Review: Deathsmiles IIX (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Deathsmiles IIX
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Cave
Publisher: Cave
Release Date: 05/17/11

A little less than a year ago, Deathsmiles found its way to the US, courtesy of publisher Aksys, but the truth is that the developer of the game, Cave, has been experimenting with US releases for some time before and after this release. As noted in the review of the original game, Cave released Mushihime-sama Futari, another shooter of theirs, with no region coding, presumably to see what sort of market existed outside of Japan for their titles. Between the results of this experiment and their deal with Aksys to bring Deathsmiles stateside, Cave must have seen some favorable results, as they decided to cut out the middleman and start publishing games on the US XBLA service. Late last year, Cave brought us an XBLA release of their arcade classic Guwange, and just a couple of weeks ago they released puzzle platformer Nin2-Jump to the service. Well, they’ve apparently decided to start bringing out the heavy hitters on the service, as they’ve just recently released the sequel to Deathsmiles on the “Games on Demand” side of XBLA, with the creative name of Deathsmiles IIX, in effect choosing to bypass an American publisher entirely. On one hand, this is great; the idea that we may someday get DoDonPachi, Mushihime-sama Futari or even Espgaluda on the XBLA service without having to wait for some US developer to bring the damn thing stateside is glorious, as is the implication that other Japanese developers might do the same thing and just start releasing awesome games on their own. On the other hand, Deathsmiles IIX isn’t the awesome sequel it could have been, and while it’s still a worthwhile purchase for shooter fans, it’s not the first “big” release Cave should have aimed for if they wanted to really make an impact on their own.

Deathsmiles IIX picks up some time after the first game, as the “angels” from the first game have decided to bring Christmas to the world of Gilverado. Yup. As they’re doing this thing, however, a demon known as “Satan Claws” shows up, injures their caretaker and bolts, leaving the girls to… uh… beat him into submission and use the power of music to summon a green haired goddess to save their caretaker? Look, the story is entirely in Japanese, so for all I know Satan Claws gave their caretaker a coronary and they’re summoning the goddess of cheeseburgers to suck the cholesterol out of him to help him live. I’m going off of storyline explanations from other sources, is what I’m saying here, because Cave translated absolutely nothing in this game, so unless you can read kanji, the story is pointless. Four characters make their return from the first game: Windia, the Wind magician, Casper, the Phantom user, Follett, the Fire Magician, and Rosa, the Fairy user, and while Sakura is absent this go-round, two new characters are added to the mix: Supe, who literally summons Tyranosatan (the final boss from the first game) as her familiar, and Lei, her brother (no, really), who summons two familiars, similar to Sakura. As far as game modes are concerned, the game offers up four: Arcade Mode, which is the arcade game, complete with a squished display and smaller character roster; Deathsmiles IIX Mode, which is an Xbox 360 upgraded version of the Arcade game, complete with expanded visuals and a full roster of characters; Arrange Mode, which is a modified version of the game that changes up how powering up can work and adds a Tension Meter for added challenge; and Tsukaima Race mode, which is a silly little game where you navigate the familiars through mazes based on locales from the first game. There are more changes from one mode to the next this time around, if nothing else, and while the Tsukaima Race seems kind of tacked on, it’s still fun and a nice diversion from shooting at things all the time.

Cave has opted to step away from the 2D sprites used in the previous title this time around, as everything in Deathsmiles IIX is now full 3D… and generally, this is not an improvement. Now, to be fair, the visuals are very clean and colorful, and the animation is smooth all in all with minimal slowdown unless the screen is full of bullets and enemies (at which point, I think it’s a stylistic choice, because you really wouldn’t survive without it). However, the 3D visuals lose some personality when compared to their 2D predecessors, both when looking at the characters and when looking at the enemies you face. Part of this is because the 3D is somewhat low-tech; one can imagine this being a PS2 or even possibly a Dreamcast title without too much effort. Part of this, however, also comes down to the fact that the 2D visuals were a hard act to follow, as they were generally great, and the 3D simply isn’t as impressive. The audio is generally as good as ever, however, and while it might not be as good as its predecessor either, the gap is so minor as to be negligible. The game music is, once again, a mix of creepy classical tunes and upbeat electronic synth that sets the mood nicely, and while the Christmas theme of the tunes can be silly when it pops up sometimes (every boss song seems to start with the opening bars of “Joy to the World” for instance), it’s still fun to listen to. There’s a lot more Japanese voice work for the characters, and while there’s about the same amount of voice work in battle, the cutscenes are fully voiced. Granted, this is of no value since you can’t understand what’s going on anyway, but it’s a nice thought, at least. The various sound effects, from the shooting effects to the grunts and groans of your enemies, once again sound fitting and solid from start to finish, and are well assembled, all told. Unfortunately, there’s also somewhat of a glitch in the audio that pops up from time to time where there will be a delay before voice samples play, and there’s no apparent reason for this, unfortunately.

