DeathSmiles takes place in an alternate world where time seems frozen in a supernatural, early-20th-century Europe
- Unique and well-done thematic motif, excellent soundtrack, lots of options, incredibly intense and involving during more difficult stretches
- 2D visuals are uneven, two-player mode is fun but a bit of an afterthought, requires self-restraint and patience to get the most out of it, not a genre for everyone
A unique and well-designed entry in the "bullet hell" class of shoot-em-ups, Cave's DeathSmiles is an exciting and addicting shooter that, while incredibly fun for fans of the genre, definitely isn't for everyone.
There's a Japanese developer called Cave whom I've long adored that has very little presence outside their homeland. They're most known for arcade 2D scrolling shooting games -- but not just any shooting games: Cave specializes in the "bullet hell" subgenre, the sorts of shooters where enemies eventually start to fill the screen with multiple, multicolored barrages of deadly fire in crazy, intimidating patterns. Well-done art design, setting, and excellent music are also Cave hallmarks. Their games are considered AAA titles in the genre; it wouldn't be a stretch to call them the BioWare of 2D shooters.
I love these sorts of games because they inspire an intense emotional response. It's an amazing thrill when I'm weaving through an impenetrable-looking blanket of deadly enemy fire, charging through with your own weapon blazing, surviving a ferocious onslaught where the slightest mistake can spell doom. There's excitement when I go up against these impossible odds, and in the end, I'm rewarded with a feeling of overwhelming satisfaction when I've learned the game enough to triumph. But these titles aren't mainstream, especially here in North America. I had given up hope for DeathSmiles seeing a US release until Aksys's surprise announcement of it earlier this year -- a surprise I found very pleasant.
DeathSmiles takes place in an alternate world where time seems frozen in a supernatural, early-20th-century Europe. You take control of one of several young, superpowered "angel" girls tasked with fighting wave after wave of demonic forces from the underworld. You'll fly through several short but challenging levels (each with adjustable difficulty settings), facing off against a huge boss at the end of each. The stages are very intense from beginning to end -- there is always something happening on screen, be it waves of bullets flying at you, enemies swarming in every direction, or perilous obstacles impeding your shots and movement.
Fortunately, your little lass has a lot of skills at her disposal: she can fire both weak and strong shots to her left and right (strong shots make your movements slower, however), move her demonic familiar to carefully block enemy attacks, control a special homing attack that trades mobility for targeting and power, and utilise a limited amount of screen-clearing summon magic. Every character's attack properties are a bit different, giving you a lot of different ways to go through the game.
As much as it caters towards newcomers to the "bullet hell" genre, DeathSmiles is still inherently challenging, even if you select lower difficulties... unless you decide you just want to abuse the game's unlimited continues, in which case you'll beat it in under an hour. You certainly won't get your money's worth if you just beat it this way and put it aside, though. The fun in these sorts of games lies in learning to effectively survive against difficult odds, and thus, the game is meant to be replayed, with the player choosing to challenge themselves in tandem with the game. As an example, you can start by finishing the game using as many continues as you need, then try to cut back until you don't even need them at all to beat the game. Eventually, you'll learn how to earn crazy high scores and conquer the leaderboards. And then you can repeat the whole process with a different character and stage difficulty selection scheme.
Even better, DeathSmiles offers numerous replay options. There are two additional modes -- version 1.1 and Mega Black Label -- that alter the game mechanics and scoring systems so that you'll have to devise new strategies. (The instruction manual is actually a huge help in figuring out effective tactics for all of the modes, providing a wealth of great tips and information for players of varying skill levels.) In addition, you can either play the game in its original low-res arcade incarnation, or use re-rendered art tailored for HD displays. (Sadly, not all of the art is redone, leaving some of the stages a blocky, pixellated mess). There's a 2-player co-op mode that includes the ability to play online with friends; however, like in many games of this genre, 2-player mode isn't really well-suited to certain types of play (i.e. going for high scores). The ability to save and review replays allows you to save that perfect playthrough for posterity, and online leaderboards pit you against everyone else for the highest scores possible.
I love "bullet hell" games like DeathSmiles, but I don't expect everyone to "get" the appeal. I also expect some to baulk at paying $50 for what might seem no better than a $10 XBLA game at first glance. To me, this game is well worth the dough -- Cave's superior development quality is more apparent to those who play these games a lot. Even with the caveats, DeathSmiles is a very welcoming title to those looking to dive into the thrills of bullet hell. If you have any interest in these games, it's well worth a shot.
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