Review: Bullet-hell shoot-em-up veterans CAVE bring arcade release AKAI KATANA to the Xbox 360. But does this high-definition update offer more style than substance? Read on for our verdict…
Here’s how your first hour with Akai Katana will play out:
Hit start and you’ll arrive at the menu screen. It seems normal enough, until you realise you can actually scroll left and right as well as up and down. Doing so allows you to choose between three different game modes: Origin, Slash and Climax. Logic dictates that, as a new player, you’ll probably want to play Origin mode first. You’ll select it, pick a character from a choice of three (or two if you’re with a co-op partner), and begin.
You’re off instantly. Helicopters are whizzing by, APCs and tanks trundle along the ground, turrets take pot shots from below. You’re assaulted by projectiles of all shapes and sizes: blue ones, red ones, large circular ones, small circular ones, ones with stars on them; rapid fire ones, slow-moving ones, thin ones, thick ones, bombs, grenades. Then there are the patterns: lines of them, waves of them, spirals of them, and walls of them, all leaving the tiniest of gaps for you to slip through in teeth-gritting anxiety.
Your ship offers some reasonable retaliation, though, and it’s easy to lose track of enemy fire amidst the torrent of bullets fired from your end. Strange objects will emerge from the enemy’s explosive debris, mostly green orbs and golden coins, although their purpose will remain mostly a mystery. You’ll hit X and transform from a warplane into a shielded human being with a giant cannon. In this form you’ll start to make some progress, but then you will die. And die again. And once again.
You’ll pause to consult the manual – just what do all these elements do? – and question the last time a game actually made you do such a crazy thing. Read the manual? Those sweet-smelling sheets of paper that tell you to take a break every hour? The thing that’s always on top of the important pieces of paper in the case, you know, the online pass code, the day-one DLC code and the retailer exclusive pre-order code? You want me to read that?
But you’ve got to. You’ll flick through the Origin Mode section and absorb – at most – three details explained to you there.
Rules of engagement
Number one: Your ship has a defence and attack mode. The former is activated by tapping the fire button to use a slightly weaker attack, but it allows for greater manoeuvrability. The latter, is enabled by holding the fire button, granting stronger damaging attacks at the cost of movement speed.
Number two: By filling up your energy bar with those green orbs dropping from exploded foes, you can summon your ship’s “Phantom Form”. The Phantom has higher attack power, grants temporary invulnerability and automatically repels nearby projectiles.
Number three: When all else fails, use a bomb to clear the screen.
Now you’ll jump in again, doing your best to apply all three lessons (with liberal use of the third.) You’ll fill up the energy bar and take sharp inhalations of breath as you squeeze between more projectiles. You’ll develop strategies, see what works, what doesn’t, die, succeed and continually learn.
Mastering Akai Katana is a process, a frustrating, agonising, painful and wonderful process. As you piece together the way your ship, Phantom and score are all related, you’ll see the rewards in screen-clearing explosions of bullets and enemies erupting in a fountain of gold score items to collect.
At this point, you’ve probably defeated the first boss and their ridiculous screen-filling vehicle summoned from the void. Congratulations! Don’t be disheartened that your score has barely scratched the seemingly unobtainable record glaring at you from the top of the screen, though. That’s the next part of the demoralising crawl up the game’s learning curve.
When enemies are demolished in a particular manner, usually when you’re in Phantom Form, they’ll drop a number of score items ranging in size: small, medium or large. Obtaining the largest is achieved through a finicky process of evolving items in Origin mode.
When in attack mode, energy orbs will rotate around your “option” – a secondary, er, shiny thing, that follows your ship and gives supporting fire. By allowing enemy projectiles to come into contact with the orbs they will grow in size and give a greater boost to your energy bar. Similarly, when in Phantom Form, score objects will be drawn to you ship and orbit it while growing steadily.
In both cases, it’s up to you to decide when to absorb them, as leaving them out in the open for too long risks losing them completely. Staying in attack mode obviously leaves you more vulnerable as you move slower, but on top of that it encourages the insane tactic of dancing close enough to bullets in order to grow energy orbs.
In that first hour, putting these techniques into practice is a monumental task. Especially when your attention is easily distracted by the desire to just destroy everything on screen in the hope that it may cease the shower of bullets for just a few seconds. There’s so much to manage it can be overwhelming. However, it’s exactly why Akai Katana is so compelling. How far are you willing to push it? You’ve got to manage the delicate balance between greed and safety; a new record or an average performance; a miraculous escape or an unavoidable death.
Once you’ve cut your teeth in Origin mode, there’s a whole new game to learn in Slash mode. A number of significant differences in scoring and your ship’s capabilities start the process all over again. In this mode enemies drop steel orbs when destroyed using your ship’s defensive attacks. They can be stocked up and then activated when you enter Phantom Form, to surround your ship with up to sixteen of them.
Then, when you enter attack mode, they’re fired in the direction you choose, clearing a path through any projectiles in their way, but also generating another item pickup – katanas. These ethereal blades can deliver the game’s most devastating attack, eradicating everything in their wake, dealing huge chunks of damage to bosses and generating the largest score items to collect.
Whereas Origin is about using your Phantom to protect yourself from death, Slash is centered on collecting enough steel orbs – and thus, katanas – to carve a route through the screen of bullets and destroy as many targets in the way. It’s far easier to grasp than the intricacies of Origin and far more satisfying, what with the glorious destruction caused by the orbs and katanas.
Akai Katana is such a blast to play because of these flourishes. It doesn’t drop the intensity for a single moment over the short campaign. The length isn’t a disaster, though, as the challenge is climbing the scoreboard and overcoming what used to look like insurmountable odds, not the barely noticeable story.
It’ll present situations that seem impossible to handle, but that’s to be expected as the genre it is a part of – even the game chugs under the weight of all those bullets. The extreme difficultly makes it very easy for your frustrations and doubts to seep in, nevertheless Akai Katana is a complex and highly rewarding game. It’s certainly intimidating, but don’t let that put you off one of the deepest examples of the shmup.
Unapologetically demanding on both your reflexes and determination, Akai Katana is an engrossing shoot-em-up and stands as one of the finest in its genre.
Akai Katana, from CAVE and Rising Star Games, is available now for Xbox 360.