Japanese developer Cave (DoDonPachi, Progear) has long been revered as one of the gods of shoot 'em up, or "shmup" games, a genre that has remained as niche as its titles are difficult to master. Over the past few years more of these have found their way to the download circuit on consoles and phones—Guwange on Xbox Live Arcade, Mushihime-sama Futari on iOS, and so on—while a select few, like the goth loli-injected Deathsmiles, have made it to retail. The latest to hit shelves is Akai Katana (AKA Akai Katana Shin on Xbox 360), a horizontal-scrolling shooter set in a world parallel to Japan's Taishō period, and it turns out it's also one of Cave's best in quite some time.
To the uninitiated, Akai Katana will hardly be discernible from the rest the genre has to offer. The player controls a plane through horizontally-scrolling stages, all the while just barely dodging a seemingly impossible amount of multi-colored projectiles. The common mistake made with the genre itself is to take this at face value as a game one simple "beats," dusting one's hands and moving on shortly after the end credits. Like the rest of the best, Akai Katana is all about mastering its many nuances and scoring big, so those who take time to learn how to play properly will be rewarded greatly.
Akai Katana has a few different hooks, all of which may seem kind of complex and overwhelming at first, especially when absorbed via the included tutorial. There are significant differences across the main modes—Origin, Slash, and Climax—and which one takes up the most time will likely vary from player to player. Origin Mode is the standard Arcade mode, and is a great place to get a bead on the basics, from bullet patterns to enemy layout, and just to have fun playing through the game with any of the three selectable characters.
In Akai Katana it's not all about blasting away and dodging bullets; the ship can either be in Attack or Defense mode depending on whether or not the fire button is tapped repeatedly, held down, or not pressed at all. Alternating between Defense and Attack not only changes what items are doled out, but their potency can be expanded, as well. The longer the items and gold acquired are held, the larger they get, so there's that classic risk/reward in holding on to things in an effort to earn more points or further power up the Phantom. The Phantom—a large human avatar that's invincible when in Defense Mode—is the ace in the deck. When there's juice in the energy meter, the powerful swordsman can be summoned to unleash hell back on the seemingly endless waves of enemies. This is where collecting points is at its most enjoyable. Bullets that bounce off the Defense-mode Phantom swirl around, and eventually generate gold as Attack mode is initiated. Before long there's a swirling tornado of expanding gold around the ship, all of which can eventually be sucked in for maximum payout.
In Slash Mode enemies drop Steel if you fire on them while the ship or its options are close by. Steel gradually powers up the plane with a stock of forgeable ammunition. Summoning the Phantom in Slash Mode launches the Steel orbs at enemies and volleys back a growing stock of katanas to gather and eventually punish the opposition. The more katanas floating around, the more devastating the attack. As one of the tutorials exclaims, Akai Katana lets you FORGE KATANAS WITH STEEL!
This isn't meant to sound like a tutorial—these are just the basics, anyway—but it would be a shame if folks went into Akai Katana and dropped it after a playthrough or two without discovering what really makes it engaging. Beyond the addictive mechanics, though, the game just looks fantastic. No offense if playing as humans, spirits, or little girls is your preference, but it's nice to get hooked on a new Cave shooter with classic plane designs at the forefront. The boss and mid-boss enemies also play into this motif nicely. Colossal warplanes zip into frame halfway through stages, and end-level bosses summon their own unique vehicles from the void to assist in blasting the player to smithereens.
It would be a gross oversight not to mention the beautiful bullet patterns produced as a result of all that blasting. Patterns carry with them their own subtle insight into the history of shmups in a way. They've evolved over the years, and like any proper art form have built upon past innovations in design. Once you've played a few, it's easy to spot the shooters that phone it in, and Akai Katana is anything but one of those. The best patterns are both challenging and fun as hell to weave through. Best of all, Akai Katana's aren't hopelessly unreasonable. Even without taking into account the limited invincibility Defense mode grants, there's plenty of appropriate slowdown in just the right spots, and the hit box—the small blip in the middle of the ship that dictates whether you go down or not—is clearly visible. Things do get exceedingly hairy close to the end, but Cave has been much, much more brutal in the past.
Finally, there's the scorching soundtrack by composer Ryu Umemoto (Psyvariar, Espgaluda II), who unfortunately passed away last year at the far-too-young age of 37. So far this may be soundtrack of the year for me. It's basically about 98% insane guitar solos; fitting for the equally insane action happening on screen at any given moment.
Much like the true white knuckle scoring opportunities here, Rising Star Games has taken a risk in bringing Akai Katana to North America and Europe. It's the kind of release that typically flies way under the radar, but anyone interested in the genre should pick this one up and reward said risk with a small swirling bundle of gold.
Akai Katana ($39.99) is out today for Xbox 360 in North America.