Action game MilitAnt is pretty straight forward. A side-scroller, it combines light platform action with heavy duty shooting to create an unusual but far-from-unique hybrid of arcade genres from a time gone by.
In theory, the mix should work pretty well. Midnight Resistance and Contra were highly regarded in their time, and the burgeoning indie scene proves that in a world where RAM is measured in gigabytes and resolutions in kilopixels, there’s still room for something less ambitiously scoped.
Unfortunately, the designers of MilitAnt aren’t particularly well versed in the often underrated skill of editing. Editing – in game designer parlance – is the art of eliminating everything that isn’t core to the central gameplay loop. It’s about not including superfluous moves and not adding that extra functionality you thought was cool but isn’t finished.
MilitAnt is packed with that stuff, and it suffers horribly as a result. For example, the designers clearly thought it would be cool to give the player character – an ant – two sets of weapons. In keeping with your avatar’s number of limbs (two legs, four arms) it may be, but switching weapons mid-fight isn’t actually fun. It’s especially not fun when you force people to do it a lot by making their weapons overheat frequently.
Another unnecessary conceit is the addition of an extra half a dimension. A ‘2.5D’ game, MilitAnt lets enemies populate the “front” part of a given stage as well as an extra section that’s happening at the back. To get around the awkwardness of bullets moving either across or into the screen, the designers added a lock-on feature that you can use to target enemies, making it clear which will be shot at should you pull the trigger at a given moment.
Again, that’s fine in theory, but in practice, amidst the chaos of the almost ‘bullet hell’ intensity, things ramp up to pretty quickly. The lock-on becomes extremely awkward, frustrating, and cumbersome to use, often making it harder to hit any enemies, no matter which layer they’re on.
Yet another idea that sounds good in theory is your ability to use a melee attack to deflect bullets back at attackers. Unfortunately, sloppy implementation means you never truly feel like you’re able to attain mastery at it. For example, the melee button does a little combo thing when pressed multiple times, leaving you vulnerable to an attack for a few frames at the end, and this is invariably when you’ll be hit one of the bullets you were trying to deflect.
Between levels, you can spend hard-to-find gems purchasing additional weapons which give your basic attack options some extra spice. As if to make this selection more meaningful, the game’s designers have added another unnecessary feature: some guns can hit enemies that are right next to you, while some cannot. This one doesn’t even sound like a good idea in theory, and it’s terrible in practice: firing a machinegun over the shoulder of a baddie that’s ripping you a new one is one of the least satisfying experiences available in gaming today.
On top of all of this, the controls just don’t feel good – and that’s after turning off the ‘jump when pressing up’ option that makes zero sense at all, let alone as a default configuration. It’s very difficult to get your character to reliably be where you want him to be at any given moment – something that’s exacerbated to the extreme by the high difficulty level and sheer quantity of things flying around.
There are also leaps of faith, boss phases that are hard to read and react to, overly harsh save restrictions, and numerous other issues – all frequently get in the way and prevent you from breaking into a passage of play that’s actually entertaining. Even trying to jump past all the annoying, hard to see (even on a 60” TV) enemies and bullets is made frustrating by a seemingly deliberate feature that staggers your character, interrupting movement and abruptly altering the trajectory of your jumps.
That’s not to say MilitAnt is irredeemable; it’s not. There are some smart ideas here, piled under the bad ones, and some of the many bosses are clever indeed. For example: one has you retreating under a hail of fire as he destroys the bridge you’re standing on, and you have to bring him down (no easy feat) before you run out of places to stand.
The pain of the basic gameplay loop lessens somewhat over time, too – never to the point that you aren’t frustrated by it, but you do eventually attain mastery of its idiosyncrasies and can brute force your way through most of what the game has to offer as a result. If that sounds like an endorsement to you, by all means check it out. But if you think this sounds like the Dark Souls of side-scrollers, it’s not. It’s pretty hard to recommend to anyone for any reason.