Review: Crimsonland (PS Vita, also available on PS4 and PC)

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As I got into bed last night I slipped my hand under the covers and something buzzed against it. I instinctively yanked my arm away while something black and striped and angry crawled out from underneath the duvet and headbutted the light in determined repetition. I wish I could say that my response was calm and measured, but it was more like Free Willy jumping out of the aquarium with a high-pitched yelp to match. It was dealt with.

Now, imagine that scenario but you’re in the middle of a swarm of *hundreds* of these bastards and all you have is an machine gun. Or replace the bugs with zombies, or lizard men, or tiny red demons, or mechanical spiders that split into *more* spiders, and more spiders, and *more* spiders, when you destroy them. Welcome to *Crimsonland*, where *Borderlands* meets *Earth Defense Force* in a bloodied frenzy.

*Crimsonland* is awesome. It’s a top-down twin-stick shooter with tiny sprites that pulls you into your very own alien splatter movie; it’s crazy and bloody and  unapologetically a *video game*. It scratches an itch, and the tools that scratch said itch are showy, fiery, glowing bulletstorms mixed with occasional fireworks and nuclear detonations.

The game’s main “Quests” mode holds six sections which are split into ten sub-levels, each given such apocalyptic titles as “Syntax Terror”, “Arachnid Farm” and, my personal favourite, the straightforward warning of “Surrounded By Reptiles”. Each level places you in the middle of the growing onslaught with a single weapon in your hand. Destroying the enemies will often leave behind a new weapon, temporary buff or single-use weapon of mass destruction, and filling up the blue progress bar by wiping out everything trying to take a bite out of you will take you onto the next arena.

By plowing through the Quest arenas, you acquire guns, perks and modes in Survival. Maybe you’ll have to last against an endless wave of aliens with just an automatic rifle. Perhaps you get one gun at a time with no extra ammo. It’s testament to the developers that they’ve taken the simplistic nature of the gameplay – *shoot everything until it stops moving*, basically – and dreamt up a myriad of controlled situations where that are actually stressful and glorious fun at the same time.

This precise balance also becomes very evident as you unlock more of the weapons. Each has a bonus and a drawback, and it’s up to the player to work out which weapons will be best in various situations. The one-off smart weapons, too, have been designed in such a way that their use also becomes something of a strategy. The first few times you see a nuke, it’s triggered almost instantly in a mix of desperation and excitement. Then, though, a new *what if*: what if I draw as many enemies into the blast range as possible first. With your back to the nuke, you’re suddenly McLaine, Hicks, Ripley, Reese; snarling through gritted teeth, finger on the trigger, thumb on the button. *Come on, you bastards. Come closer*. Except, in this movie, you live to fight another few moments.

The random drops provide a great game of risk-and-reward. Often, your bullet sprays will kill an enemy in the middle of the swarm and leave behind something shiny – a nuke, perhaps, or Catherine-wheel-esqe plasma spray. Sometimes, it’ll be a tantalising weapon, like a minigun, or *plasma* minigun. Then, you’re left with a choice: run away and lose the perk, or barge in, shoulders pushing the enemies back as your little circle of health trickles down, desperately reaching forward to trigger the pyrotechnics as claws and teeth tear at your skin. The feeling of elation as a circle of zombies is instantly vapourised is worth the price of entry alone. Every enemy leaves behind a bloodied body as visual confirmation of your badassery; the end of the round can find most of the  floor turned red. You can almost feel the squelch underfoot.

And that’s all this game is, really; a series of short-lived moments where, if you’re lucky, you’ll survive by the skin of your teeth to fight another round. I haven’t played the PC or PS4 versions (why no PS3?), but it’s almost perfectly realised as a portable Vita game. I bought it last week and it hasn’t been turned off yet; the Vita’s sleep function means it’s always ready for a quick blast whenever you feel the need. And, as it turns out, I’ve felt the need for most of the week.

The even better news is that today is the last day it’s on sale on PSN, so you can grab it for just over seven dollars if you have PS+ (and if you don’t, buy that too. Immediately). With a wealth of modes, weapons and perks to unlock and even four-player local co-op,  there’s no danger you’ll be tiring of the onslaught for any time soon.