Review: Deathsmiles (360)

Deathsmiles
Genre: Traditional Shooter
Developer: Cave
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: 06/29/10

Developer Cave is fairly unknown in the US, primarily because most of their games have remained in their home country of Japan, but they’ve managed to churn out some pretty quality products over the past several years. One of their major focus genres has been the shooter genre, as they’re generally pretty good at making these sorts of games, and their fans in Japan seem to like them well enough, though the vast majority of said shooters had, until recently, not made it stateside. Last year, however, Cave apparently decided to attempt a little experiment, and released Mushihime-sama Futari for the Xbox 360 in Japan with no region coding, meaning that players worldwide could import the game and play it on their 360’s without having to modify anything. Whether or not this experiment ultimately influenced their decision to try releasing titles outside of Japan is uncertain, though the fact that US publisher Aksys has released Deathsmiles in the US in the wake of said experiment seems to indicate that it may have. Regardless, at the end of the day, here we are, playing a side-scrolling shooter where teenage gothic lolitas shoot down the residents of Castle Dracula while creepy electronic music plays in the background, which should pretty much tell you if this game is something you’re interested in or not.

But let us press onward all the same.

Deathsmiles tells the story of four girls, dubbed “angels”, who live in the world of Gilverado: Windia, a Wind magician, Casper, a Phantom user, Follett, a Fire Magician, and Rosa, a Fairy user. The girls are the defenders of the land, by all indications, and as the game begins, they are tasked to eradicate various demonic threats that have popped up in the various towns and locations throughout the land. Apparently, a man named Jitterbug (…what) has been opening a portal to the demon realm, and its up to your group and his daughter, Sakura, to stop him. As stories go, the story in Deathsmiles moves things along and pops up infrequently enough to not really matter, but each character has their own story that is told along with the main story, giving the plot a little more depth than one would first suspect. It’s still not a story for the ages or anything, but everything works well enough to be interesting. As far as game modes go, you’re given six different versions of the game to play through. There are two main versions of the game, the core Deathsmiles game and the Mega Black Label expansion, and each is divided into three sub modes: Arcade Mode, which is true to the arcade, Xbox 360 Mode, which is visually upgraded, and 1.1 Mode, a single-player only mode with a bunch of rule changes. The six modes aren’t drastically different from one another in terms of overall game mechanics, but they do offer enough differences to be interesting and their inclusion gives a bit more depth to the experience all around.

Deathsmiles looks pretty fantastic if you’re a fan of 2D sprite-based games. The character sprites are well animated, as are the various enemies and bosses you’ll face throughout the game, and the enemies are incredibly varied in design, which helps to keep things interesting. The various stages vary in design and theme, from brightly colorful towns and forests to dark graveyards and caverns, adding a nice contrast to the visual theme and style of the game. The graphics generally look their best in the 360 specific modes, where they are cleaned up a bit and look nice in high resolution, as while the Arcade Mode graphics also look nice, they tend to showcase some pixelization issues and the display size is smaller. The game audio is also fantastic, though a shooter without fantastic audio is hardly a surprise. The game music is a mix of creepy classical tunes and upbeat electronic synth that sets the mood nicely while also being fun to shoot things to. There is some Japanese voice acting for the characters, which mostly pops up when you’re taking damage or engaging special attacks, and it’s generally pretty good overall. The various sound effects, from the shooting effects to the grunts and groans of your enemies, sound fitting and solid from start to finish, and also help to make the presentation of the game a winner all around.

As Deathsmiles is a shooter, fans of the genre should have a good idea what to expect from it, though it does have its own unique quirks to keep things interesting. 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 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 two key features that help you significantly as you play. The first is the homing attack, which allows you to lock your Familiar onto an enemy to specifically target them as you shoot, at the cost of some of the meter, though killing said enemy with this shot can potentially pop out more power-ups, making the risk worth it in some cases. The second 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 Arcade and Xbox 360 versions offering three levels of difficulty, and the 1.1 versions offering the additional “Level 999″, which is about as maddening as it sounds. 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.

As noted, the game offers you two main modes to play with, between the normal Arcade mode and the Mega Black Label expanded mode. Both feature the same basic mechanics and such, but the normal game offers four characters to choose from while the Mega Black Label mode offers up Sakura as a playable character as well. Mega Black Label mode also changes around the scoring system a little and offers an additional extra stage to plow through, for the record, but is otherwise mostly similar to the normal game. As noted, the Arcade Mode is a straight port of the arcade game, complete with the rougher graphics and smaller screen size, while the Xbox 360 Mode is cleaner and features a larger screen size for both versions of the game. Both of these modes offer multiplayer support for two players, both online and off, as well as fully customizable options for difficulty, lives and so on. The 1.1 version of both games is where the most notable changes appear, including a limitation to one player at a time, the ability to manipulate your Familiar directly instead of it moving as you move, a different shooting configuration, the aforementioned “Level 999″ stage difficulty, and an additional level and boss, among other things. While the 1.1 mode isn’t drastically different from the other play modes, it’s still an interesting enough remix to keep you interested beyond what the game itself offers. There are also multiple endings per character for you to see as well as various achievements to unlock of variable difficulty, as well as online leaderboards for you to upload your high scores to if you want to be the best Deathsmiles player in the world, and you can even save a replay of your game if you have a particularly good session that you want to immortalize on the hard drive. The game also comes with a 360 faceplate and a soundtrack in the box, and both of these are nice pack-ins that are worthwhile (as faceplates aren’t TOO common and the soundtrack is fantastic) and are a nice treat for fans.

Now, as Deathsmiles is a shooter AND a conceptually weird Japanese title, it unfortunately suffers from the same issues other such games in both categories tend to suffer from. You can blow through a single play session in around thirty minutes, even if you take on the extra stages that pop up, and while you can choose the order of the stages you go through, this doesn’t dramatically change up the experience or anything. Even the different play modes only marginally change up the experience from one to the next, so unless you’re a fan of shooters, there’s only so much you’re going to take away from the game. While you can change the various difficulty settings around to suit your tastes, and while there are plenty of challenging achievements to unlock and such, Further, this is a game where loli characters blow up pigs in chef outfits, folks, so if you’re the sort of person who thinks Katamari Damacy is strange and confusing, you’re going to be really baffled with Deathsmiles, as it’s conceptually all over the place. In many respects, Deathsmiles feels like something that would have worked just as well as an XBLA title, no matter how much fun it is, as it lacks the budget price of other retail released shooters and the novelty pack-in stuff doesn’t justify the price point enough for someone who isn’t a shooter fan.

For fans of the genre, Deathsmiles is an essential purchase, as it’s a fun and fast-paced shooter with plenty of challenge and charm to spare, but it’s unlikely to win over those who are less than enthusiastic about the genre. The story is solid enough for the game to stand on, there are multiple game modes to play with, and the video and audio presentation are both pretty fantastic all around. The game is simple to play and should be easy for anyone to pick up, but features interesting gimmicks that make the game more than just another shooter. With plenty of achievements to unlock and modes to play around with, as well as on and offline multiplayer and online leaderboard support, this is one of the better shooters released on a console in years for a number of different reasons. However, you can blast through any one mode in a single sitting and there isn’t so much depth to the game that you’ll want to do it again unless you’re a fan, the game is incredibly bizarre in presentation and concept, and the game doesn’t quite justify its fifty dollar price tag, neat pack-ins or no. For genre fans, Deathsmiles is a must-have addition to their shooter library, as it’s easily worth the asking price for those looking to earn the best high score ever, and while it’s unlikely to make any converts out of uninterested parties, it does what it does quite well, and for a fan, that’s more than enough.

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

FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Deathsmiles is yet another wonderful shooter for the Xbox 360 that’s packed to the brim with awesome, and it’s sure to please genre fans, though anyone who doesn’t have much interest in the genre isn’t going to find themselves swayed by this. The story is cute, inoffensive and generally carries the game well, and there are multiple modes available to play with enough differences to make them all worth playing a lot. The visual and aural presentation are generally well done all around, thanks to the interesting concept and general attention to detail, and make the game feel like something special. The game is incredibly simple to play but features a significant amount of depth that shooter fans will love, and with numerous different game modes, on and offline multiplayer, online leaderboards for tracking scores, and some interesting special edition pack-ins, Deathsmiles is pretty much a siren song for the shooter fan in a box. That said, more casual fans of the genre will want to be aware that the game can be completed in one sitting, and there aren’t so much of a massive amount of changes between the modes to make the game feel drastically different from one mode to the next. Further, the concept is incredibly bizarre in many respects, and the game doesn’t make a compelling case for its fifty dollar price tag for anyone who isn’t a fan of the genre. If you like shooters in all shapes and sizes, Deathsmiles is pretty much a game you should be running out to buy as soon as you finish reading this review, as it’s a whole lot of fun on a disc, and while it isn’t going to convince anyone who doesn’t like the genre about what they’ve been missing, it’s a love letter of the best sort to fans from Cave, and that’s really not a bad thing.

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