Innovation is hard. Merely coming up with a gameplay hook that makes your game stand out among the crowd is one thing, but even when you’ve discovered a winning formula, you still need to communicate to your audience and show them why your game is something special. Shudder is a masterclass in how to do this effectively – letting the player discover the game’s unique aspects through play, allowing them to understand what their avatar can do and how that affects the enemies on the field. There is a tutorial available, but the concepts explained in the tutorial really need to be witnessed through play. Essentially, you’re tasked with defending yourself against multi-coloured enemies named para-bugs whilst consuming collectibles dotted around the environment. (Even without the tutorial, the fact that the collectibles aren’t chasing you is a visual tutorial in itself.) As you pick up these collectibles a coloured hexagon grows at the top of the screen – fill this out and you can hit a button to “shudder” and stun all enemies of that colour, preventing them from moving and allowing you to move into them and “consume” them. However, there are several ranks of coloured hexagons and associated enemies, and every time you use your shudder you have to build up your coloured hexagons from the lowest rank again.
Voids and cubes in Shudder
This is just the start, though. Continue to consume enemies and eventually an onscreen text will herald the appearance of a Vortex Cube – as enemies swarm around and collide into the cube, it will eventually begin changing colour. If the last coloured hexagon you filled out matches the colour of the cube, you can use your shudder ability to make the cube explode in a shower of bonus pickups, and bigger bonuses await those with more completed hexagons. Not only is this a great example of teaching the player through association – the cube’s own colour cycling invites the player to discover what happens if they shudder when their colour matches the cube – but it creates a unique tension; use the shudder early to eliminate foes, or continue progressing through the colours and destroy the cube later for a big bonus? Similarly, the Energy Void teaches players through experimental shudder usage as it draws in your collectibles and cycles through colours. Here, using your shudder ability when your last completed hexagon matches the Energy Void colour will cause an explosion that eliminates nearby enemies. The additional gameplay mechanics succeed in giving the player more to think about, and encourage priorities – is using the basic shudder ability more useful than taking advantage of the onscreen furniture? Should you capitalise on the Energy Void’s explosion or wait to gain pickups from a Vortex Cube? In addition, the game is also very thoughtful when maintaining an appropriate pace for experienced players – climbing the initial ranks seems slow at first, but as your run continues it seems quicker to progress through the early colours upon respawning.
The twin-stick success of Shudder
What this results in is a satisfying loop of alternately feeling helpless and fleeing the incoming waves of foes…only to eventually decimate anyone unwise enough to still be chasing you. Of course, as the colour ranks increase you need to ensure that you can build yourself back up in time for another counter-attack, and so the loop continues – only getting more and more desperate as the crowds get bigger and the action intensifies. This escalation is judged expertly – you never feel like the waves are getting too strong too quickly, or that the hexagons are too slow to build up in time for the player to prepare a counter-offensive. Failure is always on you, and death leaves you wondering if you got too greedy or were too quick to use your shudder.
Beyond the core gameplay, a large range of unlockable ships is available to players who continue collecting the pickups from the exploded cubes, each with variations in their speed and multiplier behaviour and essential for those players keen to improve their high scores. Browsing the available ships and their costs, you can tell that this is where much of the longevity resides, but Shudder has a core gameplay loop that’s compelling enough to encourage continued replay even without the unlocks. During the rise of Xbox Live Arcade it seems like everyone was keen to put their own spin on the twin-stick genre, but Shudder proves that there’s still lots of room for innovation, and the £5.79 asking price gets you a game with more charm and replay value than most big-budget offerings.
Shudder is available now on Steam here.