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Akai Katana review

Akai Katana is here. The arcade-spawned bullet hell shoot ’em up from Cave is now playable on your Xbox 360 thanks to a newly published port from Rising Star Games. It’s a particular type of game meant for a particular type of player, but if threading your way between enemy bullets in an elaborate thumbstick ballet sounds appealing then you’re definitely going to want to step up for this one.

I have to admit that I’m not terribly familiar with Cave’s work, though I do know the developer’s reputation as one of the top-flight names in the bullet hell shmup scene. Akai Katana certainly speaks to that background. It’s a horizontally scrolling shooter that feels like it was cut from the cloth of R-Type or Life Force, with steampunk visual aesthetics thrown in.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Akai Katana never gets quite as quiet as those other two shmups. You know how an R-Type game starts off slowly but it eventually whips up into a frenzy of on screen action, with your powered up ship’s fire streaming out in all directions as enemies converge from every which way? Akai Katana maintains that cacaphonic frenzy at all times. Your ship is constantly beset by enemy fire from baddies of all shapes and sizes. Tanks, trucks, missile launches, planes, airships, and constructs that defy all reasonable explanation all stream onto the screen with one goal in mind: destroying you.

The Xbox 360 port is initially daunting. You’ll fire up the game and immediately catch onto the basics of how to move and fire, but the nuances of your different attacks, your ability to “summon,” and your vehicle’s weaknesses take a bit of trial-and-error play. There’s a tutorial, but why bother with that? This is a bullet hell shooter after all. It’s a genre that’s built on the concept of “trial by fire.”

Okay, I lie. You should totally look at the tutorial. It’s hidden; you have to press B at the main menu screen to watch the video. Both your ship and its summonable “Phantom” form have offensive and defensive capabilities, which amount to the difference between holding down the button for sustained fire versus tapping it for bursts of fire. There’s an intricate game of resource management here, as different attack modes yield different pickups. It’s admittedly rather complicated, but the tutorial explains things clearly enough.

There are three main modes of play in Akai Katana. Origin mode is a straight-up arcade port, right down to the fullscreen aspect ratio. Slash mode offers stepped up visuals with its 16:9 widescreen presentation along with some tweaks to the gameplay in the way that pick-up resources are collected and used. Finally there’s Climax mode, which offers a stepped-up challenge. An additional Novice mode toggle for Origin and Slash is also available to give noobs a bit of a boost.

There are some nice bells and whistles to make the $40 budget Xbox 360 title worth your time. Replays can be recorded easily, and then shared with the wider world. You’ve also got same-screen co-op for two players and unlimited continues to work with, making Akai Katana surprisingly newbie friendly even with Novice mode turned off. Best of all for the hardcore Xbox 360 players: a veritable faucet-flow of easily obtained Achievements. There are two to be earned per level, plus game completion achievements for each of the three ship/Phantom combo types.

The only technical hiccup worth mentioning is the frequently occurring slowdown that you’ll experience when the screen fills up. It really isn’t such a terrible thing though. The pattern you must weave on the screen as you work your way through a maze-like onslaught of enemy fire is always the core of the challenge in a bullet hell game like this one, and slowdown can often give you the breathing room you need to successfully navigate the swirling maelstrom.

Conclusion

Taken all together, there’s more than enough here to justify the $40 pricing when so many other bullet hell shmups can be gotten for $15 or less on Xbox Live Marketplace. Akai Katana scores bonus points for its gross excess; it’s basically a playable seizure. It’s not a game for everyone, though it’s a game that anyone who’s a genre enthusiast should definitely check out.

(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Rising Star Games)