As with its predecessor, Deathsmiles IIX is a shooter, and fans of the genre should have a good idea what to expect from it. For those who missed the first game, however, it does have its own unique quirks to keep things interesting, so we’ll get into those here; experienced players can skip the next couple paragraphs. The game is a side scrolling shooter, meaning that your characters are shown from a side view as they scroll through the various stages, though there is no specific direction that the stages scroll in, so some stages will scroll left or right, others will scroll up or down, and some change directions at various points. Each character can fire left or right, depending on the button you press, and as enemies can and will frequently enter the screen from both sides, you’ll need to be on the ball with the directional switching. Each character is given an Option, or helper unit, dubbed a Familiar here, which can shoot in the direction it’s facing and can absorb some bullets. You’re given two types of shots for each direction, each with a different area of effect and Familiar shot effect, and one will allow the Familiar to move around while the other locks the Familiar in place, depending on which of the two you prefer. Each character is given multiple smart bombs they can use at the press of a button as well, which will fill the screen with magical energy when used, destroying weaker enemies and bullets and damaging boss monsters in the process. Shooter fans will find all of this to be quite standard for the genre, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

However, let it not be said that Deathsmiles IIX doesn’t do its own thing to make it more than just another shooter. As you destroy enemies, power-ups fall out of them that increase a power rating that appears at the bottom of the screen. The number doesn’t mean a lot on its own, but it provides power to a key feature that helps you significantly as you play. This is the Power Up Mode, which you can enable once the meter reaches one thousand points. Once you kick this in, the meter begins depleting heavily, but every enemy you attack starts heavily expelling power-ups that massively jack your score out as you collect them until you deplete the meter, which allows you to start the process over again. The game also offers a sliding scale of difficulty levels for each of the stages you can play through, with the three shooter modes offering three levels of difficulty to choose from. As the stages increase in difficulty, the enemies launch additional projectiles with less room to evade between them, but in an interesting addition, they also launch counter bullets, which work exactly as you’d think: when the enemy bites it, bullets fly from their location directly at you. Your Familiar can absorb these bullets, however, which not only allows you to clear the screen a bit but also adds to your score, for those of you who want to get the highest scores possible. The game also handles the lives system with small life bars that deplete as you take damage, depending on how you set the damage scale. When the bar empties, you lose a life, and when all of the bars are gone you have to continue, so unless you jack the damage scores up so high that hitting anything equals a lost life you have a little leeway to screw up before you lose a life.

Okay, so, welcome back to experienced players. Let’s talk about what’s new.

In Arcade and Deathsmiles IIX Modes, the biggest change is that the lock on attack has changed up somewhat. For one thing, in IIX Mode, the game no longer requires you to burn energy to use it, instead burning a bar that appears around your character and depletes slowly as you use it (Arcade Mode still burns energy when the lock shot is used). For another, the lock on attack can now hit multiple targets at once, making it a good bit more useful than it was in its predecessor. This combines with the fact that some enemies hang out in parts of the stage you can’t hit directly, thus necessitating use of the lock on shot to kill them, making it both more useful and more necessary for top scoring. However, abusing lock shot causes enemies to spawn homing bullets that can cause you serious problems, though you can exploit the lock shot to turn them into points as needed if you’re paying attention. The game now treats the scoring differently as well, as your overall multiplier no longer tanks out immediately and you can more readily exploit items that fall out of enemies, once you understand the mechanics, for maximum scoring potential. Your hit box has also been noticeably decreased in size, which is good, because if it were the same size as in the first game you’d likely be getting wasted a lot more easily, and this game is still no cakewalk. In Arrange Mode, the basic mechanics of play remain the same, but your Familiar can now be “thrown out”, allowing you to use lock shots from the Familiar more or less with impunity, and also allows for bullets to be converted to points in some cases. However, this can, in turn, cause enemies to spawn even more bullets, turning the game into a high risk/high reward situation that increases the amount of bullets, and scoring opportunities, as you make use of your Familiar to maximum effect. Finally, Tsukaima Race is literally just a cute little mini-game that has you bounce the Familiars through different stages toward the goal, either by jumping over or through obstacles or using the environmental objects to switch orientations, bounce you around, and so on, and it’s an amusing diversion if nothing else.

