Release date: September 27, 2015
Genre: Shmup (Vertical scrolling)
Current retail: £30 (Play-Asia.com)
In the second installment of our special two-part Ghost Blade review, the Junkyard takes a look at the game from the perspective of a genre enthusiast. The Novice Review can be found here.
Ok, let’s get this out of the way up top. I am not a shmup wizard. I like the shmup genre and, since the early 1990s, I have played a lot of them. However, while I consider myself relatively in-scene, I am not TASBot and I cannot one-credit Radiant Silvergun or Ikaruga. I like shmups because they were a core genre of my childhood and today, despite the golden era of arcade shooters being over, I still get a small buzz every time I begin a run. I think, simply put, they help me feel young again.
Good, that now said, let’s move into the detail of the review.
Ghost Blade is an easy game. If you are a gamer with even modest shmup skills, then you will have little difficulty beating the game on standard. Within a couple of day's play, I had familiarised myself with the selection of bullet patterns on offer, run the three ships in the hanger and despite being frustrated at times - we will get to that later - reached the end boss almost anti-climatically. The thing is though - none of that bothers me in the slightest and, if I’m being honest, the never ending cycle of debate about whether a shmup is ‘hard enough’ or ‘bullet hell enough’ is just boring to me now.
|The default ship, the Spectre-3, has a spread shot. It is arguably the easiest to progress with.|
Why should a game be always, relentlessly, judged first and foremost by how hard it is? For me, difficulty is a factor sure, but it is way down the ladder in importance. Hardcore shmuppers may disagree, and that’s totally cool, I know that high level players are often only separated when that difficulty curve flies off into space, however for me - as a kind of semi-retired Guardianista shmupper - there are more important factors at stake now. I look for other things in the genre. For example, I’m far more interested in aspects like level pacing and flow, firing mechanics, player/enemy movement, ship design, level variety and aesthetics, quality or uniqueness of bullet patterns, musical soundtrack, game mode variety, depth of game options and, yes, even plot. And that is obviously saying nothing of straight graphical and audio fidelity and individuality.
On many of these factors, Ghost Blade scores well.
Mechanically for a shooter, Ghost Blade is incredibly sound and polished. Each ship, which are each specced differently in terms of bullet spread and movement speed, handle well with sharp, responsive controls granting you freedom of the screen. Firing a ship’s primary has no effect on its movement speed but, and this is a well worn shmup mechanic, when firing its secondary - the weapon that will harvest the valuable bomb-generating Tech Orbs - movement speed is reduced. Hucast have chosen well here as I always like that risk/reward relationship with the secondary as it puts you on edge when shifting weapons. The drop off in speed is, to my mind, perfectly weighted, restricting all movement enough to prevent continuous spamming.
|Your secondary causes hit enemies to release Tech Orbs. Collect enough and earn a bomb.|
While we're on movement mechanics, let's talk about bullet patterns. They are not particularly varied, however they deliver some good old shmup staples, keeping things interesting enough throughout. Catherine wheel rotations, expanding rings, spirals, direct streams, single shots, multi shots, curtain patterns - they are all present and, having been previously featured in all your favourite shmups, create visual flashbacks that add class to Ghost Blade. The size of the bullets has a little variation too, ranging from standard rice-shaped spinners through fast moving V-rounds and onto medium sized, slow moving orbs. As you would want from any shooter, the collision detection is tight too, making navigating the patterns with your ship’s hitbox potentially very fluid.
Which, brings us nicely onto overall level flow and aesthetics. Hucast, in my mind, slotted the game’s best levels at the game’s heart. Stage three and stage four, the latter coming with an excellent shmup name (Thwarted Democracy), deliver the best of what Ghost Blade has to offer in terms of aesthetics and flow. Stage three is the closest that Ghost Blade gets to bullet hell, with a short aggressive level throwing a dumptruck load of enemies at you for just under three minutes and then capping it with a monster boss that runs through three distinct firing phases, the middle of which is a non-stop stream of densely-packed expanding rings. The pace is frenetic and, partnered with the techno kick-assery of Ghost Blade’s soundtrack, really brings the action alive. In contrast, Thwarted Democracy is more methodical, with peaks and troughs of action, its deep space backdrop and popcorn enemies presenting a facade of control that at moments - such as when large enemy ships eject a hail of fast moving orbs - is punctured dramatically.
Big hat tip to Hucast though for going for the ‘trippy’ final level thing, as Reality Break Down - while not the best level in terms of action - alters the look and sound of the game in a really cool way.
|The three different ships you have to choose from. Speed, shot type and handling skill vary.|
The ship designs are really good too, mixing together a weighty, militaristic core design with a pronounced manga flair. They bring to mind the ships of the Batsugun, DoDonPachi and Salamander series aesthetically, high-tech tools of death that you want to pilot and look good on screen. The same can’t be said for the pilot designs however, which for me at least, are not at the same level in terms of design and look overdone.
In terms of straight graphics, I was neither blown away or left wanting with Ghost Blade. It looks quite sharp on my modern television and, when the action really hots up, can look really quite impressive. The sound too is on par, with good firing, exploding and bullet effects adding weight to the visual action. Where Ghost Blade really shines though on the sound front is with its soundtrack, which manages to be both original and also familiar at the same time, a pumping mix of techno/electro/trance that helps really get the adrenaline coursing through the veins as you chase score.
It is, almost inevitably though, not all good news with Ghost Blade, with a few small issues detracting from its otherwise slick and professional package. Firstly, the game does suffer from slowdown. Outside of bomb drops - which have one of the ugliest screen wipe animations I’ve seen - it is minimal, but it is there every now and then. Secondly, while not the worse I’ve seen, some bullets do not stand out against the backdrop anywhere near as well as they should do. This, specifically fresh out of the box, led to a fair few completely unseen and, in my mind, unjust deaths. And thirdly, while the package Hucast deliver with Ghost Blade is incredibly slick, it is not the most varied. There is a training mode, which allows level and boss select, as well as a Novice mode for beginners, however outside of multiplayer action, that’s basically it. I have a feeling that any hardcore shmupper would burn out on Ghost Blade pretty quickly.
|One of Ghost Blade's huge end of level bosses. In terms of size, none of them disappoint.|
The thing is though, and I feel this a fitting way to end this review, I don’t think overall any of these issues condemn Ghost Blade or knock much of its polished sheen off. Yes, the game is not 90s shmup hard and yes, this is not at the same level of those classics from Treasure, Irem and Toaplan, but - and whisper this - no game going forward probably ever will be. The shmup business as it was, and it was big business, is no more and I see releases like Ghost Blade as part of the future, both for the Dreamcast and the shmup genre.
Verdict: A slick, professional and - crucially - fun shooter in the classic 90s style. For everyone but the hardcore shmupper, Ghost Blade is an accessible and tidy package.
Ghost Blade can be purchased now from Hucast's own website, as well as Play-Asia.com.