Ikaruga (Import) review
Welcome to Bullet Hell
As far as gaming genres go, the one that seems missing in action from the home console front seems to be that of the scrolling shooter. Sure there is the odd entry that pops up here or there, but they are rare enough. So along comes Ikaruga, which a throwback to the older days where death surrounds you and instant kills are commonplace. Welcome to bullet hell.
Ikaruga drops you into the role of a space ship fighter pilot (nothing new there) and pits you against a horde of enemies in a last hope for mankind deal. Games like this are called bullet hell for a good reason, as the game field is often filled with enemy fire coming from all sorts of directions. At your disposal is a ship with weak shielding but an infinite fire beam cannon. That might sound too easy, but bear in mind that you're up against entire fleets of enemy ships. This is a real game of reflexes where the slightest wrong move will kill you instantly.
You'll also take on end of level bosses often huge enough that they won't completely fit on the screen. Whereas other enemies will be toast in a few hits, these beasts involve striking weak points with an excessive amount of force while dodging the hail of fire coming your way. Suffice to say that these monsters feel like true bosses and may well be the cause of several lost lives alone.
The game does throw in a few twists of its own, and one of them happens to be the big selling point. Essentially, all enemies are either light or dark coloured, with their fire matching. Likewise you can switch your own ships colour scheme between the two styles at the tap of a button. More than just a neat aesthetic touch, you'll soon realize that this has a serious effect on the gameplay.
Basically, it affects you offence and defence. You can actually absorb enemy fire of the same colour as your own ship, which not only works as a defence but builds up a homing laser attack that you can unleash to rack up more kills. This attack grows more destructive as you absorb more energy and requires a choice between more smaller blasts or fewer large scale storms. Getting hit by the opposite colour to your ship results in instant death though, and the game will happily fill the screen with both colours. It's not uncommon to be switching constantly between the two shades, especially in later levels where the action becomes more intense. It adds a whole extra layer to usual whole dodge everything concept usually put forward in games of this genre.
Just like enemies, your laser fire matches the colour of your ship, and you'll kill targets faster by hitting them with the opposing colour. Of course, this means having to face their death fire with the wrong colour, but point scoring means taking the risks. It's possible to kill by using the same colour, but don't expect to score as highly or kill as quickly for doing so. The setup makes for a good balance and really helps develop the skills. Wildly firing and switching will cause no end of problems too as enemies release bullet of their colour when destroyed too, meaning you could cause your own destruction if you're not careful.
Ikaruga is insanely difficult. Absorbing bullets isn't so much an escape but often a requirement if you're going to survive, and you're up against a tremendous amount. Not only that but you have to be careful about slamming into physical objects. Crashing directly into enemy ships or other object hazards will result in a lost life too regardless of ship colour. That's only on the easiest setting too. Crank up the difficulty and enter a whole new nightmare. If you're looking for something to really challenge you then you've come to the right place. On the other hand, the game rewards players for completing hours of gameplay by adding extra continues, which means that a player's chances of finally hitting that endgame increases as time passes.
Tired of the single player? Drag in a buddy and go at it in co-op play. Two players can go tackle the same levels. Don't expect things to go any easier though. If anything, having another ship in the way can potentially make things harder. On the other hand, you can set up some pretty interesting combinations that may not be possible in solo play, so it makes for quite an interesting experience.
The one thing that bothered me here is the lifespan. For the price tag of a Gamecube title I feel that a mere five levels simply doesn't offer as much as I would expect. Point scoring gives an incentive to return, as racking up chains and slaughtering as many targets as possible will build the score up, and players will no doubt get a kick out of bettering their own results. The game even provides some demo videos showing how to best go about earning high scores (of course, following the same patterns is far easier said than done). You can even tackle specific sections of each level for practice runs without the worry of working your way up to there again.
In an effort to promote tactful play is the combo system, which further augments the score setup. You'll rack up points better by destroying same colour enemies in groups of three. So hitting three dark, three dark, three light and so on will be better for your score than simply mowing down everything that moves without thinking. Of course, trying to link combos while dodging instant death bullets is not that simple and will be something you develop as you play, but once you get the hang of it there's a distinct level of satisfaction in racking up the points.
Now that's what you call an attack.
As a bonus there are a few extras you can work to unlock as well. There's some sweet galleries to open up, a sound test to listen too and an extra mode. Unlocking them either requires some solid talent in tackling the game's difficulty or simply playing for a set number of hours.
The story told is... um... actually, I'm not sure. There's nothing in the way of cutscenes or a clear narrative, so ultimately I'm not sure why I was out there blasting everything away, or even who I was or who the enemy was. Granted there were scraps of info here and there, but I didn't care about it. Still, the game does well in other areas and I'm not sure such a thing is entirely necessary.
Everything does look good though. The game uses highly detailed background scenes that scroll along smoothly behind the action, and you really get the feeling of soaring above beautiful landscapes. The colours used for this initially appear somewhat muted, but that is partly because of how neon bright the colour schemes for the foreground action is. The ships and laser fire will light up the skies like nothing else and puts on a light show spectacular enough to put most special effects studios to shame. Beams, bolts and explosions will come from everywhere.
The extra tweaks and touches is what makes it that little bit extra special. At several points in each level the ship will effectively change direction via some 3D style effect as the action revolves around (though when gameplay resumes it will be back to upward travelling). Ship designs are amazing, especially for those of the screen filling bosses that just look epic. The one thing that might annoy players are the letterbox style black borders on either side of the game field in the default game view mode, making things feel somewhat narrow. Switching to the horizontal view fills the screen better.
The audio track works hard as well, providing a range of music tracks that beat along with the gameplay that just seems to match up the the genre style so well. Listen well as the rain of fire rips apart the skies and explosions rock the world. The effects sound as awesome as they look and it melds together well.
Length can be a bit of a concern, but gameplay experiences like Ikaruga can be too rare for the home console market. It possesses all the charm of the scrolling shooter genre and puts on its own unique twist and throws in more than enough challenge to test any gamer's reflexes. Definitely worth a try.
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