Sunday, August 31, 2014

AA Look - Akai Katana

I love two-dimensional shooters. Some of you may refer to them as shmups, a silly shortening of the phrase “shoot-em-up”. I never understood this because I don’t go around referring to beat-em-ups as bemups. But whatever, just this once I’ll do you all a turn and say I love…shmups. Japanese developer Cave is well-known for their…shmups but rarely do they ever see our side of the world unless we’re willing to import. Rising Star Games decided to take a chance on us with a domestic release of Akai Katana. I love Cave and I love…shmups, so I should definitely love this game…right? Well, funny thing about this console generation is that it’s been just full of surprises.

The story behind the dreaded Akai Katana is about what you’d expect from the genre. It’s depressing, insane, and probably will make you wonder why you’re fighting at all. During a reconstructive era in Japan a powerful mineral was unearthed. Not only could it power anything better than coal or electricity, it could also be used to forge katanas. It seems that when these dark-blades are used to kill a human being their souls can become trapped and they become phantoms. All you really need to know about phantoms is that they’re practically invincible, can summon battleships out of thin-air, and have mastered chemistry to the point where they turn bullets into gold.

So on one side we have the evil empire that uses the katanas and phantoms to spread tyranny and oppression. On the other side we have six heroes, who have paid the greatest of sacrifices in order to become strong enough to stand against the empire. Sumire Asaka, Kikyou Saionji, and Suzuran Sanada have given their lives to the katana for the power of the phantom. In order to lead them to victory they must be guided by three other people, whose lives have also been irrecoverably touched by the katanas. Botan Saionji, a woman who lost her sight and her brother Kikyou. Shion Kobayawaka, whose deal with the katana cost her youth. Finally there is Tsubaki Shinjo, who decided to stop wearing women’s clothing. One of these three ladies didn’t have to sacrifice all that much.

You’re not given much time to dwell on the melodrama since your ship is going to be the target of multiple battalions and the hundreds of millions of bullets they’re capable of drowning the screen with. Your goal is to make the best of this awful situation by scoring as many points as possible. You could survive and win the war, most likely you won’t. Your hopes and dreams will come crashing to earth alongside the one of three ships you were piloting. Over the course of five or six stages – depending on which of the three modes you play – you’ll have to come to grips with the fact that winning is not a right videogames are supposed to give you. You must master the various sub-systems while forging a relationship between a phantom and its guide that is stronger than any katana. Even then you likely won’t survive…so just try to have a bit of fun okay?

The three modes of play in Akai Katana are known as Origins, Climax, and Slash. Origins mode is as you’ve already guessed the original mode that was found in the arcades. Climax mode is the same in terms of scoring mechanics but it was designed with wide-screen in mind. The additional real-estate can make things a bit more forgiving for the player. Slash mode is the obligatory console-exclusive mode though I’ve read a port* to the arcades is being worked on. This is a really good idea because I think Slash mode is the most entertaining of the bunch.

Each stage of Akai Katana involves the usual mix of tiny ships that yield to the slightest amount of firepower and much larger vehicles that can take and receive punishment like no other. Mid-bosses and end-bosses are also to be expected and chances are fairly high a lot of bullets will be involved as well. The ship you choose effects the weapon-type as well as the phantom you control. Each ship also comes equipped with a “sacred spirit” aka an option. Manipulating this option is important as it can gather energy, which you will need to keep your phantom powered. Ships and phantoms have an offensive and defensive stance. When you’re holding down the shot button you’re on the offensive but when you’re tapping the shot button or pressing down auto-fire you’re playing defensively. As per more recent genre traditions you also get a stock of three bombs for those situations you can’t handle. If you really wanted to you could probably get through this game while completely ignoring your phantom. Your score and sanity will suffer however as this game revolves around using their powers to make the battlefield your own.

Your immediate goal in Akai Katana is to turn the most hopeless situations into brief shining moments of pure bliss. Pure bliss is attained through the mass accumulation of wealth. In Slash mode you destroy enemies or maneuver the option onto them to acquire energy. While doing so you also have to collect enough steel orbs, which can be done through defensive play. When you believe you’ve attained enough steel orbs that’s when you summon the phantom. As a phantom you must then seek out the perfect opportunities to fire those steel orbs and collect katanas in the process. When you think you’ve got enough blades you release them all in one devastating attack. Timing, location, and aim are everything because overwhelming katana destruction happens only a few times each stage. It’s an impressive sight to behold as bullets and enemy alike are destroyed and the explosions are pure shiny brilliance. There are other factors to account for such as how many hits you’ve managed up to that moment, when to use this ability during boss-fights, and so on. You could read a guide or watch a superplay but you can’t hope to replicate this difficult yet rewarding process until you’ve played and replayed the game an innumerable amount of times.

What can I say about Origins mode? When I first got the game I spent a large amount of time in the Slash mode and really enjoyed it. When I started Origins mode however my world had turned upside-down, inside-out, and all that I had known had become unknown. I was no longer the same person. I went to work, argued with my boss, and nearly got thrown out. At home I’d pace between the windows and the mirror, everything I saw just made me confused and disgusted. I then considered quitting videogames, this whole review business, and possibly starting a blog about bowling. At least when I hit the pins little revenge-pins wouldn’t appear and gold wouldn’t start pouring down the lanes if I ever got a strike. I don’t like Origins mode.

Just like in Slash mode you have to seek out the worst possible situations and try to profit from them. However what you want to do this time is when you become a phantom you want to gather as many bullets as possible. While in defensive stance you will block all bullets and push them around. The trick is to shove as many bullets in the enemy’s general vicinity before you destroy them so all that neon ammo turns to precious gold. However you have to do this with while in offensive stance, and that means not being protected from all of the bits of death you’ve been juggling for the past several seconds.

Again while the process seems only slightly convoluted you have to take into account the fact that you won’t get it right the first, second, or even the 437th time. Part of this is because after you get the gold you have to hold onto it. You must keep the fire button held down and allow the gold to orbit you like some phantom planet. For reasons only explained by fantasy science this causes the gold to grow in size and become more valuable. If you hold on for too long the gold eventually disappears. Even for a Cave shooter the scoring system behind Origins mode feels unnecessarily obtuse. Slash mode requires a bit of work to get the most out of it as well but at least the results of a well-timed strike are immediate as the Xbox 360 nearly chokes from having so much gold on-screen. With Origins mode there’s no time to take in your accomplishments as you’re likely already building up energy for your next bullet-planet-swirling-gold-phantasm fever.

I’m at the point where my biggest concern when playing is not how I just missed death by millimeters. Instead all I think about is how I mistimed my switch to phantom and cost myself tens of millions of points. Even the boss battles do nothing for me. While the idea of enemy phantoms that draw battleships out of thin air to overwhelm the player sounds interesting the actual fights simply aren’t entertaining. It’s like not enough is done to establish the importance of this battle. These bosses might be high-ranking generals or have some history with the main characters but to me they’ve done nothing to get me interested in seeing them killed. As difficult as the final boss is I think he is quite unimpressive due to his laughable design. He can fill a screen with bullets and obliterate me many times over but he’s still a loser with two katanas and a bad haircut. 

Overall Akai Katana leaves me conflicted. If you’re the type who can appreciate scoring systems that are loaded with depth you’ll find a lot to love about this game. However the possibility exists that you may find yourself dissatisfied and maybe even a little empty. It’s as if Cave somehow managed to take the thrill out of a 2D shooter. That feeling of joy that can only come from having death within shaving distance is gone. In its place is regret and frustration, because your placement and timing was off by the slightest smidgen. Of the Cave releases that are available this generation I consider this one to be the weakest. It’s not a bad game at all, but it doesn’t create that fire that I yearn for when I sit down with a 2D shooter.

*This is an old review.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Status update

So the burning question on everyone's mind is: Where has PepsimanVsJoe been?

Well it goes something like this...
Last year I was actually writing for awhile, and then I got a kidney stone. If you've had one of those before, you know how much fun they are. Since games-writing still doesn't pay bills I had to quit. Combine this with moving, a new gaming PC, and a host of other occurrences, and it's a wonder I remembered that I have this blog. 

I'm not sure where I'm going from here, this post is just an acknowledgment that I'm around.

My PC game picture gallery

Wondering where all the pictures are on this blog?

Apparently they're all in my minus account.

Fair warning, there will be spoilers for various games.
Mostly it's PC stuff but some Vita games make appearances as well.

Steam reviews

For the sake of convenience I've provided a link to my Steam reviews.
They're...nothing special but eh, at least they're proof I haven't quit.