(Xbox 360 Review) Akai Katana

Developer: Cave
Publisher: Rising Star Games
Genre: Shooter
Players: 1-2
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

Ever since reviewing Sine Mora, I’ve been on a bit of a prolonged shooter binge. Granted, I’m rubbish at these kinds of games, but there are few genres that can send me into such a trance-like state as a good shooter—even more so if they are of the bullet hell variety. There’s just something mesmerizing about finding the right rhythm of an aggressive offense and a mindful defense while gliding through the various attack patterns and making maximum use of as many lasers, bullets, and bombs as possible. One of the better-known import Xbox 360 shooters is Cave’s DoDonPachi Resurrection, a UK release that has found its way into many US systems because of its English translation, affordable price—which can be something of a rarity for the genre—and region-free status. It just so happens that the game’s UK publisher, Rising Star Games, has opened a branch in North America. And what just happens to be their first release on this side of the Atlantic? Akai Katana, a Cave shooter.

The Xbox 360 is something of a godsend for shooter fans. While I might not be the best versed in the genre’s long history, I do recognize that the domestic market has seen more shooters in the past five years than it has in ages. Whether it’s Deathsmiles, Guwange, Raiden: Fighters Aces, Otomedius Excellent, or the myriad other region-free imports, the combination of smaller publishers filling niches and the opportunities presented by Xbox Live Marketplace has made the 360 a surprisingly shooter-friendly system. One of the juggernauts in the genre is Cave, who commands such a strong influence that there’s even a personification of the studio in NIS’ role-playing game Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2. Needless to say, the trigger finger was ready when I fired up Akai Katana.

But before I get into the mechanics, I would like to digress for a bit to discuss the genre and its more unique facets. Shooters are a peculiar lot, often sporting pixelated (some philistines might say “dated”) graphics, intentional slowdown, and campaigns that can be somewhat erratic, short, and often over the top. Longevity is the trickiest aspect, and my only real concern, given that the rest fall by the wayside once the screen fills up with light blue and pink pellets and tanks start dropping like flies. Many shooters offer several modes to compensate for the short initial playthroughs, with the mechanics and desire for a higher score providing most of the replay value. But initial playthroughs are important because they set the tone, and they also lay out what’s to come in the endless hours of memorizing, practicing, and perfecting. If a campaign is too short, that doesn’t just mean that the story is short—however much one is needed to tell people to blow stuff up—but that also means there are fewer enemy types, bosses, wave compositions, and bullet patterns to contend with. So while length isn’t everything, it does matter.

And Akai Katana has all of those things, from the bright, eye-catching bullets, to the slowdown that allows for close escapes, to a strange story that unfolds over a short campaign—a very short campaign. After being somewhat surprised after my initial playthrough, I clocked my second complete run under default settings at under 20 minutes in the arcade version, titled Origin Mode. As with most shooters nowadays, there are multiple modes to work through, and Origin is joined two others, Slash Mode and Climax Mode.  The additional modes add affect anything from the aspect ratio to difficulty, adding some much-needed variety. But as I said above, even a short shooter can provide hours of enjoyment when the mechanics are sound—and they certainly are in Akai Katana.

A cursory glance wouldn’t reveal a fraction of the interconnected offerings that Cave has in store for gamers. The initial impression Akai Katana strikes is of another hectic blaster with anime-styled characters shooting it out in World War II-inspired tanks, submarines, planes, trains, and helicopters. And all of that is accurate, as there are plenty of old-style armor and aerial units to destroy, as well as boss characters who lash out with blades and battleships. What makes the game so addictive, though, are the three characters, their accompanying phantoms, and a scoring system that requires balancing an unforgiving but well-balanced give-and-take design.

The story, set in an alternate reality where an emperor has caused a rebellion after sacrificing his people to power special katanas, serves little purpose, other than to introduce players to pilots Tsubaki Shinjo, Botan Saionji, and Shion Kobayakawa. Each fighter has a phantom partner that aids them with in combat, sacrificed so that the rebels’ Shakevolt planes could be empowered with their pilots’ supernaturally charged blood katanas. The phantoms assist by the option orbs available to pilots, “spirit guided” as they are, and by joining the battle themselves when summoned. It’s the interplay between the phantoms and the options that are at the heart of the scoring system, but how each form plays its role is dictated by one of two primary modes: Attack and Defense.

Defense Mode is engaged whenever the pilots are not attacking or whenever the fire button is tapped. Tap shots in Defense cause the ships to fire a strong attack and the options, taking on a more uniform formation, firing weaker shots, as well as maintain their normal speed. Attack Mode is engaged whenever the shot button is held down, which results in a decrease in speed as well as the options not only acting differently but also firing stronger attacks. Each option responds differently for each pilot, though, and is the main difference between the playable characters. Tsubaki, for example, has an option that is surrounded by two firing orbs that moves inversely with the ship and stay still when in Attack Mode. So, if Tsubaki moves backwards, the option moves forward, and once the shot button has been pressed, the option and orbs will remain in position and fire as long as it is held down. Botan’s option whips about in an arch-like motion and continues to remain in motion while in Attack, with its orbs firing spread shots that have a soft lock after hitting a target. Shion’s option also moves inverse to the craft, but its orbs fire in a constantly waving spread that showers the screen with bullets. The pilots’ attacks, combined with all of the fire from enemies, serve to create pure neon carnage.

