The Chaos Engine / Soldiers of Fortune (SFC) (1993)
Developer: The Bitmap Bros.
Review by Faididi and Co.
Brilliant but deluded, Baron Fortesque creates the Chaos Engine, a terrifying contraption that warps reality and draws hideous monsters into our world. Coming to save the day is a motley team of heavily-armed dudes, who must fight their way into Fortesque's manor and then find and destroy the infernal machine. The story is simple, but the game can't ask for a cooler villain.
The Bitmap Brothers' The Chaos Engine (Soldiers of Fortune) is a 2-Player overhead action shooter that looks like a Victorian sci-fi version of Midway's Gauntlet. Besides its steampunk vibes, it differs by featuring more playable characters, a shop-based upgrade system, a password option, and even a computer-controlled ally.
Although you can't play as clones of the same character, the 6 available heroes offer more variety than Gauntlet's quartet in terms of attack patterns and special abilities. For example, the Brigand and the Mercenary are both well-rounded fighters who have balanced stats, but the former shoots bullets in a consistent pattern, while the latter sprays lead in a wider, more chaotic pattern. Or, the support-minded Scientist moves faster and can use tools that restore stamina and grant temporary invulnerability, while the brutish Thug focuses on dishing out firepower and little else.
The shop gives more precise control over the team's growth, too. As the heroes blast their way through the 17 levels (including the finale with the sole boss in the entire game), they'll collect coins that can be used to purchase upgrades for their main weapons and running speeds, along with extra lives and spare energy for their special abilities. There aren't enough coins to acquire all the power-ups, so carefully choosing which ones to buy is important.
If you don't have a friend tagging along, the computer fills in as Player 2. While this may bring up awful memories of Beam's Uncanny X-Men, the friendly AI here is actually competent at attacking enemies and at evading hazards while following your character. Amusingly, the different heroes also have different reaction speeds when they're computer-controlled.
Unfortunately, the cool parts of The Chaos Engine are countered by almost as many drawbacks. The most serious of these is the heroes' inability to keep moving when they fire, making them far less mobile than the adventurers of Gauntlet. There's no way to play alone; if you don't have a friend with you, the computer ally will always fill in as Player 2. Because the heroes keep separate cash accounts instead of pooling their money for the shop, this means you can wind up fighting over the coins.
Controls: Below Average
The unfriendly controls are the weakest part of The Chaos Engine. As mentioned before, the heroes can't keep walking when they're shooting, and there is no way to disable the computer ally if you wish to play alone. Furthermore, Player 2 can't be switched between manual and computer control once you begin the game, even if you take a break and then resume with a password. The separate coin accounts are bad enough, but not helping is the fact that the upgrade shop is accessed after every two levels, while the passwords are awarded after every four levels.
The visuals are so-so, consisting of simple animations and drably colored scenery. On the bright side, the heroes don't have their spritework laterally flipped as they turn, instead being rendered with uniquely drawn frames as they run in the eight cardinal directions.
Audio: Above Average
The sound effects are few, being little more than the explosions of defeated characters and the clinking of coins, and the heroes' main attacks are completely silent. Luckily, the rest of the audio is far more impressive. The delightfully British system voice that makes up most of the vocal effects is crisp and clear, but the best part is the thumping, retro-trance music, which is dynamic in the literal sense. The tunes change as the heroes move across the different areas within the levels, yet they continue to stream together seamlessly, and they're unlike anything heard before in other games.
The Chaos Engine is pretty much Gauntlet with different strengths and weaknesses. Its inflexible controls prevent the heroes from running and attacking at the same time, and the second Player's presence is mandated, whether manual- or computer-controlled. Still, those looking for an unusual overhead action shooter may find much to enjoy in its greater variety of playable characters, its competent friendly AI, and its noteworthy music design.