Just recently I did a feature on shoot ’em up (shmup) games, and one of the main reasons I was feeling shmup fever was due to the release of Deathsmiles for the Xbox 360. Developed by Cave, and published by Aksys, Deathsmiles has actually been around for nearly three years in Japan, so when it was announced that it would be coming to North America, shmup fans like myself were quite happy and surprised.
The game is a horizontal scroller and falls into the bullet hell category. You control one of five different characters that has a tag along familiar through stages packed with macabre style enemies. The gameplay is quite intense and on the harder difficulties it’s extremely challenging, even for seasoned shmup players. The difficulty can be dialed back quite a bit, but honestly the real satisfaction in Deathsmiles comes from getting through the punishing levels with as few deaths as possible.
The gameplay isn’t all that unique, but it does have some nice touches. Rather than multiple lives, the player gets one life and a 3 hit life bar. Bullets decrease the life bar by one, but collisions with enemies only take away 1/2 of a hit. You can pick up items to refill the bar along the way. As you accumulate points, you can increase the 3 hit life bar to 4 or 5, but it takes big scoring to make it happen. For attacks the player can tap the button for a standard shot, hold it for a secondary shot, lock on to have their familiar fire, or fire off a bomb-style attack. As enemies are destroyed, they fire off some smaller bullets (similar to in Ikaruga when dying enemies fire off bullets) that will do you damage, but if they strike your familiar you actually gain points. Also, when enemies are destroyed they’ll typically leave behind an item pickup. As you pick up items, a counter tallies your total. Once you reach 1000 items, you can power up your attacks for a limited time. It’s a simple system, but it all works well.
The story in Deathsmiles is nothing special, but story has never been a focus in the genre. There are two different endings for each character, however, so multiple replays aren’t based slowly on gaining a higher score. I guess there’s enough story dressing on the game to keep it interesting, but there’s nothing truly compelling to make note of.
The style is something that might be a turnoff for some, as it’s pretty heavily anime influenced. Really though, after a few minutes that styling fades into the background as you are jamming your controller stick in all directions to avoid the incoming storm of bullets. While I’m not an anime fan, I do have to admit that it does add some charm to the overall package, but I wouldn’t disagree with anybody that would say that the inclusion of it is a little tough to swallow.
Overall the game is great, even if it is a little expensive. I still feel like this genre can do well, but they need to release these games more often, and they need to hit a better price point. I don’t mind paying $50-$60 for a good shmup, but for such a niche genre they really need to get these down to $20-$30. I would definitely recommend the game without any reservations for shump fans and would advise casual fans to see if they can find it at a lower price. I would caution those who choose to wait that it’s very possible that this game could become quite scarce once the initial shipment sells out.