Cave and Aksys are two game companies over here that most people most likely have never heard of. Cave is known to 2D side-scrolling shoot-em-ups (schmups for short) as what Bioware and Square are known for RPGs. Deathsmiles is one of the first times that Cave has ever released one of its classics in North America and I was quite excited to try it out as Ive always enjoyed the genre. While there are many schmups out there, Cave specializes in the bullet hell type (ala Ikaruga) that essentially fills the whole screen with hundreds of bullets that need to be dodged with extreme precision. Granted, the genre isnt for everyone, but for those of us that love these challenging games, Deathsmiles does not disappoint in that aspect. I have to give a shout out to Aksys who did the localization for the game even though you wont be playing Deathmiles for the plot.
If you arent familiar with games like Ikaruga or other crazy shmups, dont get too discouraged when you start dying over and over, as an infinite continue system is in place so that even the worst player can eventually complete the game regardless how many times you need to insert that virtual quarter.
What makes Deathsmiles different that most other schmups is that you arent a ship navigating the standard scrolling left to right or down to up of the screen shooting other ships. Instead, you are a cute anime style girl that needs to blast monsters and demons in a gothic style overtone. Because of this unusual style, this also makes for some interesting bosses as well that differ from your standard gaint-ship that has a hundred cannons. The characters are cute and the backgrounds are beautifully drawn, showing that a lot of effort has been taken to bring the arcade hit to the home console; all without having to spend your allowance in quarters at the arcade. I couldnt even imagine how many quarters I would have had to spend to complete one playthrough.The world is set in the kingdom of Gilverado and its overrun with monsters and demons. You choose from multiple angelic girls that each have a little familiar (tiny litte pet) that follows them and also fights on the behalf of their master. To fight Hells beasts, you must choose from Windia, Casper, Rosa, Follett, or Sakura (if playing in Mega Black Label mode; more on that later).
There isnt much of a story to be had here (again, you dont usually play this genre for the engrossing plot) but the basics are you run into Sakura, she tells you something has happened with her father being possessed and that hes the one responsible for whats happened to this universe. Youll eventually defeat him and be given a choice at the end for different endings (and achievements) that somewhat helps the replayability.
What distinguishes Deathmsiles from others in the genre is that instead of only having to focus on aiming and shooting in one direction, the game will have you surrounded most times and you are able to shoot to the left and right to try and stay alive. Not only does this mean that you need to be more alert, but the amount of difficulty this mechanic adds is immense.
The Left Trigger shoots left and the Right one obviously shoots right. Enemies will be coming from both sides (you are even warned when enemies comes from the opposite side youre shooting) and when you shoot them, theyll drop items that give bonus points. The more you collect, the more your counter in the bottom corner rises. When you have a high counter number, you can unleash a devastating attack that will deplete your counter meter the more you fire; the catch being that enemies will drop bigger counter gaining items when you destroy them this way. You can essentially have your super weapon going for the whole level if you continue to collect the dropped items. Its an interesting mechanic but the problem is that it took me quite a long time to figure this out (on top of everything that is going on during gameplay).
As mentioned earlier, each girls familiar is unique to that character and even has its own style of shot. They are like the powerup addons from Gradius and other schmup games but will always be with you. They also double as almost a shield, as some bullets (the cross-looking ones) can be absorbed by the pet, but will harm you. Yea, as if the game wasnt difficult enough already. The other awesome feature that stood out was that when you move your character to the top of the screen, the hud will slide away and hide while you are near it to give you that little bit more of viewing room; definitely needed and welcomed.
You are able to choose your path through the games stages which is a cool touch so its not as repetitive each time. You can also set the difficulty per level ranging from a 1 to a 3 (and even 999 on some of the different modes) so that you can cater your play depending on your skill.
Every game you play has the option of being saved so that you can watch it and review it later to learn why you died twenty times on a specific boss. You can play and fast forward which is awesome, but sadly no slow motion that I found. The best part about the replay system though is that the top 20 players in the world have their replays uploaded and can be viewed by anyone. If you want to see some ridiculous play, watch the top few players and prepare to be in awe.
There are multiple modes that are called versions. The classic true-to-the-original is called Arcade. This mode is a faithful port that even keeps the original graphics and screen ratio in tact. Most people will not appreciate this mode as the viewing plane is very small and the graphics arent the pretty, but that is why they made an Xbox 360 mode. This mode updates those graphics and makes them much easier on the eyes and no pixilation.
Deathsmiles version 1.1 is a slight variant on the arcade mode. The major change is the unique control scheme that allows you to control your pet familiar with the right stick which makes absorbing bullets incredibly easier. There are other subtle changes like how the scoring is calculated and when you get extra lives and such, but the main thing is the control scheme.
The last version is called Mega Black Label (MBL) and initially this mode was DLC over in japan for a hefty price. MBL adds a new stage (The Ice Palace) complete with new boss, a new playable character (Sakura), and yet another challenging scoring system. This brings Deathmiles to a total of 6 different variants and more than enough options to keep the replays cly, when bringing Deathmsiles to North America they opted to include a few goodies for the fans of the series and genre. The Limited Edition not only comes with the game but will also come in a large retangular box due to its inclusion of a Limited Edition Xbox 360 faceplate and a special soundtrack. The Deathsmiles Arrange Album has 16 tracks that have been hand picked by the director and is delightful to listen to.
Even with the inclusion of two player co-op (which makes the screen even more confusing), the main problem I had with the game is what plagues the genre in general for me. It doesnt feel like it justifies a full $50 purchase (excluding the Limited Edition goodies of course) and more like an awesome $10-15 XBLA title. Sure, the hardcore schmup fans will disagree and will buy this regardless, but even after completing it multiple times (each playthrough is roughly a half hour) I know it wont have the lasting appeal that Ikaruga did.
Cave knows what it does and does it well. Fans wont be disappointed and if you want a hair-pulling challenge and can actually fathom whats happening on the screen in these bullet-hell shooters, youll feel right at home. Others should take note that Deathsmiles throws out the achievement points hand over fists and even rewards you for pausing the game.
Ive actually only seen the Limited Edition and cant find any listings for a Standard Edition without all the extras for the cheaper price. Im not sure if this was intentional or not, but people that are going to pick Deathsmiles up will most likely know what they are getting themselves into. As a fan of the genre and a sucker for collectable Limited Editions, Deathmsiles was a no brainer for me; to others, you may want to borrow or rent it first to see if its your bag or not. Be prepared for bullet-hell and to diemany many times before you even start to understand whats going on.