Scurge is a solid GBA game ported to the DS with few improvements.
Scurge: Hive begins with a familiar premise. A bounty hunter is dispatched to a high security research lab that has gone incommunicado. The lab’s objective was to study a dangerous life-form, which is capable of infesting and controlling biological, mechanical, and energy-based systems. In order to survive the hostile environment, Jenosa Arma is issued a special suit with a gun fixed to its arm. Sound familiar yet? Despite superficial similarities to Metroid Fusion, and Metroid in general, Scurge quickly distinguishes itself in a number of ways, and the core gameplay is quite different.
First of all, the game is played from a third-person, isometric, 3D perspective. Even the gameplay itself is completely 3D. Not only can Jenosa jump, but many areas feature serious vertical level design. Scurge even has slight camera problems! Instead of locking the center of the screen to Jenosa, the game scrolls a bit in the direction you’re looking to give you an idea of what’s ahead. This is a good thing most of the time, but not always. Additionally, if you jump from a great height, the camera’s maximum speed prevents it from immediately catching up. However, the isometric 3D is well executed and feels very impressive overall.
After going through the obligatory tutorial level, you find yourself on the surface of the planet Inos, inside a facility that simultaneously serves as a hub and a level in its own right. You’ll complete a portion of the hub level, tackle an entirely different level start to end, and repeat this pattern several times until the game is finished. The individual areas are not strictly linear, but the exploration aspect is somewhat muted. Once you complete a non-hub level, you can’t go back to it. And there would be little reason to other than to admire the aesthetics. Unlike the Metroid series, you will not find any ammo or health expansions lying around. You can still increase your maximum health (and restore lost health) by simply killing enemies and collecting bio-matter. Jenosa will frequently find upgrades for her weapons and suit as well.
Another big difference between Metroid and Scurge is that Scurge focuses more closely on action. It is constantly trying to kill you rather than simply confuse you or enthrall you with its atmosphere. All enemies make a beeline for you with murderous intent the moment you get near; unless they have armaments. Then they meander toward you while shooting. It’s actually a little annoying at first because your initial gun is so weak that even the simplest enemies take a few hits to die. You’re thrown into the deep end, so to speak. This is eventually rectified by experience and increased firepower. There are three enemy types: biological, energy, and mechanical. Three of the six weapons you acquire are strong, weak, or neutral against the three enemy types. If you use the right weapon, foes die after a shot or two and start a chain reaction that can kill even more of them instantly. If you use the wrong weapon you’ll increase enemy firepower or speed. Naturally the designers start throwing groups of enemies at you with opposing alignments. Constant weapon switching is essential, but quick and painless. Aside from the three primary weapons, you’ll get three secondary “weapons". I use quotes because only one of these three actually does damage.
When Jenosa lands on Inos, she becomes infected with the Scurge just like everything else on the planet. This issue manifests itself as a slowly increasing percentage counter indicating just how infected you are. If it reaches 100% you’ll start losing health until you reset it. You can become infected more quickly by walking through red goop, but the only way to reduce the infection is visiting a save point. This is a questionable gameplay element. Usually the counter is easily ignored as save points are widely available. Every now and then you’ll have to go out of your way to reset the counter, and even more rarely you’ll find that it’s a real gameplay factor causing you to rush through an area or even die as it runs out and begins draining your health. On a good note, the counter is mostly ignorable, and if you screw up and die, you’ll have a very recent save.
As you may have noticed by now, there’s a good bit more to Scurge than killing enemies. In addition to the virus slowly taking over your body, you’ll have to avoid environmental hazards, activate switches (using the right weaponry), raise platforms, hunt down keycards, make difficult jumps, and drag things around with your trusty grapple hook—all while being assailed by vicious Scurge infested creatures. Speaking of keycards, they can be a nuisance at times. Each level features a bunch of them, and some doors eat up a certain number before opening. Unless you’re diligent, you’ll eventually find yourself one keycard short of a door’s required number. In the worst case, this can result in a massive search of the level for the missing card. The game could have fixed this by markings rooms on the map where you left a card behind. Whenever you enter a room with a card in it, you hear a distinct beeping noise, so you could make such notes yourself, but it’s always better when the game does it for you. When keycards aren’t being a nuisance, they are a legitimate challenge. They’re never really hidden, they’re just in hard to reach spots requiring a bit of dexterity or thinking to acquire.
The overall game flow in each particular area is relatively unchanging. The designers settled on a simple mechanic for each level’s macro design and don’t do much to disguise it. The ultimate goal is to activate six switches scattered throughout the level that will enable a teleport, sending you to the level’s boss. Speaking of bosses, they are definitely some of the high points of Scurge. The first bosses are pushovers, but after that you’ll find yourself dying more and more as you struggle to master the old school, multi-part boss fights. The brutality of the final boss crosses the line a bit, but I guess you can always level up more if you can’t handle it.
One of the best things about Scurge is the control. Almost everything about it feels very fluid, and the developers capitalize on this feature, requiring the player to do many dexterous things in the course of the game. Nothing brings out good control like a good challenge. One thing I don't like is that there is a very slight animation delay before Jenosa fires her weapon. In most cases it feels natural, but when you need to get off a very quick shot, you’ll wish she was a hair quicker on the draw. It would also have been nice if you could speed up text messages, since you find yourself rereading some dialogue and notes for various reasons. As a GBA port, stylus usage is minimal. The map is always present on the bottom screen and, without pausing, you can move it with the stylus and change floors. Even if you pause the game to look at the map or inspect your acquired weapons, a small pause icon appears on the main screen, allowing you to seamlessly transition back to gameplay.
The visuals of Scurge are simultaneously great and disappointing. Since Scurge was originally developed as a GBA game, the technology is lacking a bit. While the isometric engine is a great achievement, the poor transparencies and limited color palette will be a little grating to eyes that have seen games like Castlevania and Kirby on the DS. But if you can lower your technology expectations, you’ll find that it is quite acceptable. In particular, the degree to which Scurge creatively uses vertical elements is astounding, given the typical limitations of an isometric view. More importantly, the engine merely provides an avenue for the artists to express themselves. For lack of a better descriptor, the art has an adult-toon look. The color fills are simple, but the lines mean business. In addition to the backgrounds, the wonderful art extends to opening and inter-level cut-scenes, dialogue portraits, and the animation of various enemies and bosses.
The sound and music are much the same as the art. The sound engine is a port from the GBA version, and would be terrific relative to other games on that platform. It’s still quite competent though. In fact, composer Jacob Kaufman did such an excellent job with the score and sound effects that it easily competes with other DS games regardless of technical matters. The music always fits the atmosphere, and sometimes it’s dramatic and catchy as well. It’s got depth too, which is a good thing, because in some cases you’ll spend extended periods listening to the same music. The sound effects are no slouch either. Individual sounds are appropriate and unique, and a game with such sonic variety would be more likely found on a console than a handheld. Jenosa’s footsteps are audible, each weapon has a different sound, enemies make noise as they pursue you, and the map makes little beeps as you move it around with the stylus. Just about everything that ought to make noise does, and it definitely helps bring the game to life.
Overall, Scurge is a solid GBA game trapped in a DS card. It’s got an issue or two, but it’s a pretty epic undertaking and still has a lot to recommend it. If you need a solid handheld title or don’t have enough consoles to be exceptionally busy this holiday, give it a shot.