From the minute you fire up Rochard its influences are clear to see. Packing a gravity gun, a graphical style which bears more than a passing resemblance to Team Fortress 2 and an unconventional hero means you don’t have to work too hard to figure out where this game takes its cue from. While Finnish indie developers Recoil Games may have taken a lead from Valve Rochard, a side scrolling puzzle / platform / shooter hybrid, is actually closer to Metroid, Castlevania and Shadow Complex and is almost as much fun.
You take on the role of blue-collar asteroid miner John Rochard. He and his team are in deep space searching for precious minerals. With a four year barren spell of fruitless searches Rochard and his team are facing the axe from their bosses at Skyrig. Just in time however they make a discovery and it is one which sets them on a collision course with their employers (for anyone who doesn’t want to know the details of the plot then they should avoid a glance at the trophy list).
It's a fairly unsubstantial story-line but one good enough to drive the game forward. Far more interesting however is the gruff John himself. He is a distinctive chap and, initially at least, the chunky fella at the heart of proceedings doesn't seem the most nimble and a strange choice as a protagonist. He may not be everyone's idea of a hero but in a landscape surrounded by generic muscle bound types he makes a refreshing change.
Rochard's levels, which are big and pretty, are broken down into a number of smaller chambers. Some require a puzzle to be solved in order to progress, while others see some platforming or blasting to unlock the next stage. It’s a satisfying mix and the game becomes particularly enjoyable when you get the chance to engage the enemy with your surroundings and gravity gun. Lobbing a box (made easy thanks to tragedy lines) or removing a fuse and sending them tumbling to their doom leads to some excellent moments and the sort of stuff that never gets boring. The game is at its best when you start to experiment with throwing stuff around and blocking incoming fire with boxes.
John's initial sluggishness quickly evaporates thanks to a nifty gameplay mechanic that allows him to lower the gravity around him. It allows him to make massive leaps across the room and lift heavier boxes. All of this gives you another option to dispatch enemies with and an added edge when taking on bad guys. In the end this ability proves to be a trump card and actually outshines the gravity gun itself. It makes John feel like a completely different character at the touch of a button. That said though the gravity gun is just as much fun as the one in Half Life 2, although if we’re honest it hasn’t evolved much. It picks stuff up from virtually any difference and allows you to punt them around the level turning inanimate objects into weapons. Only in the final quarter of the game or so do the developers actually do something a little different with the gravity gun (in this case allowing John to swing like Tarzan from fixed points). In the end however lobbing boxes into people’s faces never gets boring.
It’s such a shame then that the game feels the need to give you a gun. The later meetings with your foes become a lot more predictable than earlier on with a gun in your hands. Blowing the villains away becomes, without a doubt, a simpler job with a firearm. The addition of explosives later on doesn't help matters and it becomes easier to shoot first, think later. Without a doubt the shooting side of the game has been done better in other side scrolling platformers.
Indeed the shooting sections are not helped by some clumsy controls. Many of the problems comes down to selecting the right tool for the job and it can be a little demanding at times trying to remember everything. A lot of it boils down to just having one option too many. The grenades particularly. By the end you’ll have three different types to pick from via the D-pad and remembering which one is which demanded a little too much at times.
All this leaves you with a nagging feeling that perhaps the developers have missed a huge opportunity with Rochard as it starts to meander down the well worn corridors of a generic side scrolling shooter. Thankfully when the game does ease up on the enemy count and gives you a puzzle or two to solve the game recovers and manages to showcase some inventive level design. The most common of which sees you trying to circumvent barriers, some of which allow objects to pass through but not yourself and vice-versa. You'll spend most of your time looking for a fuse which allows you to power up certain barriers and turn off others. Real brain benders are thin on the ground (Portal this ain’t) but the change of pace they bring is a welcome addition to the somewhat mindless shooting.
With around six hours of gameplay to get through Rochard is a tight affair. There is hardly any flab here and in some respects it concludes a little too quickly and a little abruptly. Either way its a minor criticism as the game never overstays its welcome although a better resolution to the story would have been welcome. Elsewhere the game is brilliantly presented and packs a superb soundtrack. It may be a cheap side scrolling game but Rochard looks and sounds beautiful. It continues to introduce new features until right near the end of the game and as a result it never gets into a rut. With a few tougher puzzles and less reliance on run and gun action Rochard could have a been a stunning little package. It is instead confidently executed but a game that misses out on being truly brilliant.
Lob boxes at people. In space.