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I've been playing more Steel Assault the last couple days and while I enjoy the game, I don't think it's worth trying to finish it on Expert. Getting through the first level wasn't too bad, but the second level had a tonne of design problems and inconsistency problems, and the third level seems to be more of the same.
>introduces this game's equivalent of the Castlevania Medusa Head, except they home in on you
>even when you kill them, their explosion can damage you (despite it having much less elaborate graphics than other enemies' death animations)
>they spawn infinitely from both sides of the screen
>there are also enemies that swim through the water at the bottom of the screen and can either shoot at your or jump at you
>this is amplified once you get to the section section, where you're rafting down a river on a small platform, and both those enemies and a variant that shoots at you spawn from both sides of the screen
>the shooting variant dies once it fires a single volley, but you can't destroy the projectiles and they leave small impact flames where they land
Your raft becomes larger after a couple enemies, but it's still incredibly annoying, and the swimming enemies make things worse. The section after that requires you to climb platforms that are sliding down a waterfall by grappling between them and jumping up, but of course there are more medusa heads and the platforms crumble if you stand on them for too long (fun fact: you can grapple to a platform up until its animation is finished, so even if you jump and think you have solid footing, you might not).
Much has been said about overly formulaic level design that is too afraid to challenge the player, always sticking to the rote "mechanic, mechanic iteration #1, mechanic iteration #2, mechanic iteration #1 + #2" formula. But I think Steel Assault has the opposite problem, in that every single section seems to have at least two new mechanics or enemies or other gimmicks. Level 3 starts off simply enough with a platform section, but after you fight a miniboss you're put into a room with:
>conveyor belts that affect how your grapple is planted
>a vertical scrolling section with acid that damages you at the bottom
>robot parts being moved along the conveyor belts, which hurt you for some reason
>flying enemies that will scavenge robot parts from the bottom of the screen, and might shoot at you if they picked up a robot part with a gun
>more infinitely spawning medusa heads
This is the kind of challenge that should come after 5-6 minutes of gameplay where each one of these elements is introduced. There's one bit in particular where you spend 15-20 seconds simply jumping, grappling in the middle of a column (whose sides are downwards-moving conveyor belts, naturally) and desperately trying to get a single whip attack off to beat back the hordes of enemies and bullets coming at you. It's just tiresome after a while.
I normally love games that are genuinely hard, but there are no checkpoints on expert mode: you go all the way back to the beginning of the stage if you die. And all the damage you take is doubled. Fuck off. There have been so many good games that had interesting checkpoint mechanics (notably Shovel Knight, where you could break checkpoints in exchange for money), especially ones clearly styled after old games, that Steel Assault not having checkpoint mechanics of any kind is really strange.
The other supremely annoying thing is the lack of consistency. Enemies don't always spawn in the same positions, which can be absolutely infuriating even if you're aware of it. In the first section of level 3, there are these hovering enemies that shoot 3-way lasers, and they drop down from the top of the screen if you're moving too slowly (I guess the game think you're trying to cheese it?). I knew about them, and I navigated the level correctly, but on my most recent attempt, one of them zoomed down in a location I had never seen one of them appear before, intercepting my jump and causing me to take damage.
I'm just not putting up with this anymore. It's one thing to make an exquisitely balanced, tightly designed game that is also very hard (Valfaris was a recent game that was both hard and satisfying), but if I'm constantly being gotcha'd by random enemies then it's both unforgiving and unpredictable. Random stutters and hitching don't help, either.
For the record, I do think the game is still very fun on normal mode since you can continue from the start of each screen and you can just faceroll your way through it without much thought. It's just that the "epic super hard difficulty" mode isn't very fun, which is a shame because you can tell the devs really did care about it.