March 12, 2011

News #1 - Extensive impressions on some new games

So it turns out it I hadn't bought any shoot 'em up games for almost the whole year 2010. Looking at some old score posts it seems that I purchased Under Defeat (Dreamcast) back in October 2009, Hellfire in November and Tatsujin (both Mega Drive) in December. And then absolutely nothing! It's once again weird how fast the time passes, I barely noticed it was such a long period without any new purchases in my favourite video game genre. But it wasn't that bad after all, there was still plenty of time to be spent with the freeware game XOP Black and especially the Dreamcast including all of its shmup awesomeness namingly Giga Wing, Zero Gunner 2, Mars Matrix and a bit of Under Defeat. I'm happy about that as my purse wasn't that well filled this year anyway...

But it's very likely that you just can't live without new stuff. As I had spent enough time on the above mentioned games, it was about time and my opportunity arrived in the last days of the year 2010. So I could celebrate the sudden arrival of four new shmups in my collection: the brandnew independently developed games Crimzon Clover and Fast Striker as well as Homura and Dragon Blaze as the start of my Playstation 2 collection. Some years ago, I would have played them all mixed up, but of course I've learnt that this doens't work out too well. So what do you do in that situation which was kind of new to me? Probably try them all out, stick with 1 or 2 and that's what I did. Meanwhile I could play all of them quite a bit, except Dragon Blaze which will have to wait a little more. While it's still too early to write detailed reviews, I'd like to post my impressions on these games. So if you're still hesitating whether to buy Crimzon Clover and Fast Striker, this might help you. Here we go.

Fast Striker (Dreamcast)

Last Hope isn't my cup of tea. I can tell so by watching 2 or 3 videos. R-Type like, memorization based, frustrating gameplay - there are many things in this world that are more fun. But surprise surprise, NG:DEV.TEAM developed, created Fast Striker as a serious effort to invade the arcades and the homes of serious score players. Four difficulty modes are included, so one thing is for sure: If you like the basic mechanics and game design, you will find a mode which perfectly suits you. Novice is rather uninteresting for experienced shmup players, very easy to 1CC. I also don't like the weaponry of your ship here. But it's very hard to find fault with any of the other modes. Omake is a little too hard for my taste, but still fun that way. Original is the default mode and concentrates on survival. Your ship is equipped with a spread shot to take care of enemy hordes more easily and with a very strong concentrated forward shot that kills powerful enemies and bosses quickly. Aside from the weapons, what makes this mode so fun are the few and simple, yet fun scoring mechanics. Destroyed enemies leave gold nuggets which imcrease your chain respectively multiplier. Shooting big enemies with your forward shot milks some bigger nuggets out of them. Last but not least surviving long enough activates devil rank where certain enemies leave suicide bullets, the difficulty is maxed out, but it is also much easier to grab the nuggets.

Maniac is where things get more complex. Chaining is now enemy based like in Dodonpachi. Shit, I hate this sort of scoring, I doubt I would ever try serious scoring attempts in a Dodonpachi game. But you know what? Fast Striker keeps it clearer, doesn't make it as hard and most importantly adds an element of forgiveness. When your chain breaks it's not the end of the world, the chain counter isn't reset, but drops so that you have some time to recover. Man great, I really like it this way. Maniac adds another scoring mechanic as well. When you focus your laser (the equivalent of the strong forward shot in Original) on big enemies, the beam turns from blue to green for a few seconds or longer if you continue to laser big baddies. With the green laser enemies give more points and point blanking them gives you nuggets which greatly contribute to your chain. Devil rank is now harder to reach and to hold, but gets much more important and adds another awesome element to the risk & reward system. When devil rank is activated you don't just get the standard scoring items, but NG:DEV.TEAM logos which add more points and increase your chain further. Bullet cancelling enemies and bosses yield you a ton of these logos. So better try your best to hold devil rank as long as you can. Dying, breaking your chain and using shields decreases the rank though the usage of one or two shields every once in a while may still retain devil rank. Omake takes Maniac's gameplay to the extreme. Very hard and for expert players and/or masochists only. Not to forget, in all modes you can get secrets throughout the stages and earn technical bonuses by destroying certain boss parts before finishing them off. What NG:DEV.TEAM managed astoundingly well in the end is to create this scoring system that is complex yet intuitive. While there are many different ways to increase your score, everything is easy to understand, adds positively to the challenge and is fun to do. Also the scoring mechanics don't get in each other's way, but harmonize well. The nice, tight level designs, varied enemies and fast, fluid, uncomplicated gameplay leave further positive impressions.

