By Melinda . June 11, 2010 . 7:32pm
For those who came late to the party (or are waiting for the first game in the US) Deathsmiles is a gothic lollita shoot-em-up that plays really really well, set in a magical world where you get to blast all sorts of creatures to oblivion. You’ll have your familiar helping you blow up stuff, as well magical books that act as screenclearing bombs, to stop Jitterbug from summoning a form of Satan back into the world. It’s the sort of fantastical creativity that prompted Aksys into bringing the game stateside… and by all accounts, it’s considered one of Cave’s best efforts.
So while everyone in North America is waiting for the original, why don’t we see what the second one’s got?
Deathsmiles IIX offers a chance to mix up a gothic setting with the magic with the spirit of Christmas… a that spirit possessed by a demonic power that kills the butler the characters care about. What a way to ruin a perfect Christmas, and this is where Deathsmiles IIX starts. Don’t mess with the Satan Claws kids, he doesn’t care if you’re naughty or nice, but what did the butler do exactly apart from guard some magical notes? He’s really really creepy…
The artwork is nothing short of adorable and that’s from the first screen you select your character. Windia’s just innocent, Supe would illicit an ‘aww’, leaving Rosa to do a somewhat sultry pose, and Follette’s going for a naive look. Casper so looks like she’s up to something mischievous. After you select your character, you can pick a level difficulty, before the game opens to a small bit of storyline. Story scenes have voice acting and our would be assassin has an annoying laugh. A dire theme plays, emphasizing just how badly things have turned.
Surprisingly, one of the voices of the main cast sounds like a young boy – they what? Lei even looks like an angel to boot when using his magic, complete with angel familiars. Giving a second glance revealed that it really is a young boy dressed up. It’s cute, although it does make you wonder if he got suckered into it and who put him up to it.
Wait a second, isn’t this supposed to be a horizontal shooter?
It’s almost puzzling that Cave put so much work into the characters, since well, people generally don’t follow the storyline to any big degree in shooters, or so I thought. You can skip with the start button, if you’re in a hurry though, or if you just want to get into it, but it’s so interesting that I’ll even now watch it from time to time, even though I’ve seen it before.
Deathsmiles IIX then kicks off to the first stage, complete with bells, going off, in a nice Christmassy theme. The whole background music’s got a nice orchestral feel to it, although you’ll hear an electric guitar solo in part of it. All the enemies and even the player controlled characters are in 3D down to detail. The designs are gothic, although you can’t help but wonder what a set of huge Christmas boots are doing running across the screen at one point, and who gave them the ability to shoot back. I found myself quizzically looking at them for a moment, before remembering to blow them up and not get shot back in the process.
All the stages in Deathsmiles II have a theme to them, with music to match. Scaling up a tower vertically, rushing down a river, going through the city, or creeping your way through a mansion. Levels have little touches like how fast you move through the background, and it’s all the little things that you appreciate, even though you may be worried about trying not to get hit. The most interesting part are the bosses you’ll face off against. As you reach the end of a stage you’ll be treated to a small video of bosses, and it’ll give a little chill down your spine as you see just how big they are… I found myself going ‘Uh, who fed the Reindeer growth hormone?’ as the first boss made its triumphant entrance. The others are no different, and every time I came up against a different boss, it made me pause and just look at how big, dangerous… and yet how strange it is. I’m never going to look at a stuffed bunny and bear in the same way again for one, and now I’ve got something against the fat jolly man himself, because Satan Claws is so sadistically evil. Cave even remixed a Christmas song, just for Satan Claws, which borrows a bar from ‘Joy to the World.’ I still can’t help but laugh a bit at just how strangely appropriate yet so completely twisted that little tune is. It’s yet again another small touch to the game.
As the storyline continues to unfold, if briefly. I couldn’t help but go ‘aww’ when I watched Supe and Windia make adorable faces, or when Lei would go ‘Ehhh?’ when he realizes what he actually has to do, or when Rosa gets all cranky about how her Christmas was all ruined by a creepy fat man. The familiars even get a speaking part at one point, which just adds to the magic. They might be somewhat stereotypical, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the fact Cave devoted time to develop a personality for them.
Back to shooting!
If you fired Deathsmiles IIX up at level 1, like most beginners would, you’ll find that enemies only fire in small bursts, and usually take a couple of shots to blow up. The patterns are fairly simple. Straight shots at you. In lines or maybe in a fan formation. Which means if you’re new to it, like how I watched some people play after a little encouragement, Deathsmiles IIX doesn’t appear nearly as daunting, but you do have to keep on your toes. Since I came from playing the original Deathsmiles and Mushihime-sama Futari Ver1.5, I couldn’t help but crank it up to the other end at level 3 where enemies pack the screen with more bullets than sense. Patterns become intricate, and multilayered, with some bullets trying to home in and track you down. If you pick this level, you’re here for a real challenge and want to rack up a high score.
The fact you can adjust the level difficulty for each stage means you can edge a little higher, or make a stage easier if you’re struggling with it. Picking the stage order after the first stage also adjusts what you’ll find as well as its difficulty. For those really struggling, continuing will reset the difficulty to the lowest stage ramping wise. Even at the easiest level, enemies will come at you from all sides, but the game will inform you of any large or fast moving formations plus their impending direction. You won’t be caught out, but you’ll find yourself getting into the middle of the screen and staying there, compared to the traditional hide in a corner tactics, just so you can respond better to the situation at hand. Deathsmiles IIX will also slow down during moments where players are expected to run into trouble, or when there bullets flood your TV. It gave my friends a little more time to consider their options, even if that option is “clear the screen with a magic book”.
It isn’t all scary though, because you can turn around and shoot anyone trying to sneak behind you by pressing a button. Your partner familiar which orbits around you can shoot in any direction, including above and below your head. Each character has their own magical animal, and different modes of fire, which means that each character tends to offer a different play style. Windia and Supe are more suited to longer ranged combat. Lei is a lot more defensive, although more difficult to control. I found that I kept coming back to Follette, a high risk character due to the fact she requires the shortest range. Follette has a pet dragon which can spew flames and scorch everything in short order… if you dare get close enough.
If you charge into an enemy, you won’t take full damage. This also causes bullets to exit off the screen and grants you a moment of invulnerability. If you’re fast and trapped, you can escape with less damage by exiting through an enemy. Deathsmiles IIX will speed up if you get hit and to let bullets exit the screen. Once you get a feel for just what will register as a hit, how you can move very quickly, and yet have fine minute control you won’t be limited to a character’s move speed.
It leaves for a fast paced game, where getting close isn’t as crazy as it first sounds. Dodging bullets while shooting back isn’t a case of ‘Have mercy, Satan Claws!’. The first few stages will ease you into the rhythm, before it gets really furious as you near the end of the game. About the only time you’ll not be shooting will be just before the boss comes charging in.
I’ll go into the fun side of level 3, and the intricacies of scoring in another piece.
Deathsmiles IIX is deceptively simple to start, but there are a whole bunch of tactical mechanics to learn, depending on the mode chosen. It’s a rather well-scaled balance between playing it safe, and going all out, trying to rake in every ring that’s not pinned on the floor to score big. Replays help you even further.Usually you’ll watch yourself, and think ‘Oh hey, I could sneak through that hole in the bullets’, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have tried something that silly’ or even ‘Why did I do THAT?’ before giving it another shot. Deathsmiles IIX has a leaderboard mode, a special one player version with no continuing, and of course, you can grab replays of that too. Leaderboards are ranked by character as well as an overall leaderboard, meaning if you want to see the tricks that experts get up to of your favourite character, just grab it and watch.
The scary part is that there’s also other modes, including the original arcade version of Deathsmiles II, an arrange mode, a single player only version with new mechanics, which means another set of tactics learn. It’s yet another touch to the game which I appreciated.
If dodging bullets all day is too much for you though, you can also take a load off by playing around with Tsukaima Race, where you get to race with your familiar of choice in a monkey ball like manner, through puzzles to a portal as fast as you possibly can. Like the magic blasting characters, each familiar plays differently. There’s no shooting involved, just lots of rolling and bouncing, and the fun part is there’s even a leaderboard for Tsukaima Race too, if you want to see the fastest way to make it to the other end. The puzzles have various scenes from Deathsmiles, the first one, just another little bit of fanservice. You can unlock various gallery pictures that you see as you clear stages, another little nice touch.
There’s a huge amount of magic to the Deathsmiles games – there’s so much attention to the details, and to the atmosphere. These games makes a good entry point into the shoot-em-up world, and admittedly, the original Deathsmiles was mine. Considering I play RPGs mostly, I didn’t think I’d find myself playing something requiring so much in reflexes, but the sheer amount of detail Cave threw into it was immense. The storyline, the artwork, the music all made an atmosphere I just wanted to see more of.
The fact that I could improve, as I played it kept me going, as I found I could have fun, and feel exuberated as I pulled off something I once too thought was impossible to try. I might not be that good at it, but that’s all a matter of practice. Funny isn’t it, how a game that can last at most two hours from end to end can clock so much playtime… and how you can have so much fun in the process of teaching a jolly fat man to play nice.