If the idea of a Christmas-themed 2D shooter starring little girls jingles your bells, then you'll be singing "Joy to the World" when DeathSmiles IIX arrives in your stocking, and I seriously don't think any of this makes sense.
The DeathSmiles series has been a bit of a hard sell, not just because it's part of such a niche genre, but the subject matter is more than a little disconcerting. The original DeathSmiles reached the United States with the tagline "Death smiles at us all. Lolis smile back." While the definition of what a "loli" is varies wildly, it still carries quite a negative connotation. Aksys - the publisher of the first game in the United States - has also more or less washed its hands of the 2D shooter genre. Thankfully, in keeping with the spirit of mangled proverbs, a door might have closed but a window just recently opened. DeathSmiles IIX is currently available via the Xbox 360 Games on Demand service, and while it is at times bizarre and inconsistent the mechanics are superb, the game design is inventive and accessible, and it is an altogether great package for fans.
DeathSmiles IIX is like Charlie's Angels, except really creepy and weird.
Those of you out there who are unfamiliar with the first game probably still won't understand a thing after I'm through explaining the story for this game, but I have no choice. It seems that when some young girls suffer tragic, unexplainable fates, they are actually whisked away to an alternate world called Gilverado. In this world they discover they have incredible powers and must use them to protect the innocent. Count Dior is the caretaker of these girls and sends them out to do good when the forces of darkness threaten their world. These girls are known as Angels, so this game could also be called "Dior's Angels." It'd be just like Charlie's Angels, except really creepy and weird.
In their latest adventure, these angels must stop Satan Claws (uh . . . huh) from ruining Christmas for everybody. It turns out that St. Nick is only jolly when he's exacting revenge, and Dior just happened to be the last guy that sent him back to the Netherworld North Pole. To further his evil schemes, Satan Claws also makes off with a handful of wish-granting musical notes. The Angels must trek through six or seven levels facing off against the evil and the absurd so they can get those notes back, save Dior's life, and discover the true meaning of Christmas. I haven't quite figured that last part out myself, but I think it involves scoring billions of points.
There's not a whole lot to say about the Angels themselves. Windia is the emotional type, Casper is the repressed one, Follett is always quiet, and Rosa never takes things seriously. This just sums up the regulars, since two new Angels join in for this game. Lei and Supe's story is shockingly similar to It's a Wonderful Life. It involves big brother Lei trying to save Supe when she falls through thin ice into a frigid pond. Unfortunately for Lei, he doesn't get away with going deaf in one ear. Instead, he and his sister are dumped in Gilverado where a homeless man tells Lei to dress like a maid and get a job at Dior's. As for Supe, it turns out that she has great powers of her own, but Satan Claws discovers this and uses her to infiltrate the Dior home. Look, I don't know. Is it too late to go back to the "lone pilot must stop an alien armada" storylines? I really don't know if I can take any more of this.
DeathSmiles IIX is broken up into three modes. The regular mode allows for whichever Angel you choose to go through multiple stages of horizontal and, rarely, vertical action. 2D shooter staples abound as there are bosses to contend with, weak enemies that die in a single shot, and larger foes packing heavy firepower. Unlike most other shooters, however, there are very few power-ups and they tend to be of the life-restoring variety. Each of the six playable Angels has a regular shot that is used by tapping the fire button (one for each direction), a powerful shot when the button is held down, a homing attack that is done by holding both fire buttons, and finally, a handful of bombs for escaping bad situations.
When it comes to 2D shooters, there is always a balance between survival and scoring. Survival is, simply put, being able to beat the game without continuing while scoring is, simply put, getting as many points in the process as possible. Much of the challenge in DeathSmiles IIX comes from the scoring aspect, since there are multiple factors to account for and situations can become more difficult to handle as higher scores require riskier play. On the other hand, it is very easy to avoid these situations and play purely for survival, but this will get boring before too long. While this entry retains the selectable difficulty levels for every stage, even on the hardest settings it never becomes quite as challenging as the original DeathSmiles.
Just like any other 2D shooter, DeathSmiles IIX has multiple aspects and subsystems that you'll have to account for if you wish to get your high score into the billions. Like the prior game, the main focus is on the power-up mode. When enemies are shot at or destroyed, they cough up hundreds of rings. One set of rings causes the multiplier to rise while another set raises the item count. The item count must be 1,000 to trigger power-up mode and the multiplier must be at or close to 10,000 in order to get the most out of it.
While in power-up mode, the Angels can collect ridiculous amounts of rings, and they must do everything they can to keep power-up mode going or be in the best position to recharge it instantly when it inevitably fades away. Through magic, time distortion, or something similarly nonsensical, new types of bullets will spawn when the Angels destroy enemies during power-up mode. These blue bullets are just as fatal as the violet and cyan bits of death that flood the screen and they also follow the Angels around. This can be turned to your advantage, since after a few seconds these bullets gain a bit of red coloring to them. These are very important to triggering a healthy recharge and subsequently going into power-up mode, so timing the lock shot to cancel them out at the right moment is a very useful technique.
While in power-up mode, enemies in the background that are destroyed with the lock shot release their own form of homing bullets, by lock-shot-canceling these at the right moment you can get even more rings. These are the fundamentals of the scoring system and they're also useful during boss fights, as these foes can be milked for a ton of points.
The Arranged mode is what one has come to expect from a Cave port. If you can understand the basics of the original game, you'll likely figure out this mode without too much trouble. At its core it involves the Angels throwing their familiars around (little guys that attack and absorb bullets) and going from there. There is also this tension meter that fills when you're doing great and that results in the enemy firing more bullets, which will result in even more points if you know what you're doing. It is a good addition and not much more, because I doubt I'll get nearly as much mileage out of this mode as the original mode. Maybe it's the pacing, maybe there are just too many bullets, or maybe I just don't like the screen slowing down to an absolute crawl for thirty minutes straight.
Finally, there is the extra mode, which is barely worth acknowledging. You take control of a familiar to navigate mazes, jump over obstacles, and generally do whatever you can to collect achievements and stay awake. My advice is to avoid operating heavy machinery after playing this snore fest of an extra mode and lie down immediately.
Oh? There's an arcade mode in this game too? Cave would almost love for everyone to believe otherwise, because the actual arcade port in this game is quite an afterthought. For the unaware, DeathSmiles 2 is a very different beast, as the difficulty settings aren't available and there are only five stages to play through. For some gamers out there, this might be the best version of the game, as more of the challenge lies in the survival aspect and the scoring system is a bit easier to work out. It is a shame, though, that Cave did little more than a barren port for this game. There are leaderboards at least, and if you can look past the lousy visuals you'll likely find this mode quite entertaining.
Even ignoring the play-for-score aspects, there is quite a bit of replay value to the DeathSmiles IIX package. All six Angels have multiple endings and there's even a hidden ending for defeating the True Last Boss. But I should warn you that a number of these endings will have you yelling "WHY?" from the rooftops. Still, going after all of the endings can make for good practice, since that's no less than thirteen play-throughs using everybody. The Arranged mode is worth a few play-throughs just for the spectacle of it all, and the Extra mode? Well . . . you can listen to the first DeathSmiles' fantastic soundtrack.
While it is expected to say that a 2D shooter isn't for everyone, DeathSmiles IIX is a particularly interesting case. Not only can it turn away fans of the genre, but it can also turn away fans of the first DeathSmiles. Honestly, while I think of the first game as more cohesive and better put-together, I get more enjoyment out of the second game. It might be that I'm more comfortable with part 2's subsystems, or maybe I just hate the presence of suicide bullets that much. Either way, this entry in the series is a respectable entry and I definitely recommend giving it a chance.