Unfortunately there are some things which I don't like at all. The balancing has flaws. The stage 1 boss spams bullets all over the place while the stage 2 boss has some very easy to dodge patterns. The 4th boss is also easier than the 3rd. Another example: in the middle of stage 3 there's a passage where a whole lot of the powerful bullet-spamming enemies enter the screen at once, together with a bunch of popcorn. You barely have enough firepower to destroy all of them and find yourself in bullet hell. Cruel bullet hell. It would be ok for its own maybe, but it feels unnaturally difficult compared to the rest of the stage. More balancing between the modes would also have been nice. The stages, weapons and scoring mechanics differ, but the bosses always shoot the exact same patterns in every mode besides Omake. I guess the idea was that the different weapons from each mode shall influence the length and thus the difficulty of the boss fight, but it doesn't feel right especially because boss fights in Novice are harder than in Original for that reason. Another problem is devil rank. Once you're in its fine, challenging and especially on Maniac and Omake very rewarding. But if you have the "luck" to enter devil rank by destroying a big enemy, you're welcome by suicide bullets you don't expect. You can avoid this by being careful in the first place, but it's still a bit unfair. Last but not least some of the patterns bother me. It could just be me, but I find dodging in Fast Striker harder than in most other games. The main reason seems to be that some patterns aren't as refined and fair designed as I'd like them to be. They just throw the shit at you without letting you the necessary breathing space. It is just a small number of patterns though, many of them are fun to dodge. The problem: they use the same formular too often. Like when you have to dodge through a slow pattern and then the fast red aimed bullets appear. More variety please! In conclusion this looks like a lot of complaints, but be aware that I criticize mostly small issues which don't destroy the game, Fast Striker is still very fun overall! I hope the Hellwig brothers will continue to develop and improve the way they did from Last Hope to this game. Then more great shmups will await us in the future.

Regarding graphics Fast Striker became the expected mixed bag. The visual style is awesome, I especially love the enemy and boss designs a lot. The backgrounds are also nice, but - you guessed it - don't offer even a bit of variety, with the exception of stage 4. Sadly some parts of the backgrounds in the final stage have been cut out on the Dreamcast port, thus it looks quite dull, too. The main problem about the graphics though is the colourful style which looks nice, but can cause problems. When there are lots of stuff on the screen, preferably bullets of too many different colours, enemies and scoring items, the overview suffers. That leads to confusion and some cheap frustrating deaths. Speaking of which I don't like different colour bullets anyway (unless they are somewhat similar like blue and green), so others might not find it that disturbing. Technically Fast Striker is almost flawless, slowdown occurs only seldom in Omake mode. If you like trance, chances are high you'll also dig the soundtrack. I'm not really into that kind of music, yet I like some of the music quite a bit, especially stage 1 and 3.

Crimzon Clover (PC)

Now THIS game is one of the most incredible things I've ever seen. Right out of the blue Yotsubane gives us his first game which looks like he has developed shmups for his entire life already. Everything about Crimzon Clover screams perfect. The scoring system is deep yet easy to pick up. You basically have two shots, standard and lock-on. The system evolves around a multiplier which constantly diminishes, but can be raised by destroying enemies. When destroying a bigger group of enemies with one lock-on shot you gets you a lot of stars and another multiplier for a short time. Moreover you can raise the break bar by killing enemies, once it is half full you can use a bomb. Once it is full, you can fill up a second bar and are free to enter Break mode. During Break mode (lasts approximately 10 seconds) you get invincibility for a few seconds, become faster, your shot is more powerful, the multiplier is double as high as before and you constantly get stars when shooting baddies. Not enough, if you fill up the second bar during Break mode you can enter Double Break mode where the multiplier is doubled once again, your fire fills practically the whole screen and you get even more scoring items. The break modes are plain fun, not to say maybe some of the coolest things ever giving you the power to kill giant enemy waves in seconds. It needs some time to get used to all the small scoring tricks like positioning full lock-ons, point-blanking enemies to fill your break bar faster and find out the best break timings, but that's part of the fun. Luckily you don't have to learn exact stage routes to get decent scores, the game allows for some freedom and spontaneity without breaking your score. The high amount of extends and practically infinite bombs also make Crimzon Clover more motivating than frustrating as you're always able to suit your strategies to your current ingame situation. Graphically, all I can say is that the visual effects are just sick. At times I still can't believe what is going on on the screen. Masses of enemy sprites, bullets, lasers, stars everywhere and not to forget your own weapons (especially in the break modes) result in a visual firework that you simply have to see. Yet the overview is maintained most of the time. Moreover Crimzon Clover offers some of the most imaginative level designs, enemy formations and shot patterns which are out there. It just never stops throwing things at you which take your breath away.

