Alpha Squad

A game by Dragon Divide for Xbox 360, originally released in 2011.
The twin-stick shooter was once a genre unto itself with games like Robotron 2084 and Smash TV standing out among the small handful of titles that fit that description. The genre was largely relegated to arcades until the now-ubiquitous dual analogue controller was introduced to consoles, and the road to resurgence was paved by Geometry Wars.

Since that time, twin-stick games have started branching into new types of gameplay outside of straightforward action, leaving the twin-stick label to be more of a control scheme descriptor rather than a standalone genre heading.

A notable game that stretched outside the bounds of the standard twin-stick label was 2010’s radiangames Inferno which delivered a Gauntlet-style action-RPG, with shops and an upgrade system. At the beginning of 2011, Dragon Divide continued to push the twin-stick control scheme out of its standard conventions with the release of Alpha Squad, which delivers a heavily narrative action-adventure title, mixing in a bit of realism laced with cartoony over-the-top violence and humor.

In Alpha Squad, the entire world is ruled by a military power known as the Alliance, the nature of which is explored as the player(s) unearths more of the story via interaction with NPC’s. There are over 50 levels in total, spanning the entire globe, and ranging from single-screen encounters to huge areas – made of multiple single-screen arenas – with multiple exits and hidden NPC’s.

The game features 4 playable characters and up to 4P simultaneous play either locally or online, or a mix of both. (In the initial release of the game, there were some crash bugs related to the netcode, but the developer has since released a patch to resolve these issues). Each of the characters has his own backstory and progression, ranging from an ex-Alliance military-minded loudmouthed action hero to the strong-yet-silent samurai. There’s even a character named Lackey who is basically the game’s comic relief, and who is allowed to join the elite group of mercenaries mostly out of pity (he’s not even in the game’s cover art). He spends much of his time trying not to appear inept.

When engaged in dialogue with NPC’s, various characters will come forward to speak as the situation demands. There are even optional character-specific endings at certain key points in the game, giving members of the team the ability to opt out of the mission (and also ending the game, so be sure to have a recent save file). These endings are anchored in the characters’ backstories and generally involve a dramatic conflict between their duty to themselves versus the team and the mission at hand. The endings offer a “what if” scenario showing what happens to the character if he decides to leave the group and set out on his own, rather than sticking together and seeing things through to the end.

The game does have some serious moments throughout, but it’s interspersed with a decent amount of humor as well. The mission is remotely-led by a large-breasted woman back at HQ. And along the way, you’ll have the opportunity to rescue several large-breasted women by completing side quests. Once these women have been rescued, pictures of them will appear in your “Sanctuary”, a possibly imaginary utopia where large-breasted women frolic gaily in a bedroom that’s equipped with a large-screen television and has several empty pitchers of beer strewn about.

One of the game’s strong points is its artistic design. The game features detailed portraits of each of the characters (including the large-breasted ones) by Gonzalo Ordóñez, who is best known for his contributions to UDON’s Street Fighter Encyclopedia. The in-game backgrounds are detailed and varied as well, and these were done by an artist going under the pseudonym of Ektanadu. These range from village environments to forests, deserts, beaches, sewers, frozen terrain, etc. Rarely will you remain in one type of environment for long, as your adventure spans multiple environs across the globe.

To further enhance this are graphical effects such as wavering vision in the desert and some nice water effects in the sewers and rivers. Also, most of the enemies in the game will spurt a generous amount of blood when killed, leaving the ground stained in bright red. At the end of many heavily populated areas, the ground will be covered edge-to-edge in the sanguine fluid. The blood shows in stark contrast in lighter-colored areas, such as the snowy levels. In desert areas, the blood will sink into the sand, turning from red to dark brown.

Levels are selected from a world map, and may be revisited at any time. Each level is comprised of single-screen environments. While there are a few levels that have only one screen, most are sprawling, featuring multiple possible paths, dead-ends, and secrets. The exits for each area are only revealed once all of the enemies are killed, and cleared areas will remain cleared until you leave the level, reducing the penalty for exploration. In multiplayer sessions, the leader – marked with a gold crown – selects the levels, doorways, and exits for the team. If the leader is killed, the crown passes to the next player.

