I was incredibly psyched up to play this one when I was back in Japan this winter. ESPrade is one of my favorite shooters - so much so that I bought a set of the PCBs - and the promise of a sequel, from its very first announcement, had me elated. As more and more information filtered through, I got even more excited - the videos and design of the game looked breathtakingly beautiful, and the gameplay showed flashes of innovation that could add a lot of play depth.
Having played the game, I can now say that not only did it live up to my initial expectations, it actually exceeded them. ESPGaluda is Cave's best work to date, and with a PS2 release due late this May, it should easily become the best shooting game available this console generation.
Despite being a spiritual sequel to ESPrade, ESPGaluda's setting and graphic design are drastically different. (One could assume that this is because ESPrade's art designer and one of Cave's founding fathers, Junya Inoue, has officially retired from the gaming industry to focus work on his manga, Otogi Matsuri, currently running in the monthly JP magazine Comic Gum.) Instead of a dystopic near-future Japan, the action this time around takes place in a midieval fantasy environment. The character designer this time around is the talented Kado Tsukasa, who has worked on things for Taito (Psychic Force, Puzzle Bobble), Border Down, and, uh, even a few hentai games.
The lack of Inoue-sensei certainly hasn't affected the graphics, however. In spite of its fairly low resolution, the world and enemy design is absolutely breathtaking. Many of the sprites are pre-rendered (à la Blazing Star) and animate very well. The theme behind the enemy design seems to be "fantasy machinery"; you'll find yourself facing off against winged soldiers, giant magical cannons, and some of the most impressive bosses ever seen in a Cave title.
But ESPGaluda's design creativity goes far beyond the art design into the game itself. Thanks to an innovative gameplay system, this game is easily the most widely accessible and enjoyable title Cave has produced.
You start off the game by choosing one of the two main characters, Ageha or Tateha. Ageha's standard shot has a more straight, focused shot (that can veer slightly to the left or right when you move, like Do Donpachi's B-Type), while Tateha has a wider, spread wave. You use this weapon by tapping the main fire button (or using the autofire button). Holding the fire button gives you a sharp, focused "rapier" vulcan-style shot (think Do Donpachi again). While the rapier shot is significantly more powerful, it has less range and makes your character move at about half speed. In times of need, you can use the bomb button to use some of your stored Guard Energy and create an inpenetrable shield around yourself. Releasing the bomb button lashes out with this energy to clear out a string of enemies and bullets.
While all that might sound fairly typical, ESPGaluda's true, most brilliant innovation is the Kakusei system. As you play, you will collect little green-colored crystals. These crystals are vital because they give you the ability to use your special power. Pressing a designated button sends you into a "kakusei" ("awakened") mode. In this mode, enemies and shots turn a purple color and slow down. You will also automatically use your bomb energy if you are about to be hit. Proceeding to annihilate enemies in "kakusei" will give you a bonus multiplier for how many bullets the enemy had on screen at the time of its destruction, plus a bonus gold crystal item for each bullet. As long as you're in this mode and destroying enemies, the bullet bonus multipliers keep on expanding. However, you've got to be careful, as your stock of crystals (maximum 500) runs down over time in "kakusei" and your stock depletes a little more with each enemy you destroy. But what happens when you run out of crystal stock and don't swap out of this mode? The bullets will change from purple to pink and move at double speed! Yikes! But even this mode has an advantage: playing in double speed mode earns you a time-based points bonus (based on the amount of gold crystals you've collected) for however long you're in it.
The Kakusei system is simply the best gameplay feature I've ever seen in a Cave game, for one big reason: its versatility. A less skilled player who simply wants to try to finish the game may opt to use this to help then through tough areas instead of going for high scores. A more experienced shooter fan will want to experiment, determining when, where, and how to use this to maximize his scoring ability. A truly insane person may even opt to try the game at 2X speed just for thrills!
My gameplay impressions are based upon the arcade version, but as the first non-Do Donpachi Cave game to get a home console release, it looks like ESPGaluda's going to get the red carpet treatment as a home port. Along with a special replay DVD showing the gameplay of skilled players, publisher Arika is seeing fit to include all kinds of bonus modes and features - even more than its previous release of Do Donpachi Dai-oujou. Arcade mode is just what you think it is - the arcade game, replicated exactly and brought to your home. Original Mode (working name) is a sort of "remix" of the game designed for expert players. Replay Mode allows you to save and rewatch (and possibly show off) your gameplay. Simulation Mode will allow you to select all kinds of different parameters, like stage, energy stock, shot power, game difficulty/speed - sometimes to a degree that would never normally occur in the game - and do a run-through with it. Finally, Gallery mode allows ESPGaluda's gorgeous game and production artwork to be viewed. In addition, it looks like there are other surprises planned. The teaser reel mentions something about "ESPGaluda' " ("ESPGaluda Dash" - think like Capcom), with new characters and a new gameplay system. We see a bit of these characters, but only what their shot patterns look like. Those patterns, however, look oh-so-familiar to ESPrade fans.
(Many have been wondering why Arika can't package this game with ESPrade itself. While fans worldwide have been clamoring for a console port of ESPrade for almost six years now, the game has yet to be released for the home. Cave, however, can't do much about it, as Atlus jointly owns the rights to the game. Atlus did recently bring out Gunbird 1&2 for the PS2, though, so it's certainly not hopeless.)
As a final note that may be of interest: I had the honor of seeing the famous "shooting master" NAL play the game at the renowned Daioh arcade in Gifu-ken. If such a thing existed, NAL would be a professional shooter player, but most know him better for his astounding accomplishments in the VF circuit (under the name "Homestay Akira" - check his replays on your Evo disc!). He proceeded almost flawlessly through the game, miscalculating and taking a hit unintentionally on stage 4 (obviously he hasn't perfected the whole routine just yet), but consistently wowing an ever-growing crowd of onlookers with a seemingly godlike ability to maximize his score and avoid the absolutely crazy onslaught of the final boss. This man is truly a gaming genius, and seeing the way one can play ESPGaluda at such a high level only increases enthusiasm for the title.
So what am I really trying to say here? Assuming a smooth port, if you have a Japanese PS2 and even a passing interest in shooters, you simply can't go wrong with ESPGaluda. It is Cave's most solid, pretty, and accessible game to date; a game which deserves all the sales it gets. I'll certainly be back with a comprehensive review when the PS2 version ships, but until then, this is the shooter to get psyched for.
Click here for the trailer (MPEG, 10MB, 1:39, 320x240).