The options have an extra benefit, and that’s their ability to attract the energy left by destroyed enemies. Energy can be collected by running into it when in Defense Mode, or by using the options to draw them in while Attack Mode is active. The latter is special because those orbs of energy orbiting around the option can then be evolved by letting them touch enemy bullets, which will cause them to fill up the phantom-summoning energy gauge. However, energy is only left when destroyed enemies are near the ship in Defense Mode and near the option in Attack Mode. And not only does Attack Mode cause the planes to go slower, but the pilots must switch to Defense Mode in order to absorb the balls of energy. The result of all this is that players are faced with guiding their plane as close to the enemy as possible, around massive amounts of incoming rounds that they are trying to get as close to as possible while also minding those single stray shots that can send them to their graves, and all those orbiting balls of energy to the ether—and all while piloting at varying speeds. Energy is only used to summon the phantoms, though, and that’s where the second collectible comes in.

The score is increased primarily by the appropriately named score items. Destroyed enemies are worth a few points, but the bulk will come from the score items that are left behind after enemies are destroyed while the player is in phantom form. As with energy, score items can go through a three-stage evolution, with the amount of points per item increasing with their size. Score items evolve as they rotate around the phantom, but they are not absorbed until the player switches back into fighter form. Similar to the fighter form, phantoms also have an Attack Mode and a Defense Mode. Attack unleashes a Guiding Cannon laser that is powerful but slows movement speed, while Defense bestows invulnerability. Shot in Attack Mode has a significant bonus, one that the game rightly points out as a key to score maximization, which is the bullet-destroying runes that are produced whenever enemies are destroyed by the Guiding Cannon. Judging when it’s time to risk vulnerability and decreased speed for the chance to rack up a ton of points and clear a path becomes a crucial component to climbing the leaderboards.

There are two forms of Defense, and as with the fighter form, the difference is when the shot button isn’t being pressed or when it’s being tapped. If nearby enemies are shot by the player tapping shot, they will produce suicide bullets that double back to hit the phantom, which can be dangerous for those low on energy. These can also open up tricks, such as ricocheting suicide bullets away, and then maneuvering so that several end up a spot that can then be destroyed by blowing up an enemy with the Guiding Cannon. Transforming back into fighter form also creates a blowback that knocks away nearby projectiles, creating some much-needed breathing room. Since score items will eventually disappear, it might be necessary to forego the rest of phantom’s summons and transform back to absorb the mass of swirling gear-like score items.

Slash Mode and Climax Mode switch these rules up a little. In Slash Mode, players will be able to collect steel orbs and katanas. Steel is produced by destroying enemies while in Defense Mode or when close, as well as by moving the option near them while shooting in Attack. After a few have been collected, they can then be launched at enemies while in phantom form. Katanas will only be available when enemies are destroyed in Attack while in phantom form, but the steel orbs not only destroy enemy bullets; they also attach to enemies and produce katanas. Up to 16 katanas can be stored and launched by transforming back to fighter form, which will result in enemies leaving behind large-sized score items. As in Origin Mode, any hit will knock the player back into the opposite form and destroy whatever items they have swirling about their on-screen counterpart—there is always something to consider, aside from the hundreds of bullets. Steel orbs and katanas only add more variables to the standard formula, serving as a nice step up from the base arcade system of Origin.

The final game variation, Climax Mode, is more of a system-tweaked arcade version. It not only does away with the borders for full widescreen support in 16:9, but the mechanic tweaks are based off Origin. Changes include rebalanced ship speeds, more suicide bullets, altered item drop and volume rate, a different energy gauge recharge speed, and the removal of the onscreen score item limit. There’s a little something for everyone, with Origin for the purists; Climax for those who want an update to the arcade version, but have many of the core mechanics remain the same; and Slash for those who prefer significant change, with the shift in system mechanics brought about by the steel orbs and katanas.

Of course, practice will be the best way to uncover many of Akai Katana‘s subtleties. It also helps that the game is easy to jump into, with environments and enemy types that are familiar if a bit unimaginative. What isn’t helpful is how little is explained. For all of the variables involved, there are so many things that aren’t adequately covered to allow beginners a better understanding of what all the mechanics allow for and how the moves and forms work within the larger framework of the score and combo system. For instance, the pilot tutorial videos available online are accessible within the game, but if the player doesn’t let them kick in by sitting on the title screen for a bit, they would have no idea they even exist, much less that they can be accessed manually from the main menu (hit “B”), which I didn’t find noted anywhere. But even that’s clunky; there is no way to select which video plays, so if the needed tutorial is a few in, players have to just sit through all of the previous clips. The manual has bits that repeat, but it doesn’t bother to go into any detail exactly what engaging Novice Mode does. There are no pop-up menus summarizing how the modes differ, no decent b-rolls showing off some of the trickier shots, and Training, as helpful as it is in allowing for rules to be set per pilot and level for practice, doesn’t explain go into any detail on the mechanics; not to mention that it would’ve been a nice spot to mention the tutorial videos.

But it’s hard to stay mad at Akai Katana. Once the mechanics begin to click, the earlier frustrations fall by the wayside. Switching between forms, dodging and re-dodging bullets, and zipping around enemies to evolve energy and score items as much as possible without being overwhelmed, completing a solid run is extremely satisfying. With Score Attack providing a way to upload and download replays, as well as compare scores on an online leaderboard, the incentive to learn and improve continues long after the campaign.

With a handful of levels and generic enemy types, Akai Katana is really for the score hounds. Fortunately for Cave and Rising Star, I’d say that covers the majority of shooter fans. What makes the game so successful is Cave’s toying with proximity and speed, forcing players to be aggressive in situations where it’s hard to make out just where enemies are amidst the sea of bullets and when they might be sluggish. But that’s also when the game shines, allowing for quick transformations to maximize score while still allowing players to feel as though for that brief moment they are actually managing the chaos. It’s during those moments when there’s a state of synergy between player and controller that one can recognize a well-designed game, and for its few faults, Akai Katana is definitely that.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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