Genre: Shooter / Bullet Hell-ish
Reviewer: John Rien
Overall: 8.5 = Excellent
Pentium 4 2 GHz processor, 1 GB RAM, Nvidia Geforce 6600, 200 MB Hard Drive space
Three young women are on a mission to reach the core of the M.R.S. network. Their reasons aren’t initially clear, and unless players poke around a bit, they won’t ever be entirely clear, but the “why” isn’t so much the focus as the “how.” Each will ‘dive’ into the network, a process that takes the form of—what else—a vertical shooter. Five Centrals (areas) await, each protected by a Keeper who sits at the opposite end of hundreds of suicidal, laser- and bullet-wielding geometric servants who are just as determined to stop the dives.
Initially, only one character is available: Miria, the pilot of Must Viper. The other two are unlocked in quick order, but Miria makes for a nice starting point as her ship is the most all-purpose of the three. In a nice UI twist, the main menu is displayed as the desktop of the chosen character. Each has a different theme fitting the user’s personality, though all offer the same options: ReFrain (main game and tutorial), Log Archive, Music Room, Replay, and Log Off. The Log Archive is where the story slowly unfolds as new messages are added as the player progresses through each Central. Replay is helpful for learning some of the trickier attack patterns, while Music Room offers a chance to sit back and enjoy the game’s fantastic techno-styled soundtrack. Shortly after their first dive, players will be able to log in as Tee, who pilots the short-range Blitz Lester, as well as Mews, who pilots the long-range Bronx Terror. It’s a well-rounded roster that suits all styles of play.
All of the craft are flanked by options (floating orbs that attack) and share the same three attack types: shot, lock-on, and M.E.F.A2 (Mood-Emotion-Feeling-Affect Attack). Shot is the standard attack, while lock-on causes the nearby options to target any enemy that’s been struck by the ship’s laser. The increased power comes at a cost, though, as the ships slow down whenever they have a lock; on the plus side, targets remain marked for a short window after the button has been released, which allows the options to continue the assault while the player focuses on another enemy. While each ship has the same attack types, the types differ per ship. The Must Viper has a spread shot and a lock-on that fires a wide forward laser. The agile Blitz Lester has a straight shot and a lock-on that causes the options to circle the craft, automatically firing on up to six targets, and laser-like wings that damage whatever they touch. The slower but stronger Bronx Terror’s shot is a wave attack, while the options shoot lasers that can be focused or spread out, depending on if the player is pressing up or down. The lock-on shot is a laser with a surrounding wave, which also causes the options to break off and attack the nearest enemies. The default controls make for an involved setup, as two buttons must be held down to engage the lock-on attack. Keyboard controls cannot be remapped, but fortunately there’s an option to automatically engage lock-on after the shot button has been held down. Oddly, controllers can be remapped, and given the game’s numerous attack types and the dexterity required in some portions—tapping M.E.F.A2 three times while dodging and locking-on—I highly recommend a controller or a joystick. The possibility of pretzel fingers aside, I really took to this high level of physical involvement and felt especially invested each session.
RefRain -prism memories- has the appearance of a traditional, if highly neon-flavored, bullet-hell shooter. Play the game for a bit or check through the manual, however, and you will find that it isn’t quite what it seems. True, the game does have mesmerizing displays of colorful shots fired in arrays of dizzying patterns, but those patterns aren’t to be dodged so much as plowed through. A key element in bullet-hell shooters is pattern memorization. Knowing the patterns is crucial to being able to avoid being hit in order to survive long enough to destroy the enemies pelleting out the seemingly innumerable rounds that fill up the screen. But while enemies still fly out and attack in patterns, avoidance isn’t always an option.
Typically, a navigable only-visible-when-squinting pathway allows players to skirt between enemy fire in bullet-hell shooters. Not here. Instead, players must weather the storm of projectiles while making their own path by utilizing the Concept Reactor. This handy piece of kit transforms projectiles—not lasers, though—into weak, harmless objects. Despite wiping out numerous threats in one go, this isn’t a screen-clearing attack. The newly created objects are actually very handy. Blasting them not only creates a path to safely fly through, but also charges the ships’ M.E.F.A2 gauge. Destroyed enemies drop icons that also charge the gauge, but not as quickly. Each craft has a different M.E.F.A2, but regardless of which pilot is being controlled, it will be put to heavy use as a multi-level special attack that does massive damage to enemies that also offers a brief moment of invincibility, knocks back targeted enemies, and destroys incoming fire. Up to six levels can be charged of which one to four can be unleashed in a single attack by tapping the button successively within a short window. Unlike many shooters that prefer special attacks be held onto like precious gems, ReFrain demands the opposite. Or to quote the manual, “Fire away!”
The game goes a bit deeper, though, and in a number of interesting ways. Items dropped by enemies charge the Concept Reactor Gauge. They also change their level depending on the proximity of the player: the closer the player, the higher level the icon. The higher the icon level, the more they charge the Concept Reactor Gauge, and if the player is close enough, the item will be gathered automatically. The item’s charge is also determined by how quickly it’s picked up, with the level increasing the quicker the item is gathered. This encourages aggressive play, as only those in the thick of the action will be able to consistently max out their Concept Reactor Gauge. Enemies can also be knocked back if they are hit by a level 3 or 4 M.E.F.A2. Knocking enemies back is quite potent; it not only stuns them, but any hit landed during this state quickly charges the M.E.F.A2 Gauge and generates items to charge the Concept Gauge Reactor. All of this also ties into score multipliers, which is a level I hope to be at some day because at this point, I’m happy when I make it to the final boss.
There are some downsides, however. One is that, for as unique as the game looks, the enemies lack any sort of personality. Granted, they are supposed to be within a computer network and basic geometric shapes make about as much sense as anything else, but they are so sterile that there’s little satisfaction in wiping out a screen’s worth. I don’t necessarily need a maniacal cow a la Deathsmiles, though that would’ve been nice, but something more than squares and the rare fauna-like shape would’ve made the actual combat more interesting. The graphics also make it difficult to see the thin lines around the ship that represent shield strength as well as smaller enemies—everything blends together from time to time. Of particular note are some of the awful sound effects. For as great as the soundtrack is, and it’s definitely top notch, some of the effects are absolutely ear-piercing. A handful are so high-pitched and dominating that I initially yanked my headphones off before a full-on headache set in, and I eventually turned the effects down altogether. That said, hearing the music undisturbed is a nice bonus.
RefRain -prism memories- is a mechanic-rich shooter that has a lot to offer players looking to put in a little extra wrist work. The game lacks the sort of wacky enemy types or strange worlds that add so much charm to other shooters, instead making use of a unique if slightly bland graphical style that can also make spotting enemies in the thick of the action rather difficult. But aside from occasionally slamming into a menacing cube or being subjected to an ear-piercing laser blast, players are in for a fantastically layered, dexterous shooter that should please any fan of the genre.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)