STAFF REVIEW of Ghost Blade HD (Xbox One)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017.
by Adam Dileva

Ghost Blade HD Box art Ghost Blade HD can be described best in two ways: “Shoot-em-up” (shmup) and “Bullet Hell”. If you’ve not played a shmup bullet hell game before, they were huge in the 90’s, with the most popular titles in the genre being Raiden, R-Type, Gradius, and my personal favorite bullet hell of all time, Ikaruga. Most of these games are played with you piloting some kind of ship, usually moving vertically along the screen instead of horizontally. The term bullet hell comes from the sheer amount of enemies and bullets on screen, filling the movable area with seemingly nowhere to safely maneuver. You need some serious skills to be proficient at shmups, and while there’s a ton of good and bad titles in the genre, let’s find out where Ghost Blade HD sits amongst the greats with this retro inspired indie title.

These games are primarily known for their gameplay, and while some do have a trace of story attached to them, you’re generally a lone pilot trying to fend off some sort of alien invasion, or some variant of the overused trope. The same goes here with Ghost Blade HD, as there really is no story, but the gameplay fits the motive. You’re coming to shoot waves of enemies and avoid screenfulls of bullets, and that’s what Ghost Blade HD gives you; no more, no less.

You begin by choosing one of 3 different ships, each with its own female pilot. There’s no statistical differences that you’re shown, but they do play slightly different from one another. One has a wide spread shot, another has a medium spread shot, and the last has a more focused middle shot. I don’t believe there’s any statistical differences between the three that I could tell, damage or speed wise, so it’s mostly a preference and suitability to your playstyle of which to choose. I personally enjoy the middle pilot best, as the wide spread shot is extremely handy in the later levels when enemies come from nearly every side of the screen.

From there you pick between Easy, Normal or Hard difficulty and are then let loose into some bullet hell goodness to see how long you can last against the onslaught of enemies. If you’ve played any game in the genre before, you’ll know what to expect: shoot tons of ships, get some powerups, and close the levels out with a huge and challenging boss fight that fills half the screen as each level becomes progressively more difficult. So while it may follow the tried and true cookie cutter approach to the genre, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the gameplay is mostly solid, even if it is a little short in length.

With the first 30 seconds of gameplay you’ll basically have your weapons powered up to max, which I found quite odd, so there’s no need to worry about being weak with tiny missile shots for too long. Normally I wouldn’t say that a tutorial is needed for a shmup like this, but there’s a very important game mechanic that I didn’t learn until I was basically done playing just before starting to write this review.

Your ship has two ways to fire, with the standard shot that fires your spread shot with the ‘A’ button, or a second focused shot with ‘X’ that pulls all your bullets into a thinner but much more condensed line of fire, destroying almost anything except for bosses in a matter of moments. This focus fire isn’t taught to you and I had no idea you could even use such an attack until I was basically done with the game. This focus shot is how you easily (as easily as you can do so while avoiding hundreds of bullet anyways) take down the more larger and powerful ships that fire at you.

Once you learn this key mechanic, it’s all about rotating between shots, and learning when to do so, as focus firing makes you move much slower, usually a death sentence in these types of games. As per the usual, you will also have access to a number of bombs, clearing the screen of any bullets for those in-a-pinch moments to prevent you from exploding and losing a life. Another mechanic I wish was explained was that destroying enemies with normal fire will drop multiplier stars, whereas focus shot kills go towards filling/replenishing your bomb meter. Mastering this balance will be needed to succeed, especially on the Hard difficulty.

As the screen fills with enemies, and you destroy them, their dropped stars will automatically start to fly towards you to be picked up. At first I loved this feature, as you don’t have to worry about picking up those nagging power-ups or stars (except for the land vehicle stars, as those won’t automatically come towards you and stay grounded), leaving you to focus on your shooting and dodging. The downside to this is that there are always a mass amount of stars heading in your direction, so it becomes extremely distracting, even more so when the screen is already littered with bullets and you’re simply trying to dodge them.

I always start new shmups on the easiest difficulty even though I’m quite skilled at them, as it gives me an idea of what to expect from enemies, bullet patterns, and potential strategies. One feature I absolutely enjoyed on Easy mode is that when you get hit, and if you have a bomb left, it will automatically use it for you, clearing the screen of most enemies and all bullets. Think of it as an 'auto-oops' feature, and it’s a great way to learn the patterns before tackling Normal and Hard mode. Just be sure you don’t rely on it too greatly, or else you won’t have any bombs left when it really matters, namely against bosses.

For those wanting a challenge, Hard mode surely provides that. I can’t tell exactly what’s different, as enemy patterns seem to be identical, but I swear there’s more bullets on screen and they tend to move faster, but maybe that’s just my psyche playing with me. Most casual fans will have a hard enough time with Normal mode, as it won’t automatically use your bombs to save you from your mistakes like on Easy.

Ghost Blade HD is visually impressive for a small indie game. The genre isn’t known for its realistic visuals, as it tends to focus and rely more on its gameplay and bullet patterns to wow the player. At its heart it feels retro, but it surely has a modern skin on top of it all. The only fault here is that there is a crazy amount of slowdown when things become a little too chaotic on the screen, namely during boss fights where you barely have any space to maneuver. Even the sound effects slow down until the screen is clear of a certain amount of bullets.

As for the audio, it’s nothing to write home about or memorable, but it’s fitting for the genre and sets the mood for the action. Each level seems to have its own tonality, both visually and with the audio, but you’ll be far too focused on avoiding bullets to truly appreciate either.

The controls work great, and without precision movement a shmup game is doomed to be a failure. Luckily that’s not the case here, aside from when you have to fight against the massive slowdown that intermittently occurs. If you die it’s because it is your fault, not the game. There’s no blaming any cheap deaths on the controls.

While Ghost Blade HD is a completely serviceable title, it has a lack of longevity with its only 5 included stages. Sure, there are multiple difficulties and a very welcome local co-op mode, but only the diehard fans of the genre, like myself, will truly appreciate it, whereas I think casual fans might feel the price is a little steep for only 5 levels worth.

As an indie 'bullet hell' title, Ghost Blade HD was a fun little title that I sunk a few hours into. Once I learned all of the mechanics it utilizes I had a lot of fun with it, as should you, regardless if you’re a casual or hardcore fan of the genre. Is it going to sit amongst the legends in the genre? No, but for the price of admission, shmup fans like myself will have fun trying to climb the global leaderboards trying to prove their shmup prowess amongst the community.

Overall: 7.5 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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