Full Disclosure: The copy was provided by the developer.
Aliens. They do the strangest things. They murder people. They take over worlds. They abduct, of all things, your mother.
Humanity has devised many ways to combat aliens over the decades in media. Advanced weaponry, nukes, water, the works. Now we have a girl fighting technologically advanced aliens with…baseballs. Aliens Go Home Run (which I shall refer to as AHGR for simplicity) is a Breakout-styled baseball game that also incorporates bullet hell into the gameplay. It’s deceptively simple, but before we get into that, let’s cover the premise.
AGHR doesn’t really have a plot within the game itself, but there is backstory. The character you control, Sally, one day lands a home run so hard that it escapes Earth’s atmosphere, ends up in space and lands on an alien world so hard that it makes a crater. Forget the logistics; this girl is literally descended from Superman. Anyway, the aliens become angry and attack “Supersonic” Sally’s immediate surroundings (not the entire planet, for some reason), and with these superhuman batting skills, she must now fend off the invaders with nothing but a baseball, a bat, and powerups. Forget weapons; all we need is Babe Ruth alive and he’d send these aliens packing.
The story isn’t anything more than it needs to be, just a cheesy ‘aliens attack the planet’ plot. What’s more important here is the gameplay…which is really simple to describe. In typical Breakout style, you break blocks to advance to the next stage. There is, however, a twist; you’re also avoiding bullets from respawning enemies at every turn. To aid you in this, there are four powerups that can appear from breaking blocks, including standard shields and extra hit points. You also have a slide maneuver, which is your best friend for dodging the many projectiles from aliens that want you dead. This is all spread across three keys besides the arrow keys for movement, so control is simplistic and easy to grasp, not to mention solid. You are either moving at full speed or stopped, so movement isn’t slippery and it’s precise, which is important for a bullet hell game.
Now, on one hand, the combination of bullet hell and Breakout means you have to be focused a lot, which in turn makes the experience rather tense at times. Moving around constantly while avoiding bullets to break blocks can be quite the challenge when you lack a shield or hit point recovery, which adds to the Breakout formula and makes it stick out. There’s a time limit on stages as well and the ball doesn’t bounce automatically, meaning you have to manually hit it in order to keep it moving, so there’s a fair level of engagement.
On the other hand…there are some design choices in the gameplay that make the levels surprisingly tedious to go through at times for the wrong reasons. Let’s start with the ball itself. It bounces like nothing else when colliding with blocks and aliens, which is fine in theory, but it bounces wildly enough to make luck a requirement when aiming to destroy every block, especially near the end of levels when there are less than ten blocks remaining. Respawning enemies can exacerbate this problem depending on what blocks end up remaining, which is difficult to tell when an individual stage can progress differently every time you play it. And you may end up retrying stages a lot.
The aforementioned luck aspect described above also extends to the power-ups. I can’t tell whether it was just the RNG landing on the same powerup so much, but there’s a notable feeling that extra hit points land more frequently than shields, extra balls and the fourth power-up which I shall refer to as the wave (amazingly, I did not manage to land this power-up once in my playtime). This is fine when you take a lot of damage and your three strikes (hit points) begin to accumulate, but as you get better at avoiding alien attacks, you’ll be begging that a hit point drop were a multi ball just to increase your chances of finishing a stage faster. And you have to constantly put yourself in danger against the (surprisingly varied) aliens in order to keep that ball moving by hitting it, so the little problems combine to make an experience that is scattershot in terms of enjoyability.
However, to the game’s credit, there are subtle design quirks that mitigate the issues above to an extent. If you finish a level with a power-up in reserve, you get to keep it if you go to the next level immediately after, so skilled management of powerups late-stage can be rewarding. If you get three strikes in a stage, it resets to the beginning with no tedious game over screen or loading, and there’s no lives, so retrying a stage has zero penalty beyond breaking the blocks again and a resetted score. It’s not much, but they do help to counterbalance the flaws.
The aesthetic of the game is quite good with its scope and intentions. Being baseball-themed, the menus look like baseball scoring grids, your character is dressed in baseball attire, and the announcer sounds simple but spouts the necessary baseball quips. The music is alright, albeit repetitive once stages begin dragging on for too long, and the graphics are retro, 8-bit and clean. This is topped off by good performance, with no hitching or graphical glitches and a consistent framerate of 60. It runs and looks smooth, which is great for an indie game.
Now, I should preface my verdict by saying that I haven’t finished the game 100% yet. At the time of writing this review, I was around the 40th level. But what I’ve seen up to then tells me that it’s easy to throw a recommendation to Aliens Go Home Run as a game to play in short bursts. Playing through levels for a long time can become tiring, so play a few levels, then leave and come back for more later. For its asking price*, you could do worse on a platform infested with low-priced shovelware and asset flips. So go try it. The developer is constantly updating the game as well, so there’s a chance the criticisms here can be addressed proper.
*Aliens Go Home Run, available on Steam for $3.99 USD or your regional equivalent.