I hate the term “shmup”. It originated back in the days of Zzap64 magazine as a condensation of the term “shoot-em-up”, and, over the past decade, has become the most common term to refer to a style of game that the Japanese have always called “shooting games” or “STGs” for short. It’s an ugly, grunty word that fails to encapsulate just how completely awesome and fun these games can be. So you’ll forgive me if, for the entirely of this review, I stick with the Japanese term.
With that out of the way, let’s take a good look at the latest from Japanese shooting game specialist, Cave. Cave’s brand of bullet hell shooting has become somewhat synonymous with recent entries in the genre, helped in part by their games featuring in Youtube videos with titles such as “the hardest video game boss ever”. If you don’t actively play these games, the impression you might get is of a hyper-difficult credit-muncher, but the reality is a little more simple.
Cave are, if nothing else, masters of balance. Their games have become, over time, supremely balanced. You might go take a look at the Youtube videos and think I’ve lost it, but once you sit down and learn the subtleties, it becomes clear that there are very smart people working at Cave, and they think about all kinds of complicated things.
A lot of this thinking comes across in Akai Katana. While Cave generally make vertically-scrolling shooters, this is their fourth attempt, after Progear No Arashi and the Deathsmiles games, at a horizontal or side-scroller. In many ways, it feels a lot like a spiritual successor to Progear, using a similar steampunk-inspired visual style and the same pilot/gunner team-ups for the planes. The similarities end there, however, as Akai Katana has a lot more to offer in terms of scoring and surviving.
On the XBox 360, Akai Katana offers three modes: Origin, Climax and Slash. Origin mode is the original game as it would have appeared in the arcades, without visual enhancements or other niceties. Climax mode is the same as Origin, but enhanced for the 360, using a widescreen view and higher resolution graphics. Unless you’re a complete arcade purist, this is the best way to experience the original game. Slash is a new arranged mode of the game that adds new gameplay mechanics and scoring opportunities.
The scoring system for Akai Katana is fairly simple (at least, compared to most Cave titles) and revolves around the use of the Summoning mode. As you play, green energy orbs will fill up a meter that also serves as your life meter. At any time while you have this energy, you can enter summoning mode, which causes your shot to change into a more powerful form, and also captures any enemy bullets coming towards you. These bullets are converted to gold point items, which can then be cashed in by leaving summoning mode. They also contribute to the end of level bonus. The key to scoring well is learning when the best times to drop in and out of summoning mode are.
Slash mode adds an extra item to collect called metal, which charges up a meter around your ship. When each step of this meter lights up, you can activate and fire off a set of sword blades that move across the screen. When the blades collide with enemies, they slow down, and release point items. The key here is to use the blades on larger enemies that will survive more hits and release bigger point items.
You might notice I said “life meter” before, but don’t go thinking Cave have gone soft and have allowed you to survive more than one hit per life. A single bullet hit will still kill you. The reason for having health is so you can survive damage caused by certain enemies that use beam attacks. Having life will allow you to stay in these beams for very brief periods of time, giving you some survivability while dodging the regular bullets coming at you.
Visually, Akai Katana shows just how good Cave are at producing 2D graphics. Everything, from the backgrounds to the sprites and effects is lovingly detailed and animated. While many recent shooting games have gone the 2D-gameplay-with–3D-graphics (aka 2.5D) route, Cave have continued to refine and perfect their pure 2D style. 3D effects are used, generally for transparencies and glow effects, but nothing that would tax even a low-powered 3D system. This isn’t surprising when you consider the game ran on a 133Mhz Hitachi SuperH-based system in the arcades (a custom hardware design that has powered all of Cave’s post-Type X2 games so far).
The music in Akai Katana is a return to the early styles of DoDonPachi, using energetic guitar rock rather than the electronic soundtracks of recent styles. I can’t say I prefer it to the excellent soundtracks for ESPGaluda and Mushihimesama, but it’s still pretty good to listen to as you blast away.
I think that Akai Katana is Cave’s best side-scrolling effort yet. They’ve managed to merge their bullet-hell gameplay with the more traditional style of shooting game. By getting rid of physical obstacles and walls that often make side-scrollers tricky to learn, they’ve been able to keep their famous hard and fast gameplay style. The recent Cave trend of removing power-ups almost entirely continues here as well, saving you the hassle of dying while trying to chase those vital power up items around the screen.
All in all, Akai Katana offers a lot of bullet hell fun, although it’s a game you need to put a lot of time in to really master and get big scores. You can, of course, download high score replays from the online leader boards, and these can be a useful way of learning the techniques needed to master this kind of game. The only downside to the European release is that it only allows European high-scores, so the much more advanced Japanese scoreboards are off-limits.
No matter what, Akai Katana is another solid shooting effort from Cave, and well worth checking out.
Akai Katana is available on the XBox 360. The copy used in this review was supplied by Dungeon Crawl.