Sunday, 20 March 2016 00:00

Deathsmiles Review

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Deathsmiles is the latest Cave release on Steam, hearkening back to the classic days of multicolored death spitting little girl arcade bullet hells.

This is a great port of an incredibly solid horizontal shooter by Cave that came out a good number of years ago, originally being ported to the Xbox 360 (which I did not own at the time) in 2009, and, subsequently, I never got to play that version until years later, at an anime convention, which I only got about three minutes to do. I’ll go ahead and say here that I love Cave, and have tried to get my hands on all of their shmups, really only Muchi Muchi Pork escaping me. But I will put bias aside in this case and review it as if I were not incredibly, incredibly excited to now have Deathsmiles to play.

This version of Deathsmiles contains a few different versions, including the original arcade mode as well as the graphically upgraded version that I believe was part of the Xbox 360 port, as well as the Black Label version, a common addition to most popular shoot em ups – especially in Cave’s case. There are some differences in gameplay across the versions, though for a casual player it won’t affect much. The main differences are scoring mechanics and the ability to choose difficulty on all chapters instead of the arcade mode forcing a difficulty upgrade every two levels, but this version also comes with infinite lives so players shouldn’t have any trouble getting the hang of the ins and outs of controlling shiny death their first few runs. Scoring mechanics are really more for hardcore players, as getting high scores requires players to not ever die, but are definitely relevant to bullet hell fans, some versions having very different ways to get scoring multipliers. There are plenty of shiny evolving pickups to be grabbed, adding to the satisfaction of killing huge enemies, but they lose a little relevance outside of the hardcore one credit runs.

Control was my main concern for this port, since being able to precisely sling your tiny hitbox out of the way of the wall of pink bullets coming to make the little pixel witch bleed is the primary focus in this sort of scenario.

I tested keyboard and controller responsiveness and was very happy to find that movement is just as fluid as it needs to be, and is rarely affected by some of the few slowdown moments in levels, which seem more intentional than hardware failure-y.The two sided shooting mechanic is fairly solid but I honestly don’t think they used it enough, as I found most levels only required players to switch direction of fire once or twice, then bombarding you with two sides of death much more actively in the last two levels, not giving players much time to learn it fluidly. But as there are only seven to eight levels in the main story mode, replaying obviously teaches as the difficulty increases, right up to the ridiculous Black Label 999 levels with suicide bullets literally everywhere. There is also a targeting mechanic with different ranges based on the character picked, but it almost always felt like it was more getting in the way of my success than adding to it. Much more effective stable target locks in Cave titles like Guwange or Progear.

Thematically, Deathsmiles has great visual and audio presence:

Classic speedy, electronic-influenced metal with spooky undertones, perfect for it’s anime Halloween levels and enemies, of which there are a decently wide variety with the exception of the floating eye with wings characters, which you are sure to slaughter hundreds of for their shiny scoring innards. The variety of main characters and their familiars is very nice, though it definitely took me a while to figure out which characters were actually the damage based ones and which were the speed ones. The Black Label also comes with an extra character, one of the bosses from the story mode. The playstyles of the five characters does vary quite a bit in regards to some of the more complicated mechanics, and can have a tendency to make or break playthroughs unless you’re familiar with the common shmup character archetypes, but outside of hardcore scoring none of them will necessarily be frustrating to casual players.

It’s also interesting to see the original arcade graphics included in the base version, looking extra pixelly and calling back to another Cave title, Esp Ra De, especially the in-level character graphics. Most players will probably enjoy the shiny new graphics in some of the other versions, more detailed and fleshed out, though there is something to be said for the familiarity of the low res for fans of arcade classics. Another thing that Deathsmiles does very well is separate things that can harm from things that can’t, some shmups don’t prepare as well for this causing bullets and dangerous objects to get lost in character models or background animations, some even making friendly and enemy bullets the same color. Deathsmiles has very distinct “this will hurt, this won't,” design, and even decided to remove the ever frustrating “touching the ground is death” mechanic prevalent in most other horizontal shooters.

One thing that Deathsmiles really makes a case for is porting old shoot em ups to steam, not even necessarily with any kind of upgrades.

There are so many great games in this genre that were previously only available in arcades or on imported console compilations, and with their pick up and play mentality they would do well in the Steam environment, especially adding more capabilities to compare skill against other players in the community, which is really what shmups exist for. That being said, I don’t really think that for the price many casual players will feel like they really got their money's worth, while someone like me – who has Cave induced carpal tunnel – would be more than happy to pay whatever they wanted me to if they’d release Muchi Muchi Pork.

Deathsmiles is a great port of a quality Cave title, and is a great way to get started in the magical realm of arcade shmups. Definitely worth a try; whether you’re interested in perfecting score mechanics or just wrecking some awesome looking pixelly monsters. Hopefully this is evidence of more arcade ports to Steam, because Deathsmiles has got me hankering to go waste six hours on Progear.


The Verdict

Definitely worth a try; whether you’re interested in perfecting score mechanics or just wrecking some awesome looking pixelly monsters. Hopefully this is evidence of more arcade ports to Steam, because Deathsmiles has got me hankering to go waste six hours on Progear.

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Dylan Lotufo

Dylan LoTufo is cheerful nihilist hiding on internet space in Colorado, staring at screens and writing things related to them, sometimes including video game reviews. He also makes far too fast dance music, and is constantly searching for old Japanese cyberpunk movies for some kind of clue to the meaning of life.


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