When you enter a new screen, there are usually a few enemies placed about the room, but others can stream in from the sides. The bulk of the enemies in the game are melee-based cannon fodder that run straight toward you with bludgeoning instruments. In this way, the game plays out almost identically to Smash TV, which was one of the inspirations for Alpha Squad. You’ll run around the room, luring the hordes of enemies behind you while walking backward and shooting into the crowd. They’re easy to kill, but it’s also easy to get overwhelmed by them if you get surrounded, and you can find yourself killed in a matter of seconds.

Interspersed amongst the mindless hordes are a few other enemy types, ranging from flaming kamikaze enemies that attempt to run into you and explode, acid-spitting slime creatures, gun-wielding soldiers, oversized brutes that take lots of hits to kill, and even some super-intelligent apes and robot schoolgirls with heavy weapons. You’ll even encounter a few bosses, but these are primarily of the “bullet cushion” type, which is to say they’ll simply follow you around the room and attack until you manage to make them die from lead poisoning.

By default, each of the characters is equipped with an infinite-ammo machine gun, although additional armaments can be gathered from fallen enemies or purchased in the store, which may be accessed at any time via the pause menu (or the BACK button, which acts as a hotkey). Weapons include some fairly standard action game fare, including shotguns, rocket launchers, and the very useful flamethrower, but you’ll also find a few unique (and more expensive) items such as the wave generator, Zeus rod, plasma rifle, singularity cannon, and even a nuke. Bosses are, as the game points out, immune to the effects of the nuke due to an invisible shield that magically protects them.

All of these additional weapons have finite ammo, and require different strategies on the part of the player. For instance, the flamethrower is great at clearing out a group of close-quarters enemies, but it doesn’t have any affect of the flaming kamikazes. The rocket launcher deals a ton of damage, but it has a long reload time and it’s easy to miss your target from a distance. Some of the higher-end weapons do a lot of damage, but purchasing them from the armory can be quite expensive. However, these weapons also appear as random drops from the enemies who carry them, which gives you the opportunity to turn you enemies’ weapons against them.

In addition to weapons, players may also purchase health restoratives, a damage-increasing powerup, and a blade shield which reduces the damage you receive and hurts nearby enemies. Oddly, the Armory menu is not equipped with the same items each time you access it. So, you may find yourself in the thick of battle looking for a particular weapon or item only to find yourself unable to purchase it.

And if you’re going it alone, you’ll need to make frequent health pack purchases, as the game is balanced more for a multiplayer experience. While a single player can definitely get through the game, it’s hard to keep your health up when you’re responsible for clearing an entire room full of enemies on your own. Your life bar depletes quickly, and you’re never more than a few hits away from being killed at any point. In a multiplayer game, the squad can continue as long as there is at least one survivor, and the survivor can purchase revival items that bring back fallen team members. In single player, however, your death means that you’ll have to play the level again from the beginning. This can lead to a lot of lost progress, particularly in larger levels.

Further exacerbating this issue is the fact that you’ll often be placed into rooms where it’s impossible to avoid a few cheap hits from gunfire before you have the chance to react, and you may even find yourself in a room directly next to an exploding kamikaze that will instantly knock off a chunk of your health. Given the general frailty of your health meter, it’s possible to lose one or two squad members within just a few seconds of entering a new room. Also, the need to purchase health frequently slows the pace of the action somewhat, as you’ll be bouncing back and forth between the armory and the action repeatedly.

In addition to the main campaign mode, there is also an arena mode, which pits players against a constant barrage of enemies across multiple random environments. This offers more of an arcade experience for players who are just looking to kill as many enemies as possible, rather than exploring the game’s story. After each wave of enemies is destroyed, the player(s) will be automatically transferred to the next arena.

Oh, and we hope you like guitars. You do? Good, because the soundtrack is loaded with them. The music for the game was provided by Grant Henry (known as Stemage), a composer and guitarist who is probably best known as the founder of Metroid Metal. The self-descriptive Metroid Metal features metal versions of various themes from the Metroid series.

8 Bit Horse interviews Steve Flores of Dragon Divide. We discuss Steve's development background, gaming influences, and the inspirations behind Alpha Squad. Steve also shares some insights about working with a contracted development team spread across nine countries around the world, and some of the challenges in implementing drop-in co-op on the Xbox Live Indie Games channel. Check the video for plenty of gameplay footage, shooty bloody action, and sexy concept art.

Dragon Divide is headed up by Steve Flores, who did the majority of the game’s programming. The game’s artwork and music was contracted out. Alpha Squad is Dragon Divide’s first game.