Why aren’t I having fun?!
The premise of Tango Fiesta is stellar – a twin-stick shooter parodying 80’s action flicks, complete with cheesy dialogue, big explosions and a gratuitous number of Wilhelm screams. While hitting all of these aesthetic marks with considerable aplomb, it falls well short gameplay-wise, leaving an experience that’s nowhere near as fun as it should be.
We play as muscle-bound action hero John Strong, a man with a vengeance against Hollywood who is reciting old tales from when he did some things, and went to some places and blah blah blah who cares more guns and grenades please. Suffice to say, this is a game that is every bit as interested in cohesive plot as your standard Steven Seagal flick. You can also choose to play as a different character, but all that seems to change is the in-game sprite – the narration will remain focused on John.
The 80’s action theme is done consistently, and is done well. From the cheesy, one-liner driven dialogue and bombastic over-the-top soundtrack, to the more subtle inclusions like the level select screen being VHS’s and a cathode ray TV showing a level preview. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t live up to this potential.
One of the issues I had from the outset was the aiming system which, instead of being a free 360 degree rotation like in most twin-stick shooters, only works in eight directions. On both the recommended gamepad and the mouse, this led to imprecise and frustrating shooting. The guns also don’t have anywhere near the, for want of a better word, oomph you’d like to see from a twin-stick shooter. The devastation and carnage implied by the theme, and touted in the dialogue, just aren’t reflected in the gameplay.
Each level is procedurally generated, meaning it’s different on each attempt, which is advertised as a key feature by the developer. In my honest opinion, the game suffers greatly from this decision. Each level consists of two or three ‘objectives’, which usually entail either blowing up a building or blowing up a helicopter. Having each level procedurally generated means that these objectives can be placed anywhere relative to one another, meaning a level can be really bloody difficult on one go if the objectives are on far sides of the map, and then a cakewalk on the next when the buildings and choppers are side by side. (This is somewhat alleviated by helicopters flying away after a few hits but, as I’ll get to later, this has issues all of its own.) This means that there isn’t so much a difficulty curve as a difficulty sine wave.
This randomization of level design means that enemies are also spawned in randomly, and constantly, until the objectives are taken care of. Usually, aside from farming them for health pickups, there’s absolutely no reason to do anything other than avoid enemies for dear life while you find the next objective. In a game where you’re playing the actual 80’s definition of badassery, it’s not great when you end up avoiding conflict. When you do complete all objectives, it’s sometimes the end of the level, but sometimes there’s a mode called ‘let off some steam’, where even more enemies spawn and you have to kill a certain number before completing the level, or you go back to the beginning. Mowing through enemies should be a fun thing to do, but here it’s a bothersome chore.
Quite apart from all of this, Tango Fiesta is also fairly buggy, with a few examples of levels that were rendered impossible to complete in my playthrough. In the first island-based level, a helicopter decided to fly to the edge of the island, and then fly a bit further away from the island, and then completely leave the observable world. All that was left was an arrow pointing me to the top left of my monitor, as the helicopter had now retreated to the ultimate safe haven – outside of its own perceived reality. John Strong stood where ocean meets land, pondering the futility of life and ultimately accepting an untimely death. Later, a boss merged into the wall and couldn’t be killed despite being brought down to zero HP. At times I wondered if John Strong wasn’t actually an action movie star, but rather a bit part player in some weird independent arthouse film. You know, those films about inconceivable helicopters and wall-resident immortal beings.
There are a number of smaller gripes too. Bosses drop coins, but the level will immediately end as soon as you kill them leaving you no opportunity to collect the loot. While there is a shop to purchase new guns, you’re limited to two held weapons with no upgrade system. There is no control over reloading, it will simply occur when you run out of ammo.
[Edit: I’ve since been told that you can in fact reload with B on a gamepad, R on the keyboard. I hereby hold my hands up and accept that mistake on my part. I repeat: You are able to reload.]
It’s a crying shame because this is a game that had the potential to be a riotous romp. Thematically, the action pastiche elements are solid and it’s clear the game is a passion project. Lingering around Tango Fiesta, though, is the sense that it could’ve done with a few more months in early access. What we’ve ended up with is a fantastic idea that’s let down by sub-par gameplay.