The only real problem about this game are the system requirements. Too much for my laptop. Crimzon Clover slows down intentionally when there are tons of bullets onscreen, but for me it does way too often. The built-in frames counter should always stay at 60 fps, for me it slows down to 20 frames at the most extreme parts. So I quit posting my scores on Shmups forum as they would be far from legit, continued playing a little bit, but then lost my motivation because of that. This is a shame admittedly because Crimzon Clover is one of the best shooting games ever made. Oh yeah I mean it! It's just so awesome it's unbelievable! Later I will definitely continue playing on my own or simply try to get a better PC. This game deserves it. If you want to play Crimzon Clover on your PC and run it without unintended slowdown, you will need to fulfill these system requirements:

Windows 7/Vista/XP
DirectX 9.0c
2,8 Ghz processor
500 MB space on your HDD

I couldn't find anything about graphic card requirements, but I suppose you shouldn't have a bad one either.

Homura (Playstation 2)

After I had stopped playing Crimzon Clover and achieved good scores in Fast Striker, it was time for the next challenge. I didn't hook up the Playstation 2 earlier because I still needed to get an RGB cable to enjoy the games in full 60 Hz glory. Homura was one of my most wanted shmups and probably the reason why I chose the Playstation 2 over the Xbox 360 for now. It didn't click with me instantly as much as I had expected, but after some time and getting used to all the techniques, I love everything about it. Even some of the less detailed background graphics don't bother me. The setting and overall graphical style are great, the tracking shots well crafted and the enemy design coherent. Yet the orchestral soundtrack is even much more interesting. It gives Homura a distinctive, somewhat dark and very epic atmosphere on a level which sadly is seldom for shoot 'em ups nowadays. It perfectly supports the gameplay experience and makes it feel complete. Speaking of which, let's finally talk about the gameplay. Skonec's shooter caught my attention with similarities to other games at first: the Giga Wing series (one of my favourites) with the similar bullet reflecting tool and Shikigami no Shiro (one of my other most wanted shmups) where the character also attracts the gold items when defeating enemies with some kind of special attack. With similarities to these games, they could hardly go wrong. But Homura still has a lot of individuality. The bullet reflecting has to be approached differently, the Thunder Attack where the character dashes around the screen killing all enemies is a cool idea, too. The scoring system is a bit confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's top notch. Bullet hoarding does play a role though it is not as important as in Giga Wing, simply because your "reflect" phase is so short here. It's more important to get a good timing and slashing the tight patterns to hit as many bullets as possible. Like in Takumi's games it is huge fun to use of the overwhelming enemy fire to your own good. Besides the shot patterns are like an own piece of art, fascinating to watch, fun to dodge and to slash back. One remarkable thing about Homura is its forgiveness. When you die you don't lose your current bomb stock, but get an extra one. That means you still can use all the bombs which are available in the game if you don't lose your last life with bombs in stock. You're score won't get hurt by dying either (missed enemies, slashes etc. not counted). So if you're not going for a world record score, an early death won't hurt you. Personally, I sometimes tend to do rage restarts when I die early or make small mistakes, in Homura I sure won't ever do such things. This way Skonec eliminated a lot of potential frustration. The only things I don't like concern the awkward controls when activating a bomb. Also accidentally executing a thunder attack instead of slashing bullets happens now and then in stage 4 because it's hard to see some enemies in all that chaos. I may revoke this complaint while mastering the stage though.

You could call Homura rather a beautiful experience than just a game. A very special and underrated gem.

Dragon Blaze (Playstation 2)

Only played a few credits here so far. I came, I saw, I didn't conquer. This will be one tough challenge as it's probably one of the hardest shoot 'em ups ever. What I can say right now is that the scoring system seems great. I did like the coin system in Gunbird 2 and Strikers 1999, yet this is a very nice change. The need of flying very high on the screen to destroy the enemies with dragon shot and being as offensive as possible makes it feel like no other shmup. It's harder to pick up though, you will have to plan your routes carefully to get the desired gold coins and not to get caught by enemy fire. Additionally, this is for sure the most hectic shmup expierence I know, with the exception of Dangun Feveron. I hated Cave's shooter for that, but I sure hope it will be different with Dragon Blaze. In the end this is definitely Psikyo madness as usual, fast bullets, crazy rank, memorization fest, seems even harder than Gunbird 2. Which doesn't have to be bad. We'll see.

Incidentally I changed the site layout and blog title (which was just a stupid working title anyway) from horrible to not too bad. I hope at least. Moreover I'm playing and reviewing Battletoads & Double Dragon on Super Nintendo. Don't ever touch this game, you'd regret it! Not even the toads could save it from being toadally average and unnecessary.