Castle of Shikigami III
Alcaland is in trouble. In danger of being wiped of the face of the map, in fact. Not from war or pestilence or anything you might expect; up until now, the country has been thriving under its monarchy. No, this crisis is beyond the constraints of human comprehension. The legendary Swan Castle has reappeared in the skies, blotting out the sun and is now slowly descending onto the helpless populace. Thousands of people have suddenly vanished with the return of this ancient behemoth, and there’s no telling if they’ve been killed or sent to some other dimension. Those who remain face a far more terrifying fate; they’re being hunted down by the legions of otherworldly monsters spawned from the castle’s arrival. Not all is lost, though. A handful of psychics and their shikigami partners have arisen to stop the bloodshed, and you’d better pray they succeed. If left unchecked, Alcaland and the rest of the world could be consumed in darkness…
Okay. You know what? Forget the story. It makes no sense whatsoever. Even if it were properly translated (like that would ever happen with a Castle of Shikigami game), the plot would have no bearing on the gameplay at all. The only thing you need to understand about this game is that it’s a vertical shooter. There are ten playable characters (there are no fancy spaceships here), each with their own hilariously quirky personalities and backgrounds. Each of these crusaders comes with their own styles of dishing out some psychically-charged punishment. You’ve got the guys like Gennojo Hyuga, who can manage to fire off double helix-shaped streams of electricity while still looking good in his business suit and hat. Too bad he sacrifices his speed for his style. You go with Roger the Ninja – excuse me, Roger the International Ninja – and lay waste with his never-ending barrage of throwing stars and agile flying maneuvers. But if generic pretty-boy protagonists are more of your thing, feel free to indulge in Kohtaro’s balanced speed and attack power.
Regardless of who you choose, you’ll need to deal with their respective shikigami powers as well. On top of the assorted blends of laser beams, energy balls, and psychokinetic projectiles, each of these characters is also backed up by a handful of special attacks. Take Kohtaro, for example. While his regular stream of shots is pretty easy to wield, his real strength lies with his shikigami, Sayo. With a mere press and hold of the right button, he can summon forth Sayo and watch her zoom forth grind away at an enemy’s weak points with her magic. While this might sound like a cheap tactic, Kohtaro has to spend the rest of the time carefully dodging enemy shots; the summoning greatly reduces his speed, thus making him an easy target. Such tradeoffs occur with all the shikigami powers; Roger’s International Proximity Mines are broken enough to win boss battles without much effort, but you’ll have to charge them up for a few precious seconds before releasing them. Even Keiko’s ability to stop time – invaluable in bullet-ridden battlefields like these – is hindered by her sudden lack of automatic firing and relatively weak attack power. It is subtle changes and balances like these that make strategy and timing all too important in the midst of combat.
You won’t have much of an opportunity to contemplate your plans, though. Like its predecessors and pretty much every title in this particular genre, Castle of Shikigami III puts as many bullets on the screen as physically possible while still providing the slim chance that you might actually survive. It’s hardly a new concept, and it’s not like it can be developed any further beyond what is being offered here. You’ll literally face wave after wave of multicolored bullets from every direction. A slew of purple-colored rounds could be floating your way in an intricate curvy pattern, while a burst of green gamma rays could be spewing forth from another corner of the screen, while some gargantuan animal-spaceship hybrid spews out red laser beams of doom from above. All you can do is gape at the fireworks, pray you find an opening in this Technicolor maelstrom, and try to get out unscathed. You are rewarded for your efforts, though; should you like being reckless and get as close to the unfriendly fire as possible, your character will get boosted attack strength, net bonus points, and score multiple combos. After all, there are still legions of grainy-surfaced spaceships, fighter planes, sentries, and other generic enemies behind all flashy lights. If you don’t care about the score, just keep your thumb on the auto-fire button and pray you don’t get wiped out every few seconds.
And you will die in this game. It’s not a question of how, but when. You can’t blame the controls, either; be it the WiiMote, the Classic or Gamecube Controller, the commands are responsive and fluid throughout. Instead, all you can do is keep replaying the same levels over and over, memorizing enemy attack patterns which hazards to avoid. While that will undoubtedly turn off countless gamers, those brave few that take on this game will be rewarded with a decent variety of unlockables and gameplay options. The bonus artwork and soundtrack are worth the effort. Some perseverance (and several Game Overs) will net you an endless supply of continues, thus ensuring your eventual victory. If you feel confident about playing as a couple of characters, the Dramatic Change Mode lets you choose your own dynamic duo to complete the story. Dramatic Mode is far more entertaining; since you can switch characters with the push of a button, the gameplay can be far more engaging and versatile. But if the single player mode isn’t interesting enough, see if you can convince a friend to give the stellar co-op multiplayer a try. Regardless of how you play, the Practice and Boss Rush Modes can be a godsend for newcomers.
Veterans of the series, on the other hand, already know the most entertaining part of Castle of Shikigami III: the dialogue. Keeping in the tradition of its predecessors, this game features some of the most hilarious and awful interactions between the characters. Anything that comes out of Roger the International Ninja’s mouth is pure comedic gold; between his goofy outbursts and emotionally-charged heroic speeches, many of the characters confuse him for a cosplayer. Aside from localized references to ‘Varner Bros.’ and ‘Trader Moe’s’, Reika proudly states that ‘space is an ocean of space’ and that ‘the summer makes a woman feel free.’ That’s on top of how Fumiko apparently tries to get into the pants of every male character, or how Sayo is jealously protective of Kohtaro. While these offbeat and dysfunctional characters are awesome enough as they are, their lines make them so much more endearing. The best part is how the American voice actors put so much effort and emotion into these lines; one has to wonder how they could keep a straight face during recording. If anything, you’ll play through this game for the sake of watching all of these conversations as opposed to actually beating it.
That’s assuming that you’re willing to actually get this game. Castle of Shikigami III is currently running for thirty American dollars. That’s a pretty steep price, given what’s being offered here. While the game has ten playable characters and five excruciatingly hard stages for you to play over and over, that might not be enough for some of you. Especially those of you that can’t handle the constant Game Overs and the screens filled with neon deathtraps. While there is a fair amount of unlockables and gameplay modes – the Dramatic Change Mode is easily the best option of them all – there might not be enough brand new content to keep you interested. When you look past the flashy presentation, you’ll realize that this game is simply a decent, fun, and challenging vertical shooter. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s up to you if you want to indulge in what it has to offer, be it the insanely tough gameplay or the ludicrous translation. But if all else fails, it can teach you one thing: Laughing out loud is the basic trait of an International Ninja. Think about it.