Genre: Shmup (Vertical scrolling)
Current retail: £30 (Play-Asia.com)
This is first installment of our two-part review of Hucast's Ghost Blade, from the perspective of a casual shmup player. Part two, which is by a seasoned shmup player and appropriately titled the 'Standard Review' on account of Ghost Blade's two difficulty levels, can be found here.
It's finally here! Hucast's long-awaited vertical shmup has finally shipped, and represents another chapter in the Dreamcast's long and distinguished career as a console that just will not die. Here, in 2015 is a brand new game, complete with a manual and a DVD-style case that would not look out of place nestled amongst the other hi-def indie gems in any current gen system's library. But let's not jump the gun (ghost?). You may have noticed that this review is subtitled 'Novice Review.' That isn't because I'm only reviewing the novice mode found within Ghost Blade (more on that later); it's because I am a self-confessed layman when it comes to shmups. Sure, I've played pretty much all of the shooters on the Dreamcast and have sampled the delights of many a Taito and Irem shmup of yesteryear...but I'm not what you would call an 'expert' on the genre. In truth - I enjoy, but generally suck ass at shmups and so I will be offering my thoughts on this latest Dreamcast release as a complete neutral. I'll be explaining what Ghost Blade does well, what it does badly, how it sounds and how it plays for someone with a moderate level of experience with this type of title.
Fear not though, as another member of the team with slightly more experience than I will be laying down his thoughts for your delectation in part two of our review - imaginatively titled the 'Standard Review' in the coming days. See what we did there? Before you answer that particular rhetorical question, remember that high quality comedy was never guaranteed when you clicked on whichever Google/Twitter/Facebook/Pornhub link brought you to this review. What I mean to say is, if you have a Neo Geo MVS cartridge for a heart and/or brain you may want to wait for that review...but for the time being let's get this show on the road.
Ghost Blade (or The Ghost Blade, depending on where you look) has its roots back in 2013 when it was first announced as a new IP for the Dreamcast by Hucast Games. Not to be confused with an iOS and Android title by the same name, Ghost Blade is a vertical shooter which takes aesthetic cues from various animation conventions including (to my eyes at least) anime and 1980s western-styled cartoon series such as Ulysses 31. The artwork in the well-designed manual and on the cover of the limited edition version testify to this, and the former also gives a little background to the narrative of the adventure to be embarked upon once you press start:
10,000 years ago there was an Artificial Intelligence on Mars known as Shira. When it became corrupt, the Evil Shira was banned from Mars by the Earth Defence Force, who destroyed her physical form, blasting her with laser beams. Full of anger, Evil Shira was able to make a digital backup of her intelligence module and swore to get her revenge one day. She escaped from the planet and rushed millions of light years through the universe to seek a new home and built her attack force.
- Ghost Blade manual
Sounds exactly like what happened when my last USB memory stick corrupted. Although that only managed to fly to the kitchen window before I caught it and killed it with fire from the stove. Sadly, things aren't that easy for the protagonists of Ghost Blade. Instead, each of the three female pilots must strap themselves into their chosen ship and blast off into the ether to defeat Evil Shira in her own back yard, ridding the galaxy of corrupt USB sticks once and for all. Naturally, in order to do this a myriad of space and planet based stages (5 in total) must be negotiated, and an equal number of massive bosses (including Shira) must be destroyed in order to beat the game. Sounds pretty simple right? Well, in novice mode it is to be honest. You choose your craft: Ghost Blade Spectre-3, Rekka Unit-1 or Milan V1 and then set off with your unique weapon firing pattern (spread, wide or focus) and aim to kick as much alien ass as possible.
On the face of it, Ghost Blade will probably appear to many gamers like a fairly straight-forward retro-style vertically-scrolling shmup. Enemies appear either from the top, side or bottom of the screen and spew brightly coloured bullets which you must dodge. And this assumption would be accurate, to a point. In Novice mode, being hit by a rogue projectile will instantly fire a bomb which will save your skin as long as you have them in reserve. In Normal mode you won't be so lucky. It quickly becomes a game of balancing using your normal spread shot and then using your focus shot in order to harvest tech orbs to replenish your bombs...but on top of that you need to be aware of the combo counter which is always adding up how many enemies you have vanquished with a single life. If you want to get a decent score, this is the key - once you lose a life your combo is reset to zero and you have to start the chain again. And this is important, as Ghost Blade is a relatively short game with it's 5 stages and it soon becomes apparent that it's not about beating the game in the quickest possible time, it's actually about getting the biggest combo possible.
Rafael Dyll for his masterful OST. Remember the first stage from Sturmwind? Remember the music? You'll be humming this in a similar fashion for days after you've played it.
Graphically, Ghost Blade is a mixed bag. Don't get me wrong - it looks fecking great and the sheer number of sprites on screen at times is overwhelming...but this can lead to momentary slowdown as the Dreamcast tries to keep up with what Hucast want the hardware to do. In a way, it reminds me of Gigawing with its unholy number of projectiles and enemies buzzing around the screen. But fire off a bomb in these conditions and the action will momentarily grind. That said, the visuals as a whole a excellent, especially when using a VGA CRT monitor. Ghost Blade also offers a Tate mode for full-screen vertical gameplay and it looks even even better in this graphics mode. Backgrounds are varied and detailed, enemies are well defined and bullets are super sharp (and collision detection is about as good as I've ever seen), but the slight juddering when the screen fills up will probably be an issue for more learned players going for a professional high score. I do want to stress though, this slowdown does not hinder the experience and only appears very, very occasionally and is clearly a result of the sheer number of sprites onscreen. That may seem like a back-handed compliment, but I wanted to be as honest and impartial as possible so it had to be mentioned.
Ghost Blade is an awesome homage to the shooters of yesteryear but also a game that screams 'current gen,' and a game that is worth every penny of the asking price. It answers many of the criticisms levelled at Hucast in the past and only makes me more excited to see what future titles like Redux 2 have in store. Ultimately, Ghost Blade is a triumph and yet another brilliant shmup in the already bursting Dreamcast library.
But that's just my opinion. Want to know what someone with a more in-depth knowledge of shooters thinks? Get ready for Rob's follow-up 'Standard Review.'
standard version of Ghost Blade here. Likewise you can purchase the Limited Edition boxset here. Play-Asia are also selling it, but at the time of writing we believe it may have sold out. Don't worry though - we will be showcasing Ghost Blade at Play Expo Manchester on the 10th and 11th October 2015, so if you're going to be at the event make sure you swing by the DCJY exhibit to experience it for yourself!
Here's a litte bit of gameplay I recorded using my incredibly shoddy capture device. The stuttering and pausing is because said device cost less than a packet of decent biscuits. The actual game isn't like this, but hopefully the clip will give you a taste of the experience...