In many ways, Squad Killer is a true retro experience. Not only does it look like something straight out of the 1980s – with its two-tone 8-bit visuals – it plays like it too. There is no story or set-up. Just you and seventeen rooms full of enemies, obstacles and bullets. You’ll need to clear out each one if you want to become the supreme squad killer.
It’s no easy task, mind you. This is a game that is really defined by its difficulty. You can only withstand a few hits and there’s no guarantee of health pickups. You’ll really need to bring your A-game to succeed.
And it doesn’t stop there, because there are six bosses to do battle with too. And these are on another level entirely, slipping into the realm of bullet-hell. You’ll have hundreds of bullets flying at you, as well as distinct boss attacks and standard enemies to deal with. There are set patterns that you can try to memorise, but these stages will require almost-perfect timing to beat.
Once you die (and you will die), it’s right back to the beginning for another run. Don’t think you can brute force the game by taking deaths over and over in order to make minimal progress, because Squad Killer works on a random system. The order of the stages is entirely random, as is the makeup of each level’s enemies. The order of the bosses is random. The appearance of the shop after a level is random. The power-ups you can buy are – you guessed it – random too.
This randomness allows Squad Killer to remain consistently difficult and because you can’t know what’s coming, you need to react to events as they happen and make split-second decisions on how to tackle each level. Squad Killer never feels unfair in its difficulty. In fact, the game really places the onus on you – you need to develop your own strategies, you need to learn each enemy’s specific attack pattern; you need to rely on your own skill to succeed.
It also lends itself well to replayability. No two games of Squad Killer are ever truly the same, and the game never fails to throw something unexpected at you. It wholly succeeds at drawing you in. You’ll find yourself dying, shouting a few choice words, then immediately going back in for another crack. It’s hard to explain, but for a game so frustratingly difficult, it’s also dangerously addictive.
On top of that, there are two more game modes for you to tackle after you’ve mastered the base game. They’re only slight variations on the original mode, with some significant differences. Boss rush mode does what it says on the tin; it allows the player to fight all six bosses one after the other. Meanwhile, stacked deck gives you the opportunity to run through the game again, with a random set of seven powerups given to you at the start.
For a game as hard as this, you’d expect a rock-solid set of achievements to match. Not so. Squad Killer comes with one of the easiest set of achievements I’ve ever come across, taking just fifteen minutes to earn them all. Killing enemies, buying power-ups and dying are the name of the game here, with achievements unlocked for doing each a number of times.
Make no mistake, this is a hard game – overwhelmingly so at times. It’s fair to say that Squad Killer on Xbox isn’t a game for everyone and a lot of people will be discouraged by its difficulty. But for those who decide to stick with it, they’ll find a game that is both dangerously addictive and intensely rewarding. There’s nothing better than finally overcoming that ridiculously hard boss after hours of grinding. And even if you’re not cut out for the job, there’s that set of easy achievements and Xbox Gamerscore to entice you in. At less than a fiver, I’d definitely recommend giving Squad Killer a go.