With some games it feels like the less you know about them the better off you are. I've tried to familiarize myself with the finer points of this game by learning its scoring mechanics, its different modes, and even its story. Still none of this has had made me any better at the game and it may have in fact made me a bit worse at it. ESP Galuda 2 is one of the deepest and most difficult 2D shooters Cave has ever put out and whatever context I may have gained came at the expense of the possible enjoyment I can get out of it.
In the future there are wars between two factions that nearly destroyed the world...okay actually it's just a place called Soma. Apparently the best plan of action was to set up a test-tube baby facility so children could have freakin' sweet mechanical wings. I gotta say that I kind of dig the art-direction in this game. It's completely all over the place as most everyone seems to be part-human, part-mecha, part-angel(?), and well hell let's just say part-everything. I mean who can say no to things that explode and bleed at the same time. In the first game millions of Somaons watched in horror as some little kid flew around blowing them all away and turned their bullets into gold. Oh and as a bonus all of this was happening in slow-motion. How does this happen? Through an amazing ability called Kakusei (or Awakening so you don't scare your friends with random Japanese words) the player slows down everything in the vicinity to either escape a bad situation or capitalize and cash-in. After a certain point the player tends to forget that they're fighting for a better future and all they really want is a more impressive high-score.
In the end that's what it's all about really. ESP Galuda is an arcade game in its purest form. It has depth, accessibility, strong mechanics, and it is pure-fun. Unfortunately it's a representative for one difficult genre to get into. 2D Shooters, STGs, shmups(ugh), and whatever else people like to call them have just never gotten the appeal they deserve...well at least not anymore. Sure 1 in 5 gamers may be able to recall days spent on Gradius and they have at least heard of Ikaruga but beyond that? Not much. It certainly doesn't help that shooters typical cater to the high-end market. If you want to explore the best the genre has to offer you have to buy older consoles, spend a ton of money on import games, and if you have a 360 you're definitely going to need an arcade stick. Even then the chances of gamers getting the most out of the genre are nil no matter how much money they invest into it.
Fact of the matter is in order to get the most out of the shooter one has to spend time on it. Sure it may take less than thirty minutes to complete the average shooter but one can expect to spend somewhere between five and potentially unlimited hours just trying to beat let alone master the game. There is a difference between beat and complete in this case by the by. Beating a 2D shooter means no continues, completing it is what the average videogame critic does before they write their review saying "this game is too easy". Still while dedication is required it is not without merit. Being able to beat games where the player is so hopelessly out-matched is the most thrilling experience around for me. 2D shooters at their best tend to reduce me to a quivering mess but I'll never let them go as so few games deliver that same experience.
But enough about all that let's talk about the sequel itself. Things are about to go south again and the mecha-winged just can't catch a break. That's alright though cause the returning heroes from the first game have decided to step it up a bit. Okay maybe there isn't any increased firepower and the playable characters still die in one hit but now they can be more stylish and achieve even higher scores. While the last game featured the ability to turn bullets into gold (provided one has enough gems...which are gained from fresh enemy corpses), this game adds the ability to create bullets out of thin air and then turn those into gold. Frankly I'm not sure where these bullets are coming from. Are they the same bullets that passed the bottom of the screen several stages ago? Did they come from some 2D shooter in another dimension? Why aren't these kids creating world peace instead? It's best not to wrap one's head around context because everything about this game defies it.
For one quite a few of the bosses are kids. Sure they're apparently royalty, possibly evil, and they're definitely test-tube mecha-abominations but c'mon Japan throw me a bone here. At least slap another six years on these brats so I don't feel so bad when I slap them with a beam so powerful they are consumed by horrific explosions and collide into the ocean with such force that millions of mecha-angel-parts couldn't fix them up. I never should have bothered to look this stuff up on wikipedia. Still I tend to forget about all this when I actually play the game. It's one of those titles I get completely lost in and the music and setting set the perfect flow for the action going on.
Galuda 2 is some sort of melodrama that revels in its own absurdity. The music is about as riveting as techno + piano is going to get and the composer knows exactly when to pull the sound back to capture those perfect moments like the arrival of a mid-boss or a particularly intense section. After awhile I lose track of everything and I'm left wondering if the people my character is killing were once relatives or friends but the music and constant thrill of missing death by pixels in the pursuit of treasure makes me forget about all of the the unimportant junk.
The greatest asset to this game is its challenge. Sure the 2D shooter genre is never lacking in that regard but here it feels like real effort is required to get what makes this game work. There are spots that if the player knows what they are doing they can get a massive amount of points but knowing about them and even seeing them on a superplay video does not mean the player will earn them. Setting up these points where enemy bullets constantly respawn and provide huge 500x bonuses means nothing when the player runs into a bullet and it all falls apart. There's tons of risk/reward to account for here and all newcomers would do well to stick with avoiding that "create bullets out of thin-air" ability for quite awhile. This is one of those games where even if things are too hard for the player they'll still feel compelled to push the game further rather than play it safe. For some players all of that can be too daunting or more likely a bit tiring. For those players there's the ability to just use up all of the gems so that whenever the player triggers Awakening instead of everything slowing down everything will speed up. This is probably something to be avoided if you're still having trouble with bullets going normal-motion and especially slow-motion.
As far as content goes Cave put together quite a package for this game. There's the Arcade mode, Black Label, Arrange, and Omake. There are even tutorials and Novice modes cause anyone attempting this game needs all the help they can get. Each of the other modes have their own additions and changes to the core game and in short they're all pretty awesome. Personally I favor Black Label as it has an added mechanic where bullets that get dangerously close to the player suddenly slow-down to the point of practically stopping. This is good for those last-ditch escapes though it's not something that can be abused. Still it's good for me and my attraction to accidental 2D shooter death (something that has cost me way too many games). Arrange is also really good though it takes a slightly different approach in that the player must use the two differing shot-types to turn bullets into gems (instead of just turning the bullets into gold outright). It's a cool feature though again effort is required to keep the player from screwing themselves over. One feature that I'm especially fond of is that by pressing the select in most game modes the player can opt to restart their current stage, with whatever points and lives retained from the last stage they completed. It's great for practice since most of the stages are a few minutes long it's good to go over the sections I'm the weakest at.
There is a bit of a disconnect for me when it comes to this game however. The bosses just lack the dynamic spark that makes the stages they reside in so amazing. Over the course of each stage the bullet patterns are great, the Kakusei system offers so many different opportunities, and everything is balanced to the point of neigh-bliss. Then the boss hits and it's pretty much the same affair as most other shooters. There are some great boss-fights in the game (I'm especially fond of the fourth) but most of them go on for too long and there's not much to do aside from dodge bullet patterns more dense than the last. It's a weakness shared with ESP Galuda 1 but the last game was also easier so that it felt like the bosses didn't take so long. The final boss just plain sucks as well. The music is lousy, there are too many forms, and the last form is one of those "Screw-you! You'll never beat this game!" forms that I simply can't stand. My suggestion would have been to make the bosses a bit easier but offer up some other ways to build up some excellent Kakusei-based scores (like additional regular enemies). Hopefully the effect would be that the game would be a bit easier to beat but more difficult to master. Still this is very minor stuff and I should just play the game more instead of wasting time with complaints.
In any case if you're a 2D shooter fan you've already bought this game and if not well maybe you can find something cheaper to start off with. Whatever the case I hope that eventually all fans of the genre come around to checking out this masterpiece as it just about captures everything that makes 2D shooters worth playing.
Game Rating 5 out of 5
It's simple really. Cave delivered a crazy-deep game that is loaded with features and very tight design.
My Rating 5 out of 5
I still have a long way to go before I produce anything resembling acceptable progress in this game but every time I pick it up it's fantastic and engrossing. Sometimes I'm not even sure what I should be doing but all the same I'm having fun and slowly getting better.