You can pretty much blow through a session of Deathsmiles IIX in about half an hour, as there are only about seven stages to go through, but with the multiple characters and play modes, you’ll have plenty to play around with when doing so. The game offers massively customizable difficulty options, allowing you to jack out your lives and bombs and scale back enemy and bullet damage, allowing players of all skill levels to goof around with the game and have lots of fun, especially with the infinite continues the game also offers. There are also multiple endings to see, if you care about this given the circumstances, and a whole lot of Achievements to unlock, as well as a hidden boss you can face down if you’re good enough. The game also offers multiplayer support for two players, both on and offline, so you can get your friends involved locally or over the internet with ease, though Tsukaima Race is one player only, for what little that matters. With four different play modes, multiple different difficulty options to customize, and on and offline play, Deathsmiles IIX is a game shooter fans will have a lot of fun with, alone or with friends, even if their friends are absolutely terrible at shooters of all kinds.

That said, Deathsmiles IIX carries over some of the flaws of its predecessor while introducing new ones. First off, the game is as conceptually weird as ever, and even worse, in fact, thanks to the cross-dressing Lei, and while it’s not supremely gross or anything, you’re playing a game about underage boys and girls dressing in goth costumes, and how comfortable you are with the game is going to depend a bit on that. Further, you can still blow through a single play session in around thirty minutes, even if you take on the extra stage that pops up, and while you can choose the order of the stages you go through, this still doesn’t dramatically change up the experience or anything. Further, there are less stages this time around to boot (seven compared to the nine from the previous game), and the different play modes still don’t significantly change up the experience from one game to the next unless you’re a scoring fiend, so, once again, unless you’re a fan of shooters, there’s only so much you’re going to take away from the game. Finally, the complete lack of translation really hurts the game a whole lot, as it makes the Achievements impossible to earn without a guide, makes the story impossible to follow, and makes the various menu descriptions worthless, meaning that there’s going to be some trial and error to the experience that one would expect from an import title, not an XBLA release. If the developers of Strania: The Stella Machine could fork out the cash for a translator, Cave should be able to do so as well, and they really should get a patch out there to do this thing if possible.

Deathsmiles IIX is at once a better and worse game than its predecessor; while the visual changes and loss of some of the variety that made the first game great are apparent, so too are the improved mechanics and the more discernable changes to the different play modes, and the end result is a game that’s slightly worse, but not in ways shooter fans will like care about. There are four different play modes that are somewhat noticeably different from one to the next, the visuals are clean and colorful, and the audio is mostly on par with the prior game, which is to say, pretty damn good. The sequel is as simple to play but as complex to really do well with as its predecessor, and between the interesting gimmicks that have returned and been added, the massively customizable difficulty levels, the on and offline multiplayer and the variety of Achievements to unlock, there’s a good bit of value to the product that justifies the asking price on its own merits. However, the 3D visuals are less impressive than the prior game’s 2D fare, the game is still as conceptually off-putting as ever, if not worse, you can blast through any one mode in a single sitting and there still isn’t so much depth to the game that you’ll want to do it again unless you’re a fan, and the complete lack of translation really hurts the overall presentation. Deathsmiles IIX is once again a great game for diehard shooter fans, and should easily be worth adding to their library, and while it’s not so easy to recommend to casual shooter players, it has enough neat mechanics and additions to be worth a second look, warts and all.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: GOOD
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: CLASSIC
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: GOOD

FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Deathsmiles IIX is an interesting sequel to an excellent shooter; it advances the mechanics of the original game enough to make it worth a look, but hurts the experience in other ways to a point where it’s just as hard to recommend to new players, but for different reasons. There are a few different game modes to play with that are different enough to be interesting on their own, the visuals are generally solid and vibrant enough, and the audio is mostly as good as that of its predecessor all around. The game is as simple to play as ever, but offers even more depth, thanks to some changed around gameplay and scoring mechanics, making the game easy enough for newbies while also being challenging and interesting enough for diehard fans of the genre. Between the different play modes, different characters, massive amount of difficulty customization options, on and offline multiplayer, and variety of Achievements to unlock, Deathsmiles IIX is, on the surface, easy to love for casual and diehard shooter fans alike. That said, the 3D visuals are less impressive than the 2D visuals of the prior game, there are some audio hiccups here and there, and the concept of the game is still as weird as ever and may put players off just as easily as the prior game. Further, you can blast through a game mode in one sitting and unless you’re a serious fan you won’t have much interest in the mechanical changes from one mode to the next, and the complete and utter lack of any kind of translation makes the game more off-putting and annoying than it needs to be. Deathsmiles IIX still manages to be a good shooter thanks to the excellent balancing options and mechanical elements the game possesses, and while it’s not as impressive as its predecessor, it’s still an easy game to recommend to shooter fans, though more casual fans may find the game a little harder to swallow, all things considered.

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