I didn’t expect to get so into StarBreak. It’s a free-to-play sidescrolling MMO—think Contra, but with, like, 30 other people swarming around you—where every death counts. If you die, loot and stats go out the window. Despite that, it’s weirdly relaxing to play.

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I picked up StarBreak from Steam on a whim yesterday, thinking I’d mess around with it for 15 minutes, get bored, and never think about it again. I ended up playing for an hour-and-a-half, then returning for another hour-and-a-half session today. You jump, shoot, kill monsters, and collect loot. That’s pretty much The Whole Thing. The twist? The game auto-groups you with other players, which usually results in indiscriminate bullet swarms like this one:

After a long day of working and interacting with other humans, the game’s mix of silent collaboration and almost (but not quite) mindless action really hit the spot. I like being a part of this ever-progressing murder herd, many members of which are identical to me. It’s like what would happen if a lawnmower was controlled by an alien hivemind. We are one. All who stand before us will fall.

Things get a bit more tactical when bosses enter the mix. Here’s the first one. He’s big and impressive, but not too steep of a challenge:

And here’s the second one. I’ve been in multiple groups that he’s wiped with embarrassing ease:

I know I typed, “I believe in you!” but I was lying to make them feel better.

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Seriously though, even in defeat, StarBreak creates some great moments. Going from tens of women and men to a single soul making a valiant last stand... it’s something else. It’s a quintessential sort of MMO moment, but StarBreak is skill-based enough that every once in a while, that last person actually pulls off a win. Alternatively, if the deck is utterly stacked against you, you have the option to warp back to your home base. You’ve gotta stay alive for a few seconds to do it, though.

When you die, you lose your “shell,” aka the body you were piloting. Any loot and stats on that character’s person go into the void, or maybe some colossal outer space worm god’s trophy case. However, you do continuously level up, and you get to keep any loot you’ve stored in your home base, along with cash you’ve collected. Slowly but surely, you progress and unlock new classes, even though you lose your most important earnings every time you die.

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It’s quite clearly roguelike-inspired, but the game’s MMO aspect adds another variable to the mix. Each time you roll a new character, you get the usual questions—“How will the levels be generated?” “What sort of loot will I get?” etc—but also new ones like “How many people will I be running this area with?” “How skilled are they?” and “How many will survive?” It adds a lot of weight to the classic just-one-more-run roguelike temptation, because there’s so much variability. If you get matched with the right group (or one that’s stupidly huge enough) bosses that normally cream you turn into a breeze. This might change at later levels, but I haven’t gotten that far yet.

The whole thing reminds me of Realm of the Mad God, a fast-paced permadeath fantasy MMO. StarBreak is more or less that, but sci-fi and sidescrolling instead of top-down. It’s best summed up by this oddly poignant Steam review:

Also it’s free-to-play, so if nothing else, it’s worth a shot. Or three thousand individual shots coming from 30-some-odd players at the same time, as it were.

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