An old-school top-down perspective co-op shooter, The Chaos Engine was one of those games that originally premiered on the Commodore Amiga, a console I unforunately never once owned or played on. Yet despite the game crawling its way to the 16-bit titans that were the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis (pretty much my bread and butter when it comes to gaming in the 90s), I’ve only heard about it just recently.
Billed as a remastered edition of sorts for its Steam debut, publisher Mastertronic brings some new additions to this 20-year old machine, as well as some tweaks to the control scheme and enhanced visual options. I say “enhanced” loosely here, as all enabling the option does is add this shiny, unappealing smoothing option. You’re honestly better off sticking to the default classic look, even though the game itself isn’t much of a looker despite its neat steampunk clothing.
You have the option of selecting six different kinds of characters, their corresponding play-styles, and a kick-ass pixelated portrait to boot. These characters are as follow: the Navvie, Thug, Brigand, Mercenary, Gentleman and Preacher. Some characters will be able to deal more damage than others (Navvie and Thug), while others will have access to more special abilities (Gentleman and Preacher). For every two levels in a World that you complete in (four Levels with four Worlds), the cash you obtain can be used to upgrade your stats, weapons and abilities.
The gameplay is mostly comprised of you and your partner (either controlled by the competent enough AI or a buddy), walking from area to area, gunning down mutated frogs or soldiers… all the while searching for keys or killing enough enemies to trigger an opened pathway to the next area. Once you’ve nailed all the nodes in a level, you’ll be able to pass through a usually nearby exit. All this, with a studious narrator to give a few short-liners whenever you’ve destroyed a node, respawning back from the grave, or activating a special ability.
There’s a bit of satisfaction that comes with mowing down enemy after enemy, which can also lead into frustration if you’re not being careful. As it turns out, simply running and gunning towards the next node won’t cut it. You’ll have to tread carefully, as enemies have a tendency of respawning where you least expect it. Ninja Commando on the Neo Geo, this ain’t.
Part of this frustration is because of your controls. New to the digital re-release is the 16-directional movement, which allows for you to shoot diagonally. It’s a welcome addition, but doesn’t change the fact that you’re still moving rather sluggishly. Even while using a speedier character or buffing your stats, there’s definitely a level of smoothness that you’ll miss from more iconic examples in the genre.
And once you’ve finally run out of extra lives, you’ll have to restart the level again. You won’t be able to purchase additional lives at the upgrade screen at will. So if you’re a cheap crock like me, you’ll use cheat codes for getting more. Unfortunately, there’s no way to go in solo, as you’re always with a partner and there’s no way to share resources with each other.
Once you’ve invested in enough upgrades and lives, The Chaos Engine can definitely have its sweet spots. While there are no boss fights save for the (spoilers!) final encounter, its cool enough to try and investigate every nook and cranny just to see what items or gold you’ll find along the way. Its a lot more “retro” in the traditional sense aside from simply looking the part, as its now dated feel will rarely latch off. If you’re willing to look past that, and have a friend to join the ride, you may find some nostalgia yet.
This game was reviewed on the PC.