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Thursday, 24 February 2011

Deathsmiles Deluxe Edition (XBox 360)

I've been playing arcade games for five decades now. Yeah, I'm only thirty-nine years old, but I started at the back end of the Seventies, with games like Space Invaders and Galaxian. In all that time, I've always gravitated towards shoot 'em ups. There's just some primal thrill to be had from cutting down waves of enemy attackers in a hail of bullets.

In recent years, arcade games have taken a massive popularity hit, particularly in the West, where it seems that the few arcades that are left are stocked with nothing but rhythm or racing games. There is one last bastion of "true" arcade gaming left, though... Japan.


Look at them... they look like butter wouldn't melt in their mouths. Well, except for Rosa...

The Japanese, from what I've read, still seem to have a fairly vibrant arcade scene. They have legendary fighting tournaments on games like Street Fighter, and they're also incredibly good at shoot 'em ups. We're not talking about the likes of Galaxian here, though... the humble shooter has evolved in Japan, and there's a sub-genre that is especially prominent... the bullet hell shooter.

The bullet hell shooter is a daunting experience for the novice or the uninitated. Generally, they start off much like any other arcade shooter, but it doesn't take long before you find otherwise, and crazy enemies are spewing ridiculous, screen-filling amounts of projectiles in every direction. There are times where it seems impossible to survive, but for the absolute best players, everything is survivable...


Well, no point delaying any longer... here we go...

I've convinced myself over the years that I love bullet hell shooters, to the point where I wrote an article on my PS2 collection for Way of the Rodent, a few years ago. In truth, there are many of them that I don't love, but appreciate... and some of them are truly hateful. And yet, I still enjoy subjecting myself to them, even though I'm rubbish at them. I can't help buying new releases, possibly in tribute to an age-old game style, more probably because I just love high score games where you shoot things. And so it was that I came to buy Deathsmiles.

If there's one developer whose name stands above all others in the world of the bullet hell shooter, then it's probably Cave (sorry, dear departed Psikyo). They're legendary for making gorgeous games that are a lot of fun, but that will make you cry bloody tears due to the amount of bullets you have to wend your way through. Deathsmiles was produced by Cave. Now my eyes hurt.


Bad doggy! Bad, bad, REALLY BAD doggy!

Deathsmiles tells the story of four girls (five, if you play the Mega Black Label version) that were taken from their world at various points in their lives and relocated to the world of Gilverado. Unbeknownst to them, they each had the magical powers needed to save this world from a demon scourge that is finding its way through a mysterious portal to Gilverado. This is where you take up the story, and control of the girl of your choice, to put down this demon uprising once and for all, and maybe win your way back to your true home in the process...

The story is somewhat inconsequential; it's really just an excuse to put some young anime girls into a bullet hell game. If you've ever played a bullet hell game, you'll have noticed that's another way the games differ from Western shmups... they tend not to have you controlling a spaceship, preferring instead to have a more human-looking central protagonist. It's a bit weird at first to see these delicate flowers whizzing about the screen, dealing large amounts of pink laser death... but only a bit, and not for long.


Fly, fly my pretty...

Deathsmiles gives you six core areas to tackle... only once you've defeated all six can you move on towards the final showdown and the opportunity to save Gilverado. You're allowed to take on these six levels not quite in any order you wish, but you must zigzag between the bottom three levels and the top three. In doing so, you have a freedom of choice... do you take on your favourite levels first for the opportunity of big points, or do you get the ones you like least out of the way as soon as possible?

Another feature that goes a long way towards making the game more accessible is the difficulty select. Each of the first six levels has a choice of three difficulties (four in the Mega Black Label version), thus catering for players of all (well, most) abilities. Now I know I said I was rubbish at these games, and I am, relatively speaking. But in Deathsmiles, set at difficulty level 1, I found I was able to make satisfactory progress. In fact, my very first game was a thrill as I weaved my way through the first six levels on my first credit!


Oh, you're so hard-faced.

That was where it all came crashing down for me, though. There's no such option once you get to Hades' Castle... it's rock hard! And I soon found myself hitting the Continue button again and again. Now, I'd expected this anyway, and in fact I'd expected to be doing it way earlier in the game. It's actually the one small complaint I have with the game, though... it would have been nice for beginners to the genre, or those of a more cack-handed nature, to be given the option of playing all the way through to the end at the easiest difficulty setting.

I mentioned near the beginning of this review that I'm rubbish at games like this, but during my time with Deathsmiles I've noticed a genuine improvement in my playing ability. I'm by no means great at the game, but with a couple of the characters I'm now able to get quite far and with much better scores than I'd have previously expected. I'm not saying you should be looking for me at the top of any leaderboards, but I'm definitely getting better, which is very satisfying.


When I said I looked good in pink, I didn't mean it that way...

Now that I'm coming to the end of this write-up, I must give a special mention to the packaging of this game. I can imagine that games like this can be a difficult sell outside their niche market, so Rising Star has gone well beyond the call of duty in providing a package that will satisfy every whim of the hardcore fan, whilst providing enough extras to tempt the newcomer. You get six (count 'em!) versions of the game... Arcade, XBox 360 (Arcade, but with smartened visuals and selectable difficulty) and V1.1 (a 360 exclusive variant with added gameplay features)... and then you get those three again in Mega Black Label form, with an extra stage, difficulty level and playable character.

As if that wasn't enough, Deathsmiles has shipped in Europe as a Deluxe Edition, and you'll find three discs inside your box. Disc two is an official soundtrack CD. I've had these in games before... usually they'll give you half a dozen tracks from the game, possibly even in edited form. Not here... you get a twenty-three track disc, featuring seventeen tunes from the game for over an hour of music, plus half a dozen vocal tracks, if that's your thing. The tracks come as .WAV files... fine for a PC, but not a CD player. I've read on their forum that this was an oversight and if you get in touch with Rising Star Games, they'll sort you out with an audio CD verion. Outstanding.


Oh well. It was fun while it lasted...

And then there's disc three, which gives you an assortment of PC desktop toys... wallpapers, screensavers, that kind of thing. It's just a little thing, many people might not use it and they didn't have to put it in there... but the fact they did just shows how much they care about giving the customer a quality all-round product.

Deathsmiles is a great game, but it's an outstanding release, especially for the price. It gives you exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat blasting action, and with the number of characters, game versions, game strategies and scoring systems, it's an incredibly deep game, for something that at first glance might look incredibly shallow. If you're an old-school arcade gamer, you owe it to yourself to pick this up. If you're not, you could do worse than give it a try, for something a bit different to the norm. If Rising Star can get hold of more Cave games, give them similar treatment and release them in Europe, there will be a lot of very happy gamers. Rising Star Games... after Deadly Premonition and now Deathsmiles, I'd say your star has truly risen.

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