You have to hand it to G.rev: for a company dedicated to developing old-school arcade shoot-'em-ups, it's deftly avoided falling into a comfortable sort of rut. While other shooter-centric devs like Cave, Psikyo, and Raizing have instantly recognizable trademark styles from which they seldom deviate, every G.rev game brings with it a fresh sense of style, pacing, and personality - thanks in part to a rotating leadership that places a new staffer at the helm of each new property. When a company's credits include masterpieces of the genre like Border Down and Under Defeat, it can be a bit frustrating not getting more of the same, but it's all the more reason to keep an open mind.
For its latest effort, G.rev has decided to follow in the footsteps of Treasure's classic Radiant Silvergun, even going so far as to hire Silvergun and Ikaruga creator Hiroshi Iuchi to help out. (Fine turnabout, since G.rev worked on two of Iuchi's shooters as well.) Strania: The Stella Machina features an overwhelming variety of weapons, including a sword, and claustrophobic level design that very much echoes Iuchi's 32-bit masterpiece.
Paying $10 and enjoying the game on a North American system feels like the bargain of the century.
Like Silvergun, Strania comes off as complicated and a bit overwhelming at first, especially in conjunction with punishing arcade difficulty. Your ship has three weapons slots, all of which can be replaced by picking up weapons drops like a typical shooter. You're allowed to arm any two of these at once, one in each hand of your flying mech. This allows you to balance out some of the kinkier weapons like reflector shots or backwards-firing bombs with more conventional weapons like lasers and spread fire. Then there's the sword, a powerful weapon not unlike Radiant Silvergun's that can even be dual-wielded for those with melee-heavy ambitions.
The game's only apparent scoring hook comes in the form of its bomb mechanic. This is actually not a bomb at all but an overdose mode that renders you temporarily invincible, overpowered, and able to drive up a score multiplier. Like Silvergun's giant swords, this is not a one-use pickup, but rather a bar that can be recharged, in this case by destroying enemies. Freeing up players to use this ability several times a level makes it a bit more interesting and strategic than the emergencies-only mega bombs of typical shooters.
Always the platform loyalists, this is G.rev's fourth release on Xbox 360, but its first for XBLA, a move long clamored for by Western fans looking to dodge hefty import prices. Where the previous home ports featured unlockable replays, art galleries, and alternate arranged courses, this is a more barebones package, but the alternate course has, at least, been promised as future downloadable content. While some of the bonus content will be missed, paying $10 instead of $70 and enjoying the game on a North American system feels like the bargain of the century.
The arcade version of Strania: The Stella Machina (still awaiting its wide release on the NESICA platform as of this writing), unlike most of G.rev's prior efforts, was developed for the powerful Taito X2 hardware rather than the ancient NAOMI, and as such already supports sharp, detailed, high-def graphics that feel right at home on the Xbox 360. Although stylistically it looks and sounds much like a traditional arcade shooter, it's easily one of the most technically impressive shoot-'em-ups to ever hit arcades and it looks no worse for the wear here. Textures are very sharp and the flying mechs are detailed, even as the camera zooms in for dramatic close-ups. As always, there are lots of great background details, giving a sense of a greater war beyond just the player's battle.
Strania is neither G.rev's strongest nor weakest effort to date. This is G.rev doing what it does best, delivering a strong, traditional shooter with some clever mechanics and breakneck arcade pacing, without giving into the "bullet hell" madness that is so chic in the genre. For casual fans, the complex mechanics and unrelenting arcade difficulty will likely be overwhelming and disorienting, but for those of us weaned on the developer's earlier games or Radiant Silvergun, this is certainly one of the best arcade shooters to hit XBLA in quite some time, and at a price point that practically makes it a must-buy.