RayStorm HD was originally released as RayStorm in 1997 for the original PlayStation by Working Designs. It is in fact the second in a series of ‘Ray’ shooters created by Taito, and all of which have made their way to the US: RayForce was renamed Galactic Attack and released in 1995 on the Sega Saturn by Acclaim; RayStorm in 1997 on the PlayStation by Working Designs; and RayCrisis in 1998 on the PlayStation, again, by Working Designs. I actually played each at the time of their release and enjoyed them a good deal, but, save for the first, haven’t touched them in years. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear that RayStorm, a highlight for me back in the late ‘90s, was being updated for a Live Arcade release.
Due to Working Designs’ involvement with RayStorm’s original release, the home version has a bit of a history. Suffice to say, the original Arcade version and Working Designs’ Extra Mode are both included in the Live Arcade version. Extra Mode is an enhanced port that was created for the PlayStation release, which offers a tweaked version of Arcade Mode with improved graphics, a new ending, and increased difficulty with more enemies and different boss encounters. In addition, Stage Select and 13 Players modes unlock upon completion of either Arcade or Extra. Stage Select is about what it sounds like while 13 Players requires you to go through the game again using various manual and automatic configurations of the two primary ships, R-Gray 1 and R-Gray 2, as well as the R-Gray 0 prototype.
Despite looking similar, R-Gray 1 and R-Gray 2 differ significantly by their method of attack. Each has a standard attack, a lock-on attack, and a special attack, but R-Gray 1 fires a spread-fire cannon while R-Gray 2 fires two narrow laser beams. When locked on, R-Gray 1 sends out homing missiles while R-Gray 2 shoots out a bolt of lightning that will bounce around and attack whatever you happen to target while it still has strength; I have to say, the lightning movie is especially cool and fully utilizing it can be pretty addictive. The trade-off between the ships is that the less powerful cannon can be upgraded to fire over a wide area while the lasers remain narrow, but the R-Gray 2’s lock-on attack can home in one more enemies at once. The special attack becomes available once the Special Attack gauge fills after enough enemies have been killed by the lock-on attack, which sends out a massive amount of projectiles and offers a few seconds of invulnerability.
I’ve found that the game’s hook, that is being able to fire a main weapon and lock on to multiple opponents with another, still holds a bit of charm. When on manual, with you having to engage the lock-on attack, it actually reminds me of the Panzer Dragoon series in that you spam the weaker attack while focusing on locking on to as many opponents as possible unleash a deadly wave of heavier fire. What makes RayStorm different is that the two weapon systems aren’t to provide a weak and strong attack but so that the ship, which is set on a high plane, can assault enemies at a lower elevation – a turret on the ground or enemy ship swooping up from underneath. The lock-on attack can target enemies at any elevation, though, which I found deemphasizes the importance of the primary weapon. If you just want to blow stuff up, then you can set the game to automatic and let the computer fire both weapons with the press of a single button, though I would recommend going with manual because the game’s eight levels can go by pretty quick otherwise.
While I still enjoy the lock-on mechanic, I have to say that I actually found the game a bit inelegant after all these years. One of the biggest problems is the difficulty in figuring out just which plane an object is on. The models are nearly identical for something that is below you to something on your level, so you’re often left scrambling trying to dodge a ship that simply passes under you; alternatively, you ignore what looks to be a missile coming from a loop and find that, no, it’s dead-on and you’re dead. The game takes advantage of this ambiguity in some pretty frustrating ways, such as sending out massive laser barrages that seem to come out of nowhere – often shot from small pods on a lower plane – and backing you into areas by seemingly for an ambush. A unique problem is that the trail of the enemies’ often massive laser beams can kill you. While this might make sense, most games have the tip as the deadly portion and the tail as an effect, but not here. When you consider that a tail can take up the entire length of the screen, the fact that multiple beams are often shot at a time seems cheap. The game also seems to break some traditional rules, such as bosses firing at limited angles so that you have wiggle room: dodge a boss’ four-way laser attack by ducking into an upper corner and it can suddenly sweep its massive beam 90 degrees, straight towards you. It’s not fun sitting there and waiting to blow up.
It’s a shame, really, because some of the game’s levels and enemy patterns are quite nice. Whenever the game has you zipping through an orbiting enemy fleet or dodging asteroids, it’s easy to get caught up in the action. What’s more, the focus on the lock-on mechanism creates a unique “push” situation, in that the prominence of enemies on lower planes and on lock-on shots forces you to be very aggressive and push ahead, often to the edge of the screen, to get the drop on enemies before they fill the screen with florescent death. A small feature that adds a bit to the experience is the ability to go beyond the side borders for a few inches, which opens up the battlefield some and provides a nice sense of scale.
Now with so many years between the original release and this new HD re-release, you would think that there was quite a bit of room for improvement. So, what’s changed? Not much, actually. Aside from local (friends list) and online leader boards for all modes, there is the ability to upload replays and the marginally updated visuals. Despite the “HD” in the title, the only difference seems to be the size of the polygons and textures; everything looks bigger, though not necessarily better. Online multiplayer would be nice but, sadly, multiplayer is limited to local play. Taito seems content with offering a barebones update rather than an improvement.
RayStorm HD still has some kick left to it, but it definitely shows its age. At 1,200 MS Points, roughly $15, the game is curiously priced: it’s a good $10 less than you’ll pay on eBay for the PlayStation original but 400 MS Points ($5) more than Ikaruga. Not only do I consider Ikargua a superior shooter, it also includes online multiplayer co-op. If you’re itching for a shooter and have already done a number on Ikaruga and the Raiden titles, then RayStorm HD will do in a pinch; otherwise, give the demo a try first.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)