A sudden and unheralded burst of sunshine in the North of England ruled out any time devoted to catching up on recent releases. The sun was blasting down, there was a cool breeze, and the invitations for food, cocktails and IPAs were an irresistible combination. Even so, that didn’t mean entirely ignoring the next anticipated CAVE title that Rising Star Games had published.
If you know what CAVE develops then you’ll know precisely what you’re getting with Akai Katana. For those that don’t, CAVE could now very well be considered a cult Japanese developer that binds to its guns and works within the religion of bullet-hell shooters. 2D and side scrolling, varying between vertical and horizontal, the term bullet-hell is derived from the amount of enemy fire on-screen. Like petals in the wind, congregations of fluorescent pink and blue swoop and dive across the screen. The good news is it looks pretty. The bad news is they’ll kill you.
Close to Guwange in ambiance but not as fantastical, Akai Katana is set during the age of Taisho. An alternative universe set during the 1950’s post-war boost of modernity and industry, war breaks out after a renewable energy source is discovered (irony alert). The material found can also be turned into a blade that harnesses the energy of any living being it penetrates. The emperor of Japan utilises this discovery to wage war on neighbouring countries, and as the bloodshed continues, Japan itself fractures and a rebel group manipulates the same katana blades to self-sacrifice and fight back. Not all warriors come to happy ending.
The rebel group is made of three squads, each a tag-team of pilot and phantom. The phantoms play a crucial role by allowing the pilot to conjure them in place of the fighter-plane, permitting an intense mechanic as the difficulty ramps up. The planes vary in visual aspect, feel and, most importantly, their attack methods. There’s a personal story for each pair and a separate ending; though the game throughout remains the same. With three modes to select from and three contrasting ships there’s enough variation to entice multiple endeavours.
The aptly named Origin fires you into the original version of this war. Machine gun fire destroys the military units, with shrapnel of energy flying from the wreckage left behind. Switching to the stronger beam attack slows you down, sucking the energy in so it surrounds you. The captured force will now increase in size and boost in efficiency as incoming fire crosses its path. Once the beam is deactivated the power is absorbed, increasing the time your phantom can be invoked.
Using this energy to shape-shift into the phantom partner means those pink and blue spheres can now be reflected and gold collected for huge points bonuses. The emitted bullets continue to swoop back until the foe is defeated, rapidly creating a game of cat and mouse as you flash between ship and phantom, collecting huge bonus, blocking the pixel before it’s too late, managing the swarms of pink and blue balls that quickly consume the screen, all the while concentrating on what comes next.
Every mechanic has small twists and turns that prevent repetition, forcing you to change your game plan and timing. Climax mode offers an updated and slightly tweaked version of this original vision with widescreen support. And then there is the new Slash alternative. Rendered in high definition and with a new music score, Slash provides interesting new ideas that make it the preferred way to play.
This time machine gun fire and the beam provide different types of energy: one to boost your phantom time and the other for a powerful attack. The same occurs when in phantom form, allowing a sequence of devastating counter-attacks. With the energy bar filled, machine gun fire can be activated until the maximum amount of sixteen orbs are accomplished. Conjuring the phantom partner, these orbs are then propelled forward as the beam blast is activated. The benefit being that this hyper-powered onslaught destroys everything including enemy fire. Hitting this rush at the right time boosts the new katana attack, which releases up to sixteen giant blades when self-morphing back to the fighter plane. This creates some ludicrous antics on screen, as six hundred onscreen bullets – a bewildering gush of pinks and blues – are smashed into giant gold pieces by a wall of katanas.
The true quest is not in reaching the conclusion of the story, but in repeated study of its techniques and rhythm. Like a martial art, what at first seems out of reach and beyond your skill can be obtained through dedication and patience. As my run through reached double figures the score was continually rising and more difficult achievements slowly became mine like medals to be pinned onto a well-fitted pilot jacket. Do not be put off by the seemingly unapproachable carnage that unfolds. Everything can be conquered and the very best can achieve victory untouched. I’m still proud of practising hard for a ‘no continue’ run on Deathsmiles; the achievements that CAVE sets mean something, representing a lot of virtual blood, sweat and tears (though the last two can become quite real). And the same runs true for this title: smashing through the opening sequence breathlessly and then taking down a giant fighter plane in less than two seconds is exhilarating.
Unlike the requirement to be pixel-perfect as the player, the game itself isn’t always as clean. Information isn’t always clear: the Novice mode was only noticed close to writing this review. The d-pad is overly sensitive and cannot be adjusted. This should be customisable; variations allowing standard analogue control and tiny alterations via the d-pad when all hell erupts. The lack of description and inclusion of secret achievements is backwards for a title that demands repeat plays and a high-score mentality. These challenges should be boldly stated, using a similar method as Duke Nukem 3D did on XBLA to state what has been achieved and how close you are to others via an in-game menu. The secret achievements simply forces the user online to check what they are. The visuals and soundtrack are fine but lack the hook that other titles have had. This could also play a part in whether an old-school title such as this is suitable for full retail release (rather than XBLA); but that is your decision to make. And, perhaps most importantly, there is a complete lack of support for online co-operative play.
CAVE titles have each had their own unique twists and turns. Deathsmiles featured some 3D modelling, a catchy score, something sadly lacking in Akai Katana, multiple endings, and a bonus mode with an extra level and character, while Do Don Pachi Resurrection had alternative routes that could be unlocked by hitting specific criteria. By bringing all these ideas together they could raise the very bar they’ve set themselves, pulling a new audience and continuing to breathe life into the genre without compromise. In the same breathe, it’s the individuality of each title that does brings me back to them. It’ll be interesting then to see where, as the shepherd of the genre, CAVE can lead us next.
Like the recent surprise weather, Akai Katana is a much needed and unexpected break from the seasonal normalities. It’s not CAVE’s best effort, but does further showcase their ability to nail a niche genre with near pixel-perfect accuracy, ensuring that those who grew up with similar titles aren’t left with only nostalgia and a trusty Megadrive in storage for when the time calls to dust it off and bang in an indestructible copy of Thunderforce IV. My concern now lies not in CAVE’s own ability to develop a bullet-hell title, but to continue to do so in a manner that doesn’t eventually cause this niche bubble to pop.