Insomnia | Reviews

Espgaluda

starstarstