The essence of a satisfying 2D shooter, for me, is about keeping the player in a state of flow. Whether this involves micro-dodging through cascading bullet hell patterns or managing pockets of space in a twin-stick shooter, it’s about achieving a sustained intensity and a euphoric focus. It’s also about blowing stuff up. We Are Doomed, a fine twin-stick shooter from Vertex Pop, succeeds admirably on both counts.
From a visual design perspective, it’s a beautiful game and almost distractingly so at first. The peach melba play area is frequently spattered with translucent purples and greens as swarms of bold enemy sprites squeeze you into ever tighter spaces. At the end of each wave, the kaleidoscopic backdrop briefly disintegrates into the dark void of space. It gives you a valuable moment of respite, not only from the intense gameplay but also from the chromatic overload. This lasts just long enough for you to steady yourself, and check your multiplier and superbeam meter, but it feels perfectly timed to maintain the intensity of the action. Once you see past the particle effects and explosions and the rippling polygons of your beam shot, it’s clear how much of the game’s precise visual design is about readability – an essential component of any shooter.
Enemy shapes and movement patterns subconsciously inform their behaviour: Amorphous blobs drift and offer little threat beyond obstruction, green ‘tadpoles’ dart collectively in fits and starts, and the dreaded red rockets leave a subtle vapour trail as they rapidly home in on the player. Each enemy has a distinct colour, shape and behaviour, and beyond the initial spectacle, it is clear that form follows function.
For those who played Graceful Explosion Machine, a Switch launch-era shooter from the same developer, the pristine polygonal lines and psychedelic palette will be immediately familiar. While that game incorporates a range of weapons to deal with various enemy types, We Are Doomed – originally released on Steam in 2015 – is more straightforward, employing the traditional ‘pick up and play’ twin-stick controls of Robotron: 2084, Geometry Wars et al with the addition of a temporary ‘superbeam’ power-up.
In short, both genre fans and beginners will feel immediately at home with its simple mechanics. This accessible approach aligns perfectly with the developer’s intention for “pure arcade action – no cutscenes, storylines or lengthy tutorials”. So how does such a traditional title stand out in the saturated twin-stick subgenre? Simply, each well-balanced element of We Are Doomed exists in service to a tight, challenging gameplay loop.
This approach also runs through the audio design of the game, with the burbling modular synth soundtrack acting as a backdrop for a series of melodic gameplay cues and instructive sound effects. Enemies announce imminent cannon fire with a rhythmic swoosh and power-up collectibles materialise with a satisfying schlink of jangling coins. The sonic standout, for me, is the alarming robotic belch of lasers sweeping menacingly across the screen.
When the action gets particularly intense and your immediate visual attention is on blasting through the bedlam, these distinctive effects give the player invaluable information to identify threats and rewards. Chopped-up female vocals, moody synth pads and glitchy rhythms add further texture and dynamics, and I would recommend composer Robby Duguay’s atmospheric synth-driven beats to fans of Com Truise, College or Boards of Canada.
The impressive audiovisual design would mean very little without a satisfying gameplay loop, and We Are Doomed does not disappoint. Rather than firing a steady pulse of missiles or bullets, the player wields a melee-style beam to wipe out the encroaching enemy waves. While this may feel unusual at first, it proves to be a neat twist on what is otherwise very familiar. Smaller enemies can often be swept away with a flourish of the right stick but for more challenging foes, the player must hold the beam upon a target to inflict satisfying tick damage.
Once again, this feels very well balanced as you adapt on the fly, making a choice between clearing ‘popcorn’ enemies to create space, focusing your shot on the most threatening enemies and collecting power-up cubes to trigger a destructive superbeam. Along with the intensity of the action and the satisfying sensory feedback, these constant decisions and tests of skill can quickly put your mind into a focused flow state, wave after wave.
The ‘less is more’ mindset continues in the choice of only two modes: Waves or Endless. You can either battle your way through a series of thirty encounters or you can face an escalating challenge without pause. Whichever mode you prefer, the core gameplay mechanics are identical and high score chasing provides both the reward and the replayability. I’m pleased to see global online leaderboards and friend list comparisons – both essential features for a contemporary shooter, in my opinion.
With the Switch now home to an impressive library of shoot-em-ups of all varieties, We Are Doomed makes its mark with beautiful, communicative visual design, an excellent soundtrack and robust, addictive gameplay. Unlike the vertical shooters on the system, the horizontal presentation and clean visuals also translate very well to the handheld screen, with no need for a Flip Grip attachment. While We Are Doomed offers little in the way of originality, it is an intelligently conceived and impeccably designed, satisfying shooter which should be snapped up at this generous price point. It comes warmly recommended and I’ll hope to see you on the leaderboards.