It's never a bad time for a new horizontal shooter. Ever since the days of Gradius, through the Sega Saturn era, and into the current generation, I've always looked to this underappreciated genre for a quick test of skill. Cave and Aksys' latest slice of bullet hell, Deathsmiles, is a respectable, if gimmicky entry in the field, but probably won't win any converts, especially at full price.
Instead of being put out as a Live Arcade release, Deathsmiles entered the market as part of a special edition, with an attractive Xbox 360 faceplate and a separate soundtrack disc for $49.99. For me, the price would be perfectly acceptable for the game alone, but I can see how many would balk at the cost, even with the extras.
Take a game like Street Fighter IV, which offers a short single-player experience with unlimited continues. I would guess that the majority of players bought that game to play against others, and they keep playing it because of the availability of competition as well as the numerous characters and unlockables. Yes, you can play the arcade game from beginning to end in ten or fifteen minutes, but beating SF IV with your favorite character is only a small part of the fun.
In many important ways, Deathsmiles is as flat as its heroines.
With Deathsmiles, there are four or five selectable characters, depending on the mode, but the product comes off as somewhat insubstantial. Again we have a short single-player experience with unlimited continues, a two-player option, and different ways to play, but what's missing is a sense of progression beyond merely surpassing your previous scores.
I know that sounds like a strange criticism coming from an avowed shooter fan, but Deathsmiles is too short and too uniform in challenge to get by strictly on its genre. There are zero laser power-ups to collect, the environment doesn't pose much of a danger (no crashing into cliffs), and the boss battles are wholly generic retreads. You keep your eye on the tiny and strikingly outlined hitbox of your chosen waif and you maneuver through a field of bullets. There's some strategy involved, but no one's going to objectively list this title any higher than the middle of the pack when it comes to side-scrolling shooters. In many important ways, Deathsmiles is as flat as its heroines.
Speaking of the young'uns, you might already know that you play as 11- to 17-year-old girls in the game. The story revolves around a strange parallel dimension to which the girls were snatched moments before they would have been killed in their previous lives. Their families assume that they are dead, but the girls exist in a world of magic, wondering if they'll ever make it back.
Whereas an American-made game would undoubtedly feature a European-American, an African-American, a Hispanic, and an Asian-American in a flying wheelchair, the Japanese developers went for an international feel. I suppose the American, French, English, and German girls we got represent Cave's major non-Japanese markets. Or maybe they were just the most fun accents to write in.
The strategy lies in picking your attack type for optimal bonus points and, to a lesser extent, picking the order in which you play the handful of stages. You only truly have one set of weapons, but depending on whether you attack with the face buttons or the triggers and whether you tap or hold, there is a variation to the intensity of the stream. You can also set up a targeting area that moves around the screen drawing your fire. And, of course, a screen-clearing bomb is waiting for the hairier moments. Enemies drop collectible items you can use to build up a separate attack meter, and you get better drops with some enemies by using specific attacks.
The bullet patterns, particularly in the final stage, are beautiful to behold, and the graphics overall are decent, if rather low-resolution. The theme is gothic, and works well. Deathsmiles just needs a different continue system and a little more to do.