DeathSmiles (Xbox 360)

Review – DeathSmiles: Deluxe Edition

Horizontal Shooter

‘Gothic-Lolita’?  Oh dear, Japan.  Oh dear.




Well this is unexpected.  A previously region-locked shoot ’em up by Japanese bullet-hell mentalists Cave Software, released over here in a Deluxe Edition, complete with a soundtrack CD and a disc of PC accessories,  for less that £20?  It’s not often that the so-called ‘hardcore’ get that kind of treatment in the UK so right off the bat I’m feeling pretty positive towards DeathSmiles.

The game tells the (completely pointless) story of five witches who are trapped in the land of Gilverado and forced to battle demons and monsters in an effort to protect this new world and maybe find a way back home.  However, with magic projectiles basically being bullets, you can disregard the plot entirely and just treat this as what it is, a straight-forward shooter.

It's not quite as mental as it looks.

It's not as mental as it looks.

Despite being Cave’s second ever horizontal shooter (they are better known for their vertical efforts such as Guwange, the DonPachi games and EspDaGaluda) this follows their usual template of having a choice of playable characters, each of whom has a regular firing mode, a slower but more powerful laser mode and a stock of smart bombs.  As with Guwange, you also have a ‘familiar’, a creature that follows you around and provides extra firepower and protection.  Being a Cave game, it also promises you a deep scoring system to master, a metric ton of bullets to navigate through and a host of big bosses for you to chip away at until they explode.

Initially the game recalls memories of such ‘lone man in space’ shooters as Side Arms, Forgotten Worlds and the 2008 Xbox Live Arcade title Omega Five and starts at a reasonably gentle pace.  You initially have three stages to pick from, with another three becoming available after you beat the first.  Finishing those six levels allows you access to a balls-hard bonus level and the final stage.  The difficulty curve is as fair as you can get in a game that only takes fifteen minutes to complete and hardcore mentalists can also select harder difficulty levels with the promise of a lot more points.

As with most good shooters, survival is your first goal but then the game opens up for leaderboard competition and bragging rights with billions of points on offer for those of you who can master the harder difficulty settings.  However those of you without autistic super powers will also be able to get a lot of fun out of what is a classy and enjoyable shooter.

Okay, this bit's as mental as it looks.

Okay, this bit's as mental as it looks.

This Deluxe Edition version of DeathSmiles definitely gives decent value for what is a cheap and cheerful price tag.  First up you get a straight port of the original arcade title.  The gameplay is as described above but the graphics, which were already looking distinctly low-res in 2007, look pretty awful on a hi-def telly.  The game is displayed in a tiny window for a start and if you use the display options to zoom in, it looks rougher than Pat Butcher in a dress.

The ‘Xbox 360’ mode is the exact same game but with a fresh lick of paint.  The graphics are smoother and higher res.  They still look a little jagged when inspected closely but when combined with the excellent level and enemy design (which to be fair still shines through even on the Arcade Mode) this is quite a lovely looking shooter.  With this combination of great gameplay and improved graphics, this is the mode you’ll probably play the most (especially as the majority of the game’s achievements are only available in this or the Arcade mode).

However, it doesn’t end there.  You also get the Version 1.1 mode which adds a new control scheme to the original game.  Now the right analog stick controls your familiar, allowing you to defend yourself on the harder difficulties and position your companion for maximum firepower.  It works, albeit not as spectacularly as it did in Guwange, but with the majority of the achievements and leaderboard action happening on the other modes, there’s not much reason to stay with 1.1.  Still, as a nifty bonus on the disc you can’t really grumble and they do throw in a nice bonus stage (called The Ice Palace) just to make arcade fans that little bit more jealous.

Last up are the Mega Black Label modes.  Originally premium DLC in Japan, the MBL modes offer bigger scoring possibilities at a price.  That price is 999.  Where the original difficulty settings are 1 (easiest), 2 and 3 (hardest).  This has 999 (bollocksly hard) for you to wrap your thumbs around.  It’s literally savage, reducing this reviewer to horrible tears within seconds of firing it.  This mode also adds Sakura (a mid-game boss) as a playable character.

The best thing about DeathSmiles is that the level of bullet-hellishness isn’t completely unfair and your hitbox, as indicated by a glowing heart on your character, is pretty small making navigating through spread patterns easier than you’d think.  Well, for a while anyway.  Also the playable characters do pack a hell of a lot of firepower as well, easily taking down the majority of the enemies save for some of the more bulletspongey bosses but even these guys aren’t too intimidating (on level one anyway, on higher difficulties they are absolute cunts).



Secondary Review

DeathSmiles is a excellent horizontal shoot-em-up that has some great gothic presentation and fantastic gameplay with some very, very challenging stages with bosses that will kick your arse. The only thing I am not found of is that this game is a little erm “creepy” and not in the good video game horror sort of way which no doubt Rich will get in to in his review.

Cave rarely do horizontal shoot-em-ups (Progear was the only other one they have done and it’s amazing!) so I was thrilled to play this while in Insert Coin event last year. The controls are nice and it’s easy to see where your hit box in and for the most part the bullet patterns, while are pretty complex I also consider them to be fair but challenging for the most part. There are very few times I was required to bomb like a mad man and ruin my score, mainly like Tyrannosatan who is easily one of the most intimidating bosses I faced in a video game in some time. (I mean seriously he’s called Tyrannosatan!)

When all said and done if you can look past the slight awkward creepiness of the main protagonists DeathSmiles is an excellent shoot-em-up which comes packed with a ton of extra features and a great soundtrack CD and is well worth the sub £20 price most places are asking.

Secondary Score: 9/10

You can’t argue with all that for the current internet price of £16 and with the majority of the game being accessible enough for spackhanded twats like me, it’s not like the game’s going to punish you for being brave enough to try a Cave shooter.

However, there are a couple of issues that I have with the game.  Having already had Japanese and American releases of this game, it would have been nice if some of the achievements were toned down a little.  I’m not being a pussy either.  DeathSmiles Virtuoso (complete the whole game in one credit selecting Level 3 for every stage) was bested by just two gamers on the US version.  When a club is that exclusive, you can consider the achievement to be broken.  I’ll enjoy attempting to 1CC the game with the various characters but I’ll be doing it on Level 1 (still a very stiff challenge), like a regular person and not some cybernetic motherfucker.

My other issue with the game is a tad more… sensitive.  Let me word it another way.  Are Japanese people all register-ready deviants or something?  The game, officially described as a ‘gothic-lolita shooter’ portrays the protaganists in variously worrying costumes based on their age.  Their particular rubicon is crossed at 14 with the character Follet whose alternate ending was particularly sketchy (the related achievement ‘Bath Time!’ partially describing the quite-sinister imagery.

Cultural differences aside, do all the Japanese want to bum kids or something?

Well regardless of all that, DeathSmiles does still represent Cave at their best and at a price that you can’t argue with.   The range of difficulty settings and modes means there will definitely be something there for players of all skill levels and seeing as how you can’t even play this on MAME (at least not the last time I bothered checking), this is essential for fans of retro-style shooters albeit with one caveat.  If you don’t already own Omega Five, get that instead.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆


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