a little easier.
Alongside these attack types come various other forms that you can utilise and upgrade – a lightning ray that fires out random shots, an intense ray beam that incinerates all ahead of it, an energy bomb which happily clears the screen of enemy shells, and mines that can be thrown out into the battlefield in the hope that they can make connection with something juicy. All of these are actioned by a press of a face button, and when you then throw in the chance to upgrade an energy shield, giving your ship and your little AI friend the chance to become invulnerable for a length of time, you’ve got pretty much everything you could wish for in order to discover success.
Each of the twenty missions/stages play out with levels of increasing difficulties, both in terms of the strength and frequency of the enemies at play, but as each and every one runs at a fairly decent length, failure just means that you’ll want to keep trying again and again until you reach the end. And of course, taking the occasional loss and then grinding levels will see you given the chance to pick up more blue orbs, upgrading your ship even more in the process. Thankfully, should anything come across as too tricky, the option is there to drop (or raise) difficulty levels as you see fit. For the most part, the normal difficulty provides a nice balance between success, failure and total grinding.
I, AI all plays well, smooth and nicely paced throughout, no matter how many foes or bullets frequent the screen. It all looks and sounds absolutely fine too, and whilst it won’t be winning any awards for either, you’ll mostly enjoy what you are seeing and hearing – even the drone of the main weapon tends to disappear off into the background after a while. It’s helped along by a soundtrack that ramps up just in time for the end-of-stages bosses too, really helping set the scene.
Unfortunately, as with the vast amount of vertical scrolling shooters that are out there, the grind required to push things along can well be the start of the downfall of the game. The one required here – especially in order to max out the ship and take home all the achievements – is just too great to warrant continued play. I’ve completed the game with relative ease on normal difficulty and a good few attempts at many of the stages, but as of writing I am absolutely nowhere near fully maxing that ship out. I’d probably hazard a guess that there’s another couple of hours of gametime left in this, going back through previous stages for no real reason other than to work the grind and disintegrate more enemies, gathering the required orbs needed to continue upgrading. Some may have absolutely no issue with doing this, but personally, once the end is reached I see little reason to bother continuing. Of course, you could try and complete each level without letting a single enemy escape, but honestly there’s not really much appeal there.
Further to that, I, AI is also slightly let down by the fact that occasionally, just occasionally, it’s a tad too tricky to distinguish collectible orbs from enemy fire. And yeah, I don’t think I need to go into depth to explain the issue with that one.
On the whole, I, AI on Xbox is a decently accomplished shooter that will happily whisk away a few hours of your life. It’s well-priced, it delivers a decent little challenge, and even though the grind is real, for the most part that is okay. If you are looking for something to fill a Sky Force gap, this could well be the vertical scrolling shooter for you.