No, there isn't anything wrong with Gamespot this time. That last blog entry is missing because I took it down. It was intended as a 'throwaway' blog post, one that; as I mentioned before; was up there simply for the sake of seeing how many were still following this blog and finding out what people would be interested in reading about. I didn't receive the volume of feedback I needed, so I decided that instead of putting up a gaming update about some stuff that people might not actually want to hear about, I decided to write about a game I came across last year that most people are unlikely to have come across.
Anyone who's played their share of bullet-hell games is likely to have heard of CAVE. As the studio behind the DonPachi series and Mushimesama, CAVE has garnered quite the reputation for catering to the hardcore playerbase by delivering games boasting degrees of difficulty high enough to essentially limit the completion of the game to all but the most dedicated players. Akai Katana breaks this tradition by proving itself to be more accessible than the Japanese studio's previous titles without becoming a cakewalk. As CAVE's fourth side-scrolling shmup, the game has been universally well-received by both Western and Japanese critics and currently holds a rating of 75 on Metacritic.
The events of Akai Katana transpire in the early 20th century of an alternate timeline in which the Empire of Japan has spread itself across South-East Asia through the forceful subjugation of the continent. The Empire's military superiority comes from the Blood Katana: magical swords that afford their wielder powerful, psychic powers. At the forefront of Japan's conquest is Emperor Bashou Saionji's special unit - The Ten Suns. Using the power of the Blood Katana, the Ten Suns decimate Japan's enemies and commit countless atrocities against the people of what eventually become Japan's colonies.
As Japan continues to expand its borders, Kikyou Saionji; the emperor's son and heir to the throne; learns the truth behind the source of the Blood Katana's power. The swords are powered by the lives of those they are used to take - every person felled by one of the katana is effectively used to 'feed' the weapon and raise its potency. Upon making this discovery, Kikyou and his sister Batan flee from their father and begin the search for those still able resist the Empire. Along the way, the pair run into several former members of The Ten Suns who turn their back on the Empire and choose to ally themselves with a group of resistance fighters. With the intention of toppling the Empire from within, Kikyou chooses to use his father's own weapon against him and makes the ultimate sacrifice by asking Batan to take his life using her Blood Katana. Reborn as a spirit with immense power at his fingertips, Kikyou and the resistance return to the Imperial city with Japan's most advanced fighter aircraft to challenge the emperor and free the South-East from his iron grip.
The console version of Akai Katana includes a trio of modes, each of which offer slightly different experiences. 'Origin' is the original arcade game with it's pixel art and 4:3 aspect ratio. 'Climax' is essentially an updated version of the above that is significantly more difficult than its arcade counterpart. It also runs at a higher resolution with support for 16:9 widescreen displays. The core gameplay mechanics differ little between these versions. The stage scrolls from left to right as the player evades enemy projectiles that come primarily from the right side of the screen while returning fire using a fast-firing but weak primary attack and a harder-hitting but slower secondary attack. When things get difficult, Bombs can be used to clear the screen of enemies and bullets.
What separates Akai Katana from other games in the same genre is the player's ability to switch in and out two characters. By default the player spawns as their 'Fighter' character. As this character, the player pilots one of the aforementioned fighter aircraft. After filling up the Energy Gauge by collecting enough of the gold items dropped by defeated opponents, the player can switch their Fighter for their 'Phantom' character. As a Phantom, the player's firepower is increased immensely. The Phantom character is also able to sustain two hits without dying. To quote the instruction manual, this essentially allows the player to take a free hit, though taking more than that will deplete the Energy Gauge and cause the character to be automatically switched out in favour of the Fighter character. In addition to dealing extra damage, Phantoms are also capable of forming a shield around them that will protect against most types of bullets. All of this comes at a price, as the player can only remain a Phantom for as long as there is energy to sustain the Phantom's corporeal body. Collecting more items before switching out characters enables one to play as their Phantom for longer.
The third mode of play; known as 'Slash'; offers a relatively different gameplay experience. Although the majority of core mechanics described above still apply, the introduction of a new mechanic that affords the player a new means through which to attack opens up some interesting new scenarios. The 'Slash' mechanic comes into play as the player uses their primary attack to quickly rack up the kills and earn 'Steel'. After acquiring enough Steel, the player should switch out to their Phantom conjure a number of projectiles that float alongside the player until launched at the enemy. For every projectile that passes through an enemy, the player is awarded with one Blood Katana. And every enemy and bullet struck by one of these katana is transformed into scoring items.
Aside from its stellar gameplay, one of Akai Katana's most noticeable features is its unique art style. Bullet patterns are comprised of a wide array of dazzling colours that are mesmerizing to look at, while the backgrounds used in each level are rich in both detail and colour variety. Both the original and remix soundtracks are nothing short of amazing, and certainly manage to succeed in creating a unique atmosphere for each stage.
Akai Katana - a game not known to many outside of the niche market it appeals to, but definitely a game worth adding to your collection, especially if you enjoyed any of CAVE's previous, masterfully-crafted bullet-hell titles.