Game: Akai Katana
Publisher: Rising Star Games
Available on: Xbox 360 Only
Rising Star Games, how I love thee. Much like 505 Games (latterly just 505) and Nippon Ishi have, at various times, been shining beacons where giving western gamers ports of Japanese games is concerned, Rising Star have been instrumental in giving us import geeks without an NTSC Xbox 360 the sorts of games we crave. Complex, swirling waves of bullets, insane beat-em-up combos and seizure-inducing visuals have all been served up by Rising Star in the past twelve months, and here they are again with a tremendous port of Cave’s wonderful 2010 horizontal scrolling shmup, Akai Katana.
My love of Cave permeated my previous look at one of their bullet-hell bangers, DoDonPachi Resurrection. They are a legendary firm whose commitment to providing a hardcore shooting experience has never diminished over time, even with the massive advances in technology and hardware that have been made during their existence. Although they are most famous for titles of the vertically scrolling variety, my favourite Cave accomplishment has always been the steampunk-influenced Capcom tie-in Progear No Arashii, which was their first try at a horizontal scroller. They have had another attempt at that style since, with the excellent Deathsmiles, yet Akai Katana most resembles the 2001 classic Progear No Arashii, which featured prominently on our recent Vault piece celebrating our love for all things horizontal.
Set in a steampunk approximation of historical Japan, Akai throws you straight into a maelstrom of projectiles, with a sense of mania that simply does not let up from the moment you fire the game up to the point where you reach the end credits. You travel from left to right, you shoot things, you have to be mindful of the hitbox around your craft (the small core at the centre of your plane) as you desperately try to survive against the odds. Like all of the classic hardcore shooters, it is relatively easy to complete the game, yet the replay value and the true worth of the title is from accumulating the highest possible score, using the incredible game mechanics to your advantage, and truly mastering these nuances to become the best you can possibly be.
Akai Katana has a few hooks that help you achieve this. You can decide whether to operate in Attack or Defence mode, depending on whether you hold down the fire button or tap it to use your weapon. Destroying enemies in each of these two different styles will affect which collectibles are dropped by the defeated foe. Repeated use of either of the two forms will yield increased power ups or score multipliers, and it is up to you whether to risk racking up combos or to use the best means of survival as you work your way through the increasingly punishing stages.
Your ship also has, in Defence mode, the ability to enter “Phantom” form, which amounts to summoning a sword-wielding baddass to crush your opposition. If you have enough of your energy bar filled, busting out this awesome sword dude is incredibly satisfying, the Phantom is highly effective in destroying much of what is onscreen, and will also help turn those baddies into gold coins which you can collect for a huge score boost.
There are three main game modes. Origin is a standard port of the original arcade game, with the original aspect ratio and the mechanics described above. There is also the excellent Xbox 360-only Slash mode, which adds another interesting element to gameplay, whilst presenting the action in full 16:9 format. In Slash mode, whilst your Phantom is summoned, enemies are converted to “Steel”, which allows you to fire metal projectiles back their way, as well as forging katana swords which can be used to punish the enemies. The last of the three game modes is Climax, which retains the full-screen view, ramps up the difficulty and intricacy of the bullet patterns, and is a true challenge that will take some time to truly master.
If all of this sounds complicated, that is because it is. This is no R-Type, or Gradius, methodical experiences that lead you into battle gently before increasing the difficulty later on; Akai Katana is mental. Luckily there is a brilliant tutorial which explains the game’s mechanics perfectly and will help newcomers get to grips with how to truly enjoy the game. There are also some sensibly-doled out achievements to unlock, which are extremely rewarding to work towards.
Cave have really gone to town in the aesthetic stakes, with the excellent steampunk planes (there are three characters to choose from) and imaginative backgrounds adding a refreshing change, and a true throwback to Progear No Arashii, after several shooters that have been based around anime-style fantasy characters. Sometimes all you want to do is pilot a really cool plane and shoot the crap out of other really cool planes. The hard-edged graphical style is also complemented perfectly by a stunning soundtrack, which punishes the ears with wailing guitar solos and superior bombast; poignant when you consider that the composer Umemoto-san, a veteran of some amazing scores from shooting games past, sadly passed away last year.
VERDICT: Yet another superb effort from Cave, this is soundly their finest horizontal scroller since they teamed up with Capcom back in the day, and one which comes with a completely brilliant sense of risk/reward thanks to the Attack/Defence modes and the use of the Phantom. The three different modes are all significantly different, and whilst the length of the game is short, the meat of it is in mastering what it has to offer, and attempting to get yourself up on the daunting online leaderboards, becoming a true ace of the skies. 2012 has already had one classic shooter in Sine Mora, and while this is a port of an older title, it is impossible not to put it on the same pedestal as the original IP I looked at recently.