A change of pace, in more ways than one.
Gene Effect is not a clear homage to any one particular game, but after five minutes of play, you know exactly where and when its developers are coming from. Whether intentional or not, it’s clear that the developers still hold a lot of love for the European computer games of the early ‘90s. Classics like Exile, Paradroid, and Thrust all leave trace influences, and while the result isn’t close to any of these games, it clearly remembers them fondly.
Gene Effect’s German developer Lightstorm 3D primarily works as a visual effects studio, doing outsourced contract work on films, commercials, and games. This, however, is a more personal affair. Dirk Bialluch began his career working on the Commodore 64, back when one or two people could develop and publish a game, and Gene Effect is likewise the product of only two developers. Dirk not only wrote, directed, and programmed the title, but created the sounds and music, while his partner Marco Windrich handled the graphics and level design.
It’s difficult to categorize Gene Effect’s gameplay. It’s a game of action and exploration, but with a slow pace and ambient atmosphere unlike what screenshots might suggest. You use a virtual analog stick to control a small vessel sent to explore a series of abandoned mines to gather intelligence and recover artifacts of an ancient race. You float around these chasms slowly, and touching the sides even gently will damage your ship. In an interesting twist, your ship has very little offensive capability. You can charge up a radial blast to clear out obstacles and reveal hidden items, but most of your survival will depend on deftly avoiding hazards rather than taking them out. You will occasionally find probes that can fire on enemy targets, but these are so limited that their use is more of a puzzle than anything.
The result is a game of slow, considered movement and careful exploration. You will not be mashing a fire button, and defeating the various hazards found in the mines is more a matter of planning than deft maneuvering. This fits well with the moody style of the game’s visuals, as your tiny ship illuminates the dark passages with a yellow flicker. The music is as dark, ominous, and ambient as the environments, and a pair of headphones is absolutely essential to really enjoying the experience.
Despite the slow pace and the focus on exploration, Gene Effect has been wisely broken into fairly small, manageable stages. In each level, there is a list of objectives that need to be completed before the exit can be activated. Levels are non-linear, and there are various switches and doors to figure your way around. Tasks usually involve finding items or gathering resources and bringing them to the appropriate location – variations on the exploration theme. While this probably isn’t the sort of game you want to play for a few minutes on the train, these levels are pretty much all less than 10 or 15 minutes, and quite reasonable for a portable game.
Part of what makes Gene Effect appealing is the mere fact that it’s just so different from everything else you’ll find in the mobile market. Although the spirit of the Amiga 500 burns brightly in its spooky sci-fi atmosphere and methodical pace, this is far from a genre game. For anyone bored of the throngs of platformers, racing games, and RPGs out there, they may find relief in the ambient atmosphere and unconventional mechanics of Gene Effect.