Thursday, September 7, 2023

Prison City Review

Developer: Programancer
Publisher : Retroware
Platform: PC
Price: $16.99

If you dig deep into the NES action game library, like really deep, past the Mega Mans, Ninja Gaidens, and Castlevanias, and below Batman and Shadow of the Ninja, you might come across Shatter Hand and Power Blade 1 and 2. Prison City is like a sequel to all 3 of these games at the same time. It's also like an NES game that had the Escape From New York license, but was changed into something else late in development. It copies the best mechanics from those obscure NES games and the prison city premise from Escape From New York.
The structure of Prison City is basically the same as Power Blade. You choose from 8 action platforming-filled levels to play, and open the final one after beating all 8, like in Mega Man. And just like in Power Blade, levels in Prison City require you to find an NPC with a key, which you need to open the door to the boss. Levels have branching paths and let you freely run around and explore, but this isn’t a Metroidvania. Levels are self-contained, all powerups are temporary, and you don't even get upgrades or powers after beating a boss. The difficulty does ramp up as you go through the levels from top to bottom, but there is no specific order to them, and you never get anything from one level that will help you beat another level except extra lives.
Prison City basically plays like Power Blade 2, but with climbing inspired by Shatterhand. I say inspired because the climbing in Prison City gives you a lot more freedom of movement. You can't actually climb in Shatterhand, you either hold up on the d-pad or hold down the jump button (A on NES) to cling onto fences. Prison City's climbing works the same way, but it also lets you climb on the fences, shimmy along tubes, and grab onto the edge of platforms. Your only other traversal abilities are the jump and the slide, which you do by pressing the jump button while holding down on the d-pad. The controls take some getting used to since you don't grab onto things automatically, but they work well once you get the hang of it.
Your main attack is some kind of lightsaber boomerang hybrid, which works almost exactly like the boomerang in the Power Blade games. You have a little meter that fills up when you’re not attacking, and if you attack with a full meter, you do max damage, and if you mash the button, you do reduced damage. Honestly, I never paid too much attention to the meter, I just spammed the hell out of the attack button. You can also use grenades with the X button (Switch controls), which work like special moves that hit everything on screen. The game has simple controls that could probably be done on an NES controller if you put the grenades on select or something, but the platforming can get very tricky when you constantly have to jump, slide, and grab onto things while avoiding enemies and hazards.
The thing that will turn a lot of people off about this game is the difficulty. This game really feels like a game designed to be hard in an unfair way, like many NES games back in the day. Getting through these levels and beating the bosses on the Modern (Normal) difficulty requires multiple playthroughs and memorization. These levels are filled with low ceilings which you’ll bonk your head on before a jump, enemies in places where they’ll knock you back into pits, enemies with weak attack tells, the dreaded 8-bit enemy birds, dark rooms in which you can’t see where you’re going (My favorite!), and pretty much every cheap difficulty trick you can think of. I love a good challenge, but this game is just trolling. The level design just isn’t good enough to make multiple playthroughs dealing with this kind of difficulty much fun.
Thankfully, this game gives you tons of difficulty options. You can set it so you have infinite lives, respawn after falling into pits, have more health, do more damage, and basically make yourself invincible. I turned on infinite lives and all of a sudden, the game became much more enjoyable. That made it feel a lot more like “Modern” retro indie games to me since I didn’t have to restart levels after dying.
Out of all the 8-bit retro games I've played, Prison City does one of the best jobs at actually looking like an NES game. The color palette, sprite detail, and animations are all pretty much perfect. There are very few things here that look like something the NES couldn't do. The game doesn't do a very good job of making hazards and platforms stand out, though. I often found myself trying to jump on something that was actually part of the background or getting hit by something I thought was a background decoration when playing a level for the 1st time. There's also the resolution of the game, which doesn't scale evenly into full screen. I don't know what the game is rendering at, but setting the game to full screen makes it look blurry and introduces a lot of flickering.
If you're not too proud to drop the difficulty, Prison City isn't bad. I actually like it better than what I've played of Shatterhand and the Power Blade games. I think the trollish level design is going to turn a lot of people off, though, even on Easy. Maybe you're into that sort of thing, though. If you're into those old NES action games that were made extra difficult so that you couldn't beat them during a weekend rental, maybe you'll like this game more than me.