Guwange is an on-foot shooter. While not flying doesn’t seem like it would have a very big impact on gameplay, being on foot requires the player to put a bit more thought into moving around than simply dodging bullets would. Although they’re limited to upward-facing directions, some characters will shoot in whatever direction they’re facing. This adds a bit more strategy than your traditional shooter. Despite the automatically scrolling levels, navigation is important as objects in the environments will occasionally block you from going straight ahead. Levels are designed to send the player through a number of winding routes that allow enemies to ambush from you all sides. The on foot mechanic is a nice complement to Guwange’s feudal Japan aesthetic, too.
The heart of Guwange is the shikigami system. Unlike in most shmups, where holding down the fire button results in a torrent of bullets, Guwange has players quickly tap the fire button for bullet bursts (the Xbox 360 port adds an optional rapid-fire button to X). Holding down the fire button will reduce the amount of bullets your character is firing by half and limit their mobility, but allow them to control their shikigami. Moving the shikigami over an enemy will result in a small area-clearing explosion. Holding it over enemy bullets will turn them pink and slow them down. The shikigami can also be used to attack enemies on higher ground that your regular attacks can’t reach. The other technique at your disposal is the Eightfold Barrage, which fires shots that nullify enemy bullets. While they generally fly straight forward, holding B allows you to aim them in any direction. These attacks are limited, and require some thought to be used properly, especially since they don’t fill the skull meter.
Guwange tries to mix up the scoring system a bit too. It’s based around the skull meter, which is filled by attacking enemies or stalling bullets with your Shikigami. Once filled with five or more skulls, enemies start dropping coins when killed. During this time, killing an enemy with your Shikigami will turn all of their slowed bullets into coins, too. Collecting coins builds a chain. Once that chain reaches 1000, coins start flying everywhere and points start racking up. This chain lasts as long as the skull meter doesn’t deplete entirely, but the higher you keep the skull meter, the more gold you’ll get. Using your Shikigami properly to get ludicrously long coin chains is really satisfying, and the amount of gold flying around the screen adds to the already enjoyable chaos of the game.
Guwange’s presentation is fantastic. The game’s sprites are up to Cave’s traditionally high standards, and demonic almost to the point of being disconcerting. It all serves the game’s aforementioned, Muromachi-era-inspired visual style. The bosses in particular are as creative as they are beautiful. Cat-spider hybrids, mobilized demon-shrines, and worms bursting from houses are par the course in Guwange. The game screen initially seems miniscule and disappointing, but only a few menus away is an incredibly compulsive menu screen where you can adjust everything from screen zoom, to transparency, to latency. It’s one of the most ludicrous menus I’ve ever seen in a shmup, and I love it. However, there’s a slight matter of the tidal wave of bullets and explosions obscuring the fantastic spritework, but in a Cave game, that’s to be expected. It’s a really pretty game, just hard to beneath a cloud of bullets.
The Xbox Live Arcade port of Guwange contains three different modes. There’s Arcade mode, which is just like the arcade build of the game. Arrange Blue mode changes enemy attack patterns around. Arrange Xbox 360 mode fundamentally changes the way the game is played. The character will constantly autofire, and the left analog stick/d-pad will only be used to control the player character. The Shikigami is activated with the right trigger and controlled with the right analog stick. The player’s movement isn’t affected while controlling the Shikigami. Arrange 360 mode feels much easier than the other two modes, and the controls are much easier to learn. I think this addition could make Guwange more attractive to people who don’t play shmups, but are attracted to twin-stick shooters like Geometry Wars. It’s certainly different, but it’s a lot of fun, and could be used to coerce a friend into co-op.
Food for thought:
- The story in Guwange is pretty fascinating, but I wish that more of it was presented in the game itself. While the black and white openings and endings are great (as are the credit sequences that tie into them), a little more detail would be nice.
- [SPOILER!] The final stage culminates in a three-part boss fight that goes from a battle with a man surrounded by corpses to a fight with a giant, demonic baby (Guwange-sama, himself). It may draw some curious looks from anyone who happens to watch you playing. Just a heads up!
- Guwange technically gives you a small health bar. It generally allows you to take more than one hit before dying, but some bullets hit harder than others.
- Aside from the arrange modes, Guwange only has one difficulty setting. It’s a challenge, but the game never feels overwhelming to the point of being unfair. It’s definitely arcade-hard, but you probably won’t find yourself being too frustrated. There are infinite continues, too.