Thursday 24 May 2012

Akai Katana

It’s not every day you see a game like Akai Katana getting shelf space. As only the third disc-based Cave game to hit European shores, Akai Katana (or Red Sword to English speakers) is a rare breed of game. It’s a conversion of a 2D arcade shoot ‘em up that even in 2012, somebody thought worthy of a retail price tag rather than taking the cheap and obvious XBLA route. Those somebodies in question are Rising Star Games and they make a business out of bringing obscure Japanese curiosities to the west, with oddities including No More Heroes 2, Deadly Premonition and Cave’s very own Deathsmiles on their CV. Is their confidence well placed or is Akai Katana destined to be misunderstood?

Unless you’re a dedicated follower of the genre Cave isn’t going to be a household name. Though they’ve achieved a modicum of recognition with their recent iOS ports, the vast majority of their output will have gone unnoticed by western gamers. Over the last seventeen years Cave have been tirelessly perfecting that obnoxiously difficult sub-genre of shooting games intimidatingly known as "bullet hell". Even if you haven’t sampled them yourself, you might be one of the four million-plus YouTube viewers to be amazed (or perhaps frightened) by the legendary HARDEST VIDEO GAME BOSS EVER!!


Don’t let that put you off – it’s the most extreme of the extreme and not really representative the challenge you will face with Akai Katana.

As ever with the genre, making narrative sense of Cave’s games is often as difficult as surviving the bullet patterns, but the tl;dr version basically involves planes transforming into kids, blood swords demanding human sacrifice, and an empire that needs to be blown to oblivion by said kids with said swords. While making light of the story is an easy (and irrelevant) jibe, the world Cave’s designers have created is beautifully realised. It’s steampunk, Japanese style. Set in the Taisho period of Japanese history when tradition started to be eroded by western industrialisation, Akai Katana takes that juxtaposition very literally. Each of the armed-to-the-teeth fighter planes can transform in to traditionally-garbed sword-wielding humans, and the bulk of the stoic-looking samurai bosses have the ability to pluck hulking great mechanical battleships or trains out of space and time. No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but yes, it is quite spectacular.

The same could be said of all aspects of Akai Katana’s visual design – the game is absolutely beautiful. Unlike the majority of lazy 2D ports, Cave didn’t opt for a cheap cash-in that would look ugly on HD displays. Instead they’ve taken the assets of the 2010 arcade original and drawn them in eye-popping 720p, and the results speak for themselves. Cave’s sprite work truly shines. As one of the few horizontal shoot ‘em ups in Cave's catalogue, Akai Katana doesn’t have to worry about confusing modern gamers by only occupying the centre of the screen and it benefits from a full 16:9 transition. Each of the seven levels is meticulously detailed – the underwater beauty of level four, teeming with aquatic life, is especially memorable. Then there are the bullets – Cave demonstrate absolute mastery in the language of bullets, consistently drowning the screen in colourfully creative torrents of the things.

Undeniably beautiful as they are, Cave games are all about scoring systems, and Akai Katana really delivers in this department. You could even say it over-delivers. Those that associate arcade games with simplicity and accessibility are in for a rude awakening – Akai Katana is fiendishly complex. There are three play modes on offer: Origin (arcade replica complete with authentic  4:3 ratio), Slash (a 16:9 version of Origin with the 256 combo cap lifted) and Climax mode (a drastically different arrange mode that tasks you with building Katanas and releasing them into enemies for a massive score bonus).

A detailed breakdown of the scoring system is more the preserve of a strategy guide than a review, but at its core Akai Katana focuses on meter management, ideally ending in banking huge wheels of gold that encircle your ship. There are a daunting number of tools at your disposal to achieve this, including two different forms, four different shot types, two different collectibles, multiple meters, bullet reflecting and bullet cancelling. All must be manipulated cleverly if you hope to get anywhere with scoring. Even by Cave’s standards, this is a seriously obtuse system and it's certainly not for the faint-hearted. The difficulty level is pitched lower than the complexity level, though it still puts up a mighty challenge thanks in no small part to the laser-happy bosses. When it does click, it’s immensely satisfying and incredibly rewarding, but you should definitely know what you’re getting into. Once you do manage to topple the game on a single credit (and if you're not playing it that way, you're playing it wrong), there's plenty of long term challenge through the online leaderboards and downloadable replays to learn from.

Akai Katana is the work of masters at the height of their craft. It is as artistically accomplished as it is devilishly brutal. It’s also the kind of game that will be commercially ignored, critically misunderstood and go sadly unplayed by the majority of Xbox 360 owners. With the arcade industry on its last legs in Japan, it’s unlikely we’re going to see many more games like it. Sure, Akai Katana is stubbornly traditional, and in truth, it's not going to draw new players in. Those brave enough to embrace Cave's vision however will find a game of genuine value. A game that exposes the poorly conceived light shows masquerading as shmups on XBLA for the pretenders that they are. Akai Katana is the real deal – complex, beautiful and rewarding, and worthy of space on any self-respecting gamer's shelf.

Rupert Higham.

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