Escape from Terror City is an unpolished low-poly shmup that seeks to answer the question, “What would Contra have been like as an N64 game?”.
- Title: Escape from Terror City
- Release Date: Jul-14 2021 (PC), Sep-06 2023 (Consoles)
- Price: $9.99 (USD)
- Suggested Audience Age: Everyone 10+ (ESRB)
- Availability: Switch (reviewed), Xbox One & Series X|S, PlayStation 4|5, PC (Steam & Itch.io)
- Recommended for fans of: 3D shoot 'em ups, retro revivals
Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title.
Happy Shmuptember! For this year's celebration of all things shoot 'em up, I will review four games released this month. Each one puts its own unique spin on this classic arcade-style game genre. The first is Escape from Terror City, developed by Renegade Sector Games.
In Escape from Terror City, you play as a lone soldier attempting to take down an evil empire. This low-poly action game combines elements of third-person shooters, bullet hell, and retro shooting galleries. The gameplay alternates between short sections of combat-free traversal and kill rooms full of enemies. At its core, this game seems to be trying to answer the question “What if Contra was an N64 game?”.
Normally, I cover aesthetics first in reviews because they're the first thing you notice when you start a game. However, Escape from Terror City was an unusual case. Whenever I get a new game, I scroll through the options menu to make sure the audio, display, and control settings are configured correctly before I press “Start”. I didn't expect many options since I was playing the Switch version, but I was expecting one thing: a toggle for inverting the right stick. Unfortunately, Escape from Terror City doesn't offer this option or any other control remapping settings. As an inverted player, I knew I was up for an awkward experience right from the jump.
The other challenge I faced with the controls has to do with the camera. When walking between kill rooms, the hero's walking direction is locked forward and the camera stays over his shoulder. This works fine since the level design is pretty linear (as you would expect from a shmup). When you enter a battle zone, though, the camera suddenly snaps to face the center of the area. This caused me to accidentally walk off cliffs so many times!
Despite my struggles with the controls, I appreciated Escape from Terror City‘s level design. It's more intricate than I expected. While the game is mostly on rails, each level offers branching paths that change which enemies and level bosses you encounter. In some cases, I discovered an alternate path by accident; I'd fall into a pit I assumed was a death trap only to find a secret underground area. This was a pleasant surprise!
Another nice thing to note is that this game's levels feature multiple checkpoints. You also have infinite continues. These quality-of-life features make the game more forgiving than many other shmups and make the accidental deaths less frustrating than they could be.
The battles in Escape from Terror City are very simple, even by shmup standards. In a kill room, you can move your character around within a small area and move your aiming reticle. There are usually 2 to 5 enemies per room to take down before you can advance. Enemy variety is somewhat limited, but that's okay given the game's short length.
Surprisingly, there is only one gun in Escape from Terror City and no power-ups. I realize that this game is supposed to be straightforward, but I found this to be disappointing. Considering that powerups have been a common feature of shmups for 40 years, their omission here makes the game feel unfinished.
Boss battles are where Escape from Terror City shines brightest. Battling mechs, machinery gone rogue, and flying troopers involves learning their patterns and finding the safe spots in their “danmaku” (bullet hell projectile patterns). As an avid shmup player, I'm used to reading these patterns in 2D, so navigating them from a third-person perspective was a unique twist. Ultimately, I found that as long as you hang back from bosses, the gaps in the bullets are pretty obvious which made the first 60% of the game feel a bit too easy. Thankfully, the last few levels and unlockable hard mode brought the challenge I was looking for.
Escape from Terror City‘s graphic style sits somewhere between N64 and late 90s PC games. Of course, since this is a modern game, there is a level of smoothness applied to this retro aesthetic to make it easier on the eyes. Featuring a color pallet of intense greens and pinks, playing through this game gave me unexpected flashbacks to eating at Miami Subs Grill restaurants as a kid in the early 90s. Overall, it's a look that seems retro without feeling like it's copying any one thing too closely.
I kind of dug what this game does with music. It has synthy jams with crunchy bass riffs that sound somewhere between Sega Master System and Sega Genesis sound fonts. While a bit incongruous with the low poly graphics, it still works with the overall non-specific retro vibe.
The sound effects could have used a second pass, however. Since you only ever have one gun and are constantly shooting, the pew-pew-pew sounds can become grating after a while. It also struck me as odd that there is no sound effect to accompany picking up a healing item; just another detail that made this game feel not quite finished.
Like most shmups, Escape from Terror City has a minimalist story that does some light world-building and establishes who the good and bad guys are. Frankly, that's all you need. That being said, I do wish the story was presented a little more elegantly. Text boxes on an otherwise blank screen don't exactly get you jazzed to take down an empire. A couple of simple animations or splash images would have gone a long way.
At its core, Escape from Terror City presents some neat ideas with mixed levels of execution. Coming in at 1 to 2 hours long and costing about $10, I found it to be a worthwhile experience despite its flaws… but just barely. Shmup connoisseurs have a wealth of better options to choose from, but genre newcomers may appreciate the retro vibes without the retro difficulty.