Review: Akai Katana XBLA
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For many years, Cave have done what they do best and are the best at what they do - mental, credit gobbling shoot em ups (schmups for short). In Japan they are the kings of the arcade, pumping out multi-coloured bullet hell for the hardcore elite.
Akai Katana Shin sticks firmly to Cave's formula. You, the player, must survive wave after wave of enemies, all out to blow you from the sky. After battling through curtains of bullets you face off against a boss, who's attacks look more like psychedelic modern art than a conventional display of power. All the insanity is set against the back drop of a Japan hitting industrial revolution, where the mysterious guiding ore is discovered. Cue a tyrannical emperor intent on taking over the world with his generals all wielding magical blood swords. Not that it matters much, because the real reason you're here is for some classic arcade shooter action.
Game play is similar to Death Smiles, also available on the Xbox Live Arcade. As for the action, it's side-scrolling-bullet-heavy fun. At the start of each game you choose one of three pairs of beautiful animé characters. You primarily play as a fighter plane, but can switch to your secondary character that can helpfully block bullets with a shield. This shield is charged by collecting power ups, making the game about risk and reward. Do you just dodge the onslaught, or do you go for those power ups to charge you shield and save yourself from a sticky situation later?
With it's conversion to Xbox live arcade, Akai Katana has received a significant graphical face lift. The transition to full HD means the game has been converted from 4:2 aspect ratio to 16:9. Needless to say playing the game on a lovely big screen is far more absorbing than the little arcade cabinets, plus the bullets on screen have more space to dart around, looking like an explosion in a candy store. The backdrop for the game features a blend between classic Japanese architecture, undersea segments and trippy disco light shows. I'll be completely honest, paying attention to the imminent swarm of death approaching took up all my attention.
One let down with the game is slowdown. On the PS2, the console that many of these games were first ported to, slowdown was a little acceptable. After all they were machines that were never intended for that sort of intense 2D gaming. Akai Katana is an XBLA title, but being a digital game doesn't mean there's an excuse for slowdown. Waves of murderous bullets should always be viewed 30fps or higher. Sure, it may allow you that extra second of breathing, but your character not responding to how you want them to move is never a good thing. Furthermore, when the game does catch up with itself, you're moving uncontrollably towards your rainbow sprinkled death.
Although the setting for the game is less than ground breaking, the story does lead to some purely mental boss fights. What may start as a simple, if absurd, battle against a 12 foot tall humanoid ends up with said boss summoning portals that produce bullet and missile spewing aircrafts; trains traveling along magical tracks of energy and flying submarines. Many a time I found myself just shouting in disbelief at the pure craziness.
There's no doubt that this game will be for a niche market, and it panders to the hardcore gamers who like punishment. Luckily though, for those that don't have ten eyes in their head and lightening fast reactions, Cave has handily added a practice mode. It doesn't particularly make the game easier, but it does let you learn all the bullet patterns for the bosses. Other features include achievements (a must for any game nowadays), online replays and leader boards. Nothing to get too exited about, but they do present a certain replay value and subsequent bragging rights.
Akai Katana is great fun to blast through. You get absorbed in the game and tend not to pay attention to anything, simply because if you do you'll end up dead. You're constantly on your toes, and you'll not notice the time spent playing it.
The problem is that once you have smashed through it, you're hard pressed for other things to do.The score hunters will come back again and again to top the leader boards, plus you can only get the best endings in these games by completing the game without continuing. Unfortunately, there is hardly any difference between the game modes available. Great to pick up and play, but there's not much to drag you back for another go.
For the casual gamer, Akai Katana Shin may be a little too daunting. I've played many Cave shooters, from Do-Don Pachi at the arcades to Espgaluda II on the iPad, and I was seeing the continue screen at least once a level. Cave only has two difficulties in their games: Hard and Harder. If you buy this game, be prepared to die, and die a lot.
For those of the hard core gaming elite, then this will be right up your alley. This is pure classic Cave in every sense of the word. The bullet patterns are well designed, and nothing is so unfair that death is unavoidable (though the more casual gamers among you will disagree). Being an arcade port and a downloadable game the length is a little short, which is understandable for the genre. After all if I had played this in the arcade, I'd have wasted at least £20 just from continuing.
For all you bullet hell fans, look forward to this; for everyone else, be prepared for a hard game. Definitely try before you buy, because its not everyone's slice of cream cake.
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