Crazy Japanese Shmup Is Crazy
The only Westerm fans of Japanese gaming that have it worse than the JRPG lovers are the shoot ‘em up, or shmup, or “bullet hell” fans. This is one genre that has NOT fared well outside of Japan as gamers flock to the much more popular first person shooter. Blame it on skill levels going down, or tastes changing where Western gamers want see those bullets coming right at their face, rather than some abstract ship on the left/bottom side of the screen, but the days when intense shooters requiring warp-speed neural transmission were sitting at the top of the heap have long passed. So that’s why in one sense, there’s almost no point to this review. Akai Katana is a shmup, by the much loved shmup developer Cave. That right there is going to guarantee that for the starved fans of the genre, this is a guaranteed buy. Fortunately for them, they won’t be disappointed.
This Shmup Has Shot A Million Holes In Its Own Plot
There actually is a story to Akai Katana, though it’s hopelessly arcane for a game about dodging a lot and shooting everything that moves. In an alternate history version of our world, Taisho-era Japan comes across a power source known as Guiding Ore which essentially acts as cold fusion; a clean, near limitless supply of energy. Coal and primitive methods of electrical generation give way to this new power supply, and in short order, Japan uses this new found power to subjugate the nation, and then expand to the others surrounding it. A group of generals using the more mystical elements of this power source wreak havoc with the world, and it’s up to a small group of freedom fighters—and their phantom guardians, which, thanks to Guiding Ore, they can summon up—to restore justice and freedom to the world. Again, by shooting EVERYTHING that moves. It’s a pointlessly elaborate story that seems to have been created in order to justify the idea that teen schoolgirls could pilot aircraft with unlimited amounts of ammo, and summon up pseudo-Yaoi guardians. It’s not particularly well crafted, but it has just enough meat on its bones that somewhere, out there, a fan-fiction writer is already crafting lurid sexual encounters between the various characters.
Moving on to the presentation, what we’re looking at here is a classic, 2D, raster-graphic, horizontally side-scrolling shooter. That pretty much translates to the strength of its graphical appeal coming down strictly to your own preferences in art design. I personally found that the art direction, while competent, wasn’t that technically impressive, with other Japanese developers like Vanillaware—and titles like Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade—producing much more elaborate art work, and in greater variety. Akai Katana is actually a two year old arcade game coming to Western Xbox 360s embarrassingly late to the party, but even considering that, there have been a lot of interesting things done with traditional raster graphics even before 2010, so that hardly excuses the game. One of the most surprising things, from a technical stand-point, is the slow-down. Yup, even though this is an entirely 2D game with nary a polygon in sight, there are rare moments—usually when the term “bullet hell” is living up to its name—that the performance takes a hit. It’s not often, but I did notice it during my play-throughs of the game. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, though purists may balk at the unintentional “freebie” the game gives less skilled players by slowing down slightly during its most insane moments.
The sound of the game is pretty much text-book Japanese shmup. Rising Star didn’t bother to localize any of the audio when they brought this game over, so unless you’re fluent in Japanese, you’ll be bombarded with high-pitched squealing that you’ll have to provide your own tentacle-assisted imaginary translations for. The music is similarly hyper-kinetic, threatening to burst a vein in its own figurative forehead with how fast-paced and excitable it gets, but again, this is an unapologetic, purely Japanese shmup and fans of the genre aren’t getting anything here they’re not already familiar with. It doesn’t really do much for owners with a multi-surround speaker set up, but then it’s a shmup. It doesn’t have to.
Everything Wants To Kill You
The Shmup is a genre with pretty well-defined boundaries. You control your avatar—in this case, a plane—you dodge like crazy while a million buzillion things shoot 16 million buzillion bullets, and occasionally you fight bosses and mini-bosses that require a lot of shots to take out. Cave Interactive is one of the few developers out there still creating new love letters in the genre for fans, and Akai Katana, despite some minor performance issues, manages to satisfy that craving in a good way. In addition to the usual bullet hell conventions of special-attacks/smart bombs that obliterate everything on the screen, there’s actually a fair amount of subtlety to this shooter that will require some quick thinking in addition to quick reflexes. The shooting has a few different modes, including a defensive mode, an offensive mode, and a more mobile mode. Offense does what you’d think, concentrating everything into firepower with the trade-off that you now move with less agility. The mobile mode compensates for this with more speed and zip, but you’re not doing quite as much damage to your targets, which is a serious issue with mini-bosses and bosses. The defense mode is interesting because it kicks in when you either tap the shoot button once, or just don’t’ shoot at all. It attracts the energy pods that enemies dropped when killed, which contributes to an energy bar that will allow you to summon your phantom guardian. Invoke the phantom guardian and the defense mode now acts as invincibility, and all shots ricochet off the guardian, a handy ability to have in tight spots.
This adds an extra layer of strategy to the usual bullet hell proceedings, and gives the game some surprising depth. It’s not easy to dodge an onslaught of enemy fire when there’s only the tiniest opportunity to slip through, but it’s made even more interesting by the phantom guardian option as well as the defense mode. In some ways, this game is going to be as much of a test of the player’s ability to strategize in high pressure situations, as it is a test of the usual twitch reflexes. The game, mercifully for those willing to try a shmup for the first time, has unlimited continues that pick up right where you left off. The true test of the game, of course, will lie with those who compete on the ranked leaderboards, and try to finish the game on a single “credit,” in true arcade aficionado style. There’s also an option for a second player to join in, but traditional shumps are best played with a lone player testing his might against a ridiculous array of enemies.
If you’re into shmups, you’re going to buy this if you haven’t already. It has minor performance issues, but otherwise delivers in all the ways that matter, with an added layer of complexity thanks to the firing modes and guardian companion mechanics. If you’re never played a shoot ‘em up before and are thinking of getting into it now, the gameplay itself is approachable for the open minded, but relentless Japanese-ness of the package may be off-putting to people that don’t normally expect teen schoolgirls to save the day.