I have to admit that I came into Twin Breaker: A Sacred Symbols Adventure with baggage. While I’d enjoyed my time with Arkanoid, Breakout and Alleyway around 1988, I was okay with the blockbreaker genre staying there. Just like Snake was a laugh on a Nokia 3310 in 2001, I wasn’t crying out for someone to do a triple-A remake or anything. We’ve got pinball games, Peggle and shoot ‘em ups, and they scratch all the itches that Arkanoid 2 and others did, and more.
Then there’s the Sacred Symbols podcast, from whence Twin Breaker came. I’d never listened to it, and hadn’t really been exposed to Colin Moriarty and Chris ‘Ray Gun’ Moldanado, outside of some articles Colin wrote for IGN back in the day. I haven’t got the fanboy glow that a lot of Sacred Symbols acolytes will have, so you might have to keep that in mind with the review.
It might not seem an auspicious start for Twin Breaker, but there was still plenty to get interested about. I was all in for a game that tried to wrap a serious(ish) sci-fi story around a game with paddles and bricks, and any game that spawns from a PlayStation podcast sounds like an odd mix of mediums that can’t be anything but curious.
Booting up Twin Breaker, a lot of stuff clicks into place immediately. You’re given a cutscene rundown of the plot, and I’m not kidding when I say this Breakout-clone has a better plot and atmosphere than a lot of triple-A games. It’s genuinely good – a future shock where ships are sent blindly into space with the hope of settling other planets, only for them to go silent at the same time. It’s a tad self-serving when the heroes turn out to be Colin and Chris themselves (I’m not sure how I feel about an intergalactic hero named Colin), but the reveal of what happened to the ships, level after level, was a genuine pull through the game.
The music nails it, ear-worming throughout with some MIDI classics. It could be straight out of a 90’s arcade. It looks the part too, with a crisp retro aesthetic, particularly in the cutscenes. Nothing here is sensational, but that was never the point.
For someone who was half-dreading the hit-and-hope boredom of a blockbreaker game, I was pleased to find that Twin Breaker had ideas, probably spurred on by the same criticisms of the genre that I carried with me. As the name hints towards, there are two paddles in a Twin Breaker, one for each half of the screen. One is controlled with the left stick, the other with the right (named Greetings and Salutations, which I‘m informed is how they start the podcast). It means that there’s less of a hopeless scramble to get to a ball that’s far away, and it gives you a bit more control. It does mean some mental calibration, as you try to ditch the muscle memory of controlling just one paddle, but a blocking island in the middle of the screen ensures the paddles don’t cross over and screw with your head.
Levels initially play out traditionally: you bounce the ball with the paddles, and they hit the bricks at the top. Bricks have numbers on them to show the hits they need before disappearing. Power-ups drop from destroyed bricks, and you have to clear all of the bricks to move to the next level. More forgivingly than its forebears, the game has a three-life system and you can get an extra life by sacrificing points, or you can just restart the level to get every heart back.
As the 40 levels go on, the new ideas stir in. The paddles will occasionally run vertically across the left and right of the screen, like a game of Pong, rather than across the bottom. You’ll even get to control four paddles, on the side and bottom at the same time. At the end of every 10 levels, there’s a boss, requiring a certain number of hits to defeat, while firing their own bullets or arms in retaliation.
Over the four-or-so hours it took to complete the campaign, I was conflicted. On the one hand, I was impressed with what Twin Breaker had achieved. The narrative yanked me through the game, and it wasn’t hellish to play: there were loads of power-ups (some ridiculously unbalanced) that helped me to chew through some of the harder levels, and each level actually felt varied. With the difference in paddle positions, bosses and more, it was a blockbreaker where I rarely felt bored. That never happens in a blockbreaker – you always come across levels that feel like the one you’ve just completed.
There’s a hell of a ‘but’ coming next, though. It’s still got a lot of the problems that Breakout and all the others have always had. You’ve only ever got the slightest of control over the ball (I think of how pinball does it so much better, allowing you to handle the control of the ball and the pace of the game), and you’ll butt your head against your gamepad as the ball whistles past the last brick left on the screen for the umpteenth time. The core of the game just isn’t satisfying, and has never really been so.
Twin Breaker could have done a bit more to challenge the genre’s problems. Hard-to-hit bricks are often given high numbers, so it’s common to have one remaining brick, hidden behind a rock, needing to be hit four times. The heart sinks every time. Thanks to the gods of RNG, you will occasionally be given a gun (unbelievably powerful), or get your ball into a horizontal zigzag, and the bricks will disappear with you barely having done a thing, but it’s hit-and-hope most of the time. Difficult levels will suddenly become dirt easy, but you won’t necessarily feel that it was because of your own skill.
While the additions vary things, they can also tie your head in knots. Controlling four paddles on one gamepad never really becomes second-nature, and I bumbled through their levels rather than mastering them. I was glad to see the back of them.
Twin Breaker is packed with game modes outside of the campaign, but they’re mostly chaff. The best modes are Marathon Mode, which makes Twin Breaker into traditional Arkanoid – effectively a survival mode through the campaign’s levels with only three lives. There’s also Catcher Mode, which makes the game an Avoid-‘Em Up, dodging things rather than bouncing them back. Everything else is scrap: Shooter Mode is a 2D shooter with the joy stripped out, and a Boss Mode cellotapes the boss sections together.
Playing the modes, it’s glaring that there is no multiplayer, online play or online leaderboards. For a game that deals in two paddles, the possibilities seem obvious, and I’m still confused to why we’re getting dead-on-arrival game modes like ‘Hockey’ when we could be playing Twin Breaker online. It’s a shame, and it might have dinked the score up.
Twin Breaker: A Sacred Symbols Adventure on Xbox One takes the rotten core of a blockbreaker game and straps on a cracking story, great music, boss battles and some new approaches. But that rotten core still stinks, and you’ll get a whiff every now and again, as the infuriation and the tedium seep through. If you’re a Sacred Symbols fan, or you’ve still got love for games like Arkanoid, it may be just enough to warrant a purchase.