I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a huge fan of the arcade classic, Spy Hunter. It was tip-top, top-down, car-shooting action. The Peter Gunn theme tune, the clearly James Bond influenced gameplay (titbit, the game was planned as a Bond game but the publisher could secure the rights), the fast and frantic gameplay was massively addictive. Ever since playing Spy Hunter back in 1983, I have always had one major desire, I have always wondered what it would be like if the arcade cabinet was tipped on its side. Well, thanks to developer Red Phantom Games and publisher Numskun’tll Games, I can finally live out my dreams with Gearshifters.
As the tagline for the game states, ‘Drive. Destroy. Get Paid. Upgrade’. Yup, that pretty much sums it up perfectly. While Gearshifters is very vehicle orientated, don’t go thinking this is a driving game. This is pure arcade shoot ’em up action from start to finish. It’s more like paying something akin to R-Type, Gradius or Darius, just that you control a car instead of a spaceship. Waves of enemies, big boss battles and a plethora of weapons. A side-scrolling shoot ’em up that really has a lot of content, once it really gets going.
Now, there is a story in Gearshifters but please don’t ask me what it is because I really wasn’t paying attention, to be honest. Something to do with big, evil syndicates taking over the roads and you having to make deliveries of ‘stuff’ to earn some coin… while shooting the crap out of a tonne of other vehicles. Look, I’m not dismissing the story here. This is more a case of you don’t play a game like this for the story, do you? You want to know what the gameplay is like and not the story. Well…
To be honest, the first hour or so of playing Gearshifters, I really wasn’t enjoying it at all. This is through no fault of the game and purely my own mindset. See, I was trying to play it like a driving game… a driving game with a lot of shooting, but still a driving game nonetheless. As I said earlier, this is an arcade shooter and once I finally understood that, Gearshifters suddenly became much more enjoyable. I began to pay more attention to enemy movements, attack patterns and so on, began to play it as a shoot ’em up I guess. That was when it all began to fall into place. Well, that and getting some upgrades.
In terms of the upgrade system here, there’s really a lot to get your teeth into. You have some cosmetic customisations where you can change your paint, add a spoiler and different wheel trims. None of these make any difference to the gameplay and are there, as I said, as pure cosmetics. But then there are the many upgrades that do make a difference to the gameplay. There are weapon upgrades, both primary and secondary. You’ll soon be using basic machine guns, missiles, flamethrowers, shotguns and more. Some of these even have elemental aspects, like a shotgun that sets fire to enemies.
But there’s more. Other upgrades include defensive ones. Increase your front and side armour/melee attacks. Add armour plating to decrease damage taken and more. Then there are performance upgrades that improve your car’s acceleration, braking and handling. But there’s even more, as you also have special attacks like oil slicks, droppable spikes, modifiers that increase how much money enemies will drop and other elements. Plus, as you progress through the game you’ll unlock special skills such as using the handbrake to get behind enemies, drifting so you can attack while sliding your car, slamming your car into reverse so you can shoot enemies behind you and even a spin used to avoid missiles.
You can also change tyre compounds to suit each level and how your car handles. Some stages take place on the standard tarmac roads, while others take place on sand, mud and even the weather can affect how your car will feel. Seriously, there’s so much customisation and so many upgrades that you can add to your car that would easily turn James Bond green with envy.
Picking the right weapons and tyres for each level adds a layer of strategy and you’ll soon find that one car set-up may work brilliantly on one level, but not so much on another. So you are continually tinkering with your car to find the perfect loadout for each stage in the game.
How you actually unlock those upgrades though is the hard part. They are one several pickups that enemies drop after you’ve destroyed them. After being blown up, they drop schematics and you need to finish the level to actually take those schematics back to your HQ where they can then be bought for cash. Oh yeah, you’ll need cash in the game too and lots of it. This is another one of the pickups that enemies drop after being destroyed, you’ll also earn cash for finishing a stage and taking out the big boss at the end.
Speaking of which, the boss battles are great fun. Huge construction vehicles, trains, helicopters and more. All with massive weapons that’ll take you out faster than Max Rockatansky killed Toecutter and his gang. You’ll need to pay attention and learn the bosses attack patterns and find their weaknesses. Hone the use of your weapons and skills to perfection to get the best of the bosses and proceed to the next stage.
As I have already covered, this is an arcade shoot ’em up but it has a rogue-lite mechanic at play too. See, with something like R-Type, as long as you know the game well, you can get from the start to the end in one go. With Gearshifters, that’s just impossible to do. Here, you will die… a lot. But along the way, you’ll earn cash and unlock more schematics to help upgrade your car. You then use those upgrades to aid in clearing some of the much trickier aspects of the game. And as with most rogue-lite titles, Gearshifters is ‘effing hard and sometimes even frustrating. Still, those upgrades really do help you out and tinkering with your car’s setup will soon have you making progress through the game. Yes, Gearshifters is tricky-dicky, perhaps even punishingly so at times and yet it never feels unfair. You’ll often die as you don’t have the right upgrade (yet), or because you made a stupid maitake, misused a skill or something.
So yeah, Gearshifters is a cracking game and I’ve really enjoyed playing it. Full disclosure, despite having the game for about a week and playing it a hell of a lot… I’ve still not finished it yet. But for me, this is a measure of a good game. As hard as it is (and it is), I’m still fully engrossed and really want to carry on playing.
With a price point around the £17 to £22, depending on the format (Steam and Switch versions are currently 10% off too), this is a game that’ll really boil down to it being your thing or not. If you love a good (but hard) arcade shooter then Gearshifters is a must buy. There’s a lot here for your money what with the various upgrades and cosmetics, plenty of stages to play and bosses to master. But, this being a rogue-lite and having you playing and replaying the same stages over and over may not suit arcade shoot ’em up purists. Before I forget, the levels are randomly, generated, so even though you do re-play them over and over, they are always different.
For me, I loved Gearshifters and as I said, I’ve not finished it yet but still playing and enjoying it too. So I do recommend it but with the warning that this is a tough cookie and progression through the game can be a slow (but enjoyable) slog. Gearshifters is a very tough game for sure, but one that harks back to the classic days of arcade shooters like the brilliant Spy Hunter.