The Japanese are great (if that’s the correct term) at creating two things. The first is anime characters who are young girls, aged 11-14 with huge breasts, dressed up as maids flashing a bit of cleavage and panty. The second is incredibly difficult, mind-bending shmup’s that boggle and inspire the mind. For all its sins, Deathsmiles features both.
Four girls are at your full command – all varying in age, measurements and talents. Choose the one that matches your demands and you’ll take her through woods, across lakes and finally reach the final destination, a huge mansion. This isn’t just for fun though, these girls are trapped in an otherworldly hell where there is no escape. These ‘Lost Children’ have banded together to fight the menace that is spilling into this plane. By fighting into the heart of this evil they will each be faced with a choice that will forever change their lives.
Deathsmiles is jam-packed with modes like a teenage girl’s wardrobe with clothes. There is the original Arcade mode, the HD 360 version, the brand new Version 1.1 that changes some of the gameplay mechanics, Mega Black Label versions of the above with a new level and character, plus a co-op mode. It’s a lot of content, and is more than enough to avoid being labelled a ‘should have been an XBLA’ title. In an age of cutscenes and Unreal Engine powered, big-budget games, developer Cave have their work cut out.
The Arcade mode takes you back to the days of 16-bit gaming. It’s a retro 2D world where twitch gameplay remains king and the screen is filled with colourful sprites. So filled at times the screen becomes a wallpaper of bullets with the smallest possible gaps between each shot. This is dodging to the exact pixel. Survive that and you’ll discover a screen chock-a-block with creatures flying about underneath. Blinking is not advisable. The original design may look retired but Deathsmiles‘ core elements remain as powerful as they were in 2007.
As the game progresses the difficulty ramps up, and this is a stroke of design genius. To call it a steep learning curve would be lying. It’s f’ing vertical. The first few stages are relatively easy. You’ll lay waste to oncoming forces by holding down ‘A’ and battle a gigantic cow called Mary with bombs by pressing ‘Y’. Then it gets insanely hard. Enemies litter the scene; sprays of bullets fly across the screen and as they die projectiles explode from their bodies. Within half an hour of playing you’ve gone from novice to expert, dodging an obscene amount of enemy fire and feeling like a true king of the arcade-era.
Every evil creature and its dog are joining this party to annihilate your new world. You’ll be hitting the continue button over and over, but as a console title you won’t need to pick up the admission cost every time. Buying Deathsmiles at its budget price is more cost effective then heading to the arcades and pumping coin after coin into the cabinet (if you’re lucky enough to have an arcade near you). This is definitely value for money if you like your gaming old-school and unforgiving.
Reach the end level and you’ll come face-to-face with a giant boss (welcome back end-of-level-bosses), from huge dragons to titanic cows. Destroying them takes you back to the map where you can select your next destination. You’ll also be able to choose the level of difficulty, which will naturally ramp up as you play through the levels. Play the game on level 3 difficulty all the way through and you’ll be rewarded with some of the most intense moments possible.
The beauty of the game lies not with the Lost Children, but the variation hidden within the carnage. Of the four (five in the new mode) characters available, each has their own spirit familiar. This personal guardian has its own attack method and can be controlled to some degree, again depending upon the character. Three bombs are at your disposal capable of wiping the screen clean of enemies and bullets, giving you a second to put some eye-drops in and fly back into the fray. Two main types of attacks can be allowed to run riot and destroying enemies with the correct attack will reap more rewards in the form of magic. Gathering magic enables you to create even more devastating runs of attacks.
Using magic to lock-on to targets or Power-Up creates unbelievable levels of action that cannot be justified via screenshots. It doesn’t stop here either. There are three levels of difficulty to select at each stage; the higher the level, the more bullets, rewards and content. The developers Cave have taken a wise decision – difficulty isn’t just for achievements, it gives you more content. You can Power-Up more often and some of the bosses have further stages to them. The baron bosses skin blasts away to leave an eye-balled skull going berserk at this level, something you’d miss on the lower levels.
During the arcade mode the frame-rate will suffer a lot. It’s hard to decide if this is an intentional slowdown to help the player or the game engine overheating, but if it was a slow down then it should have be done a little more gracefully. The screen size is small in this mode too, appearing lower than 4:3 in ratio. Selecting the updated 360 version improves the graphics and frame rate considerably, although not completely.
While hitting the maximum magic level of 1000 and unleashing all manner of hell, any moment my Xbox was going to pop at any moment, smoke bellowing out the back. It simply becomes too much. Then again, this is part of why Deathsmiles works. It’s no-hold barred old-school shmup action. If stripped of its additional content, Deathsmiles could have been an XBLA title. Instead Rising Star Games have created a niche product – a well presented old-school shmup with plenty of additional material to bring you back.