The Defender-style free-scrolling shmup sub-genre has always had a lot of untapped potential, and while some free-scrolling shmups like Fantasy Zone and Black Bird have garnered a fanbase of admirers, the style of allowing the player to control the movement of the screen still feels unexplored.
Syder Reloaded is another take on this gameplay idea that brings a new feel and concept in comparison to its peers. When first playing the game, we noticed some definite Gradius V vibes in terms of the style and feel of the presentation. The graphics look like an evolution of Gradius V (which is a good thing) and the announcer in Syder Reloaded sounds very much like the announcer from Gradius V (which has to be deliberate). The first ship of the game, the S-104 Dart, also bears a resemblance to the iconic Vic Viper. Right away, the game presents itself strongly and exudes a polish that we can't help but appreciate.
Right from the main menu, you can tell there has been an effort behind making this game accessible. There are the expected setup choices that we like to see in shmup releases, like control config and gameplay options. There are multiple difficulty levels for different ranges of players. There is even a charming graphics filtering option to change the style of the visuals. We were surprised by how effective some of these filters were and, of course, we had to spend some time playing in MSX mode.
In terms of the overall visual presentation, everything looks polished and detailed, especially for an indie title. The backgrounds are cool and eye-catching and the ship designs themselves are also appealing. Another visual comparison we thought seemed fair – when it came to the ship designs and portrait designs, at least – was Starcraft 2. The portraits that speak at the start of the missions strike a resemblance to that art style – and what’s funny is that, within Starcraft 2, there's a shmup mini-game that doesn’t look too different from the ship designs of Syder Reloaded.
In terms of gameplay, the visuals are extremely friendly to the eye, which is an often overlooked aspect of shmup design. By “friendly to the eye,” we mean that it's very easy to tell where all the bullets and enemies on screen are and what they are doing. In some shmups – even amazing ones, like Battle Garegga – the enemies and bullets can start to blend into the background. This is not an issue with Syder Reloaded, and in terms of the visuals, the only criticism we have are that the backgrounds tend to be a bit too static when the player is standing still and the light bloom around some of the bullets can make it a bit difficult to visually identify potential hitboxes.
To clarify the criticism of the backgrounds being too static – this is an underlying issue with arena shooters in general. In a traditional auto-scrolling shmup, the backgrounds are generally able to avoid looking static because they are always moving. In an arena shmup, however, when the player holds still, the background does as well. This can lead to occasions where the game’s visuals feel empty and unengaging when there are only a few enemies on screen. In the case of Syder Reloaded, it would have been nice to see a little bit of non-scrolling animation to the backgrounds, like having the asteroids in the background spin very slowly and the planet rotate slightly; there's a balance to be found here of course, but a spot of independent movement would have made the game’s environments feel more natural.
Lastly, on the topic of visuals, we would also like to add that the enemy death animations could be spiced up as well. When an enemy dies in Syder Reloaded, it's as if they just vanish in a quick plume of smoke or fire. When you compare this to other games like Ketsui or Battle Garegga – where the enemy ships visually start to degrade when taking damage and then die in horrific flames of shrapnel – a quick vanishing in flame or smoke doesn’t provide the same visceral impact.
In terms of sound design, we found the music to be good, but not great, and the same can be said of the sound effects as well. While nothing is troubling about the sound design, we do feel that the music loops could benefit from some extra length and variation, and the sound effects are on the generic side. During enemy deaths and hits, for example, the sound design is too understated, which takes away from the feeling of destruction and power. This also ties into the visual design of killing enemies as well, as mentioned earlier. Still, though, the sound design is solid enough to function competently.
So now let’s talk about the gameplay itself. Overall, the gameplay of Syder Reloaded is well-made and it is apparent that there has been a good deal of consideration given to its design and balance. The positives are that the game controls well (which is a big deal) and there doesn’t seem to be any input lag concerns in comparison to its fellow peers on the Nintendo Switch. The movement is traditional and there are no hints of inertia to be found. The hitboxes all seem fair and autofire is built into the shot button. Syder Reloaded also boasts a new scoring system that we will admit we are not entirely sure we understand; it looks like you can use yellow boxes to build up special weapons and combo meters and then you can chain groups of enemies for higher scores. There are also score achievements that will add to the player’s total at the end of the mission. At a basic level then, it sounds like the fundamental strategy is to build up combos with the yellow boxes while being mindful of the various score achievements that can be unlocked.
In a more general sense, the gameplay flow is solid and will engage players who are looking for a quality, free-scrolling shmup. However, there are a few areas that could have been improved. The first is the size of the game’s stages. In indie shmups, there is a tendency to give the player lots of room to move around so that they may gain their bearings. However, an issue that arises with the amount of space provided in Syder Reloaded is that there are occasional moments where the player is floating around with nothing to do other than to wait for the arrival of enemy formations. The amount of real-estate that the player will need to cover is also very time-consuming.
So, while the tendency towards a larger scale stage can have its moments of brilliance – like when the player gets just the right amount of enemies active on screen – there are also many instances of empty downtime that break up the flow of combat unnecessarily. One simple solution to this issue would have been to simply shrink the size of the stages down and have the player more clustered in with the enemy.
Syder Reloaded is a solid addition to the steadily-growing library of quality shmups on the Nintendo Switch. The game has an engaging visual presentation, thoughtful accessibility and extras, comfortable controls, decent sound design, and a unique gameplay style that is fairly uncommon among shmups these days. And while we felt that the gameplay could be improved upon with more concentrated stages and frenetic enemy abundance, we still had a lot of fun playing and recommend the game for those looking for a fresh take on the free-scrolling shmup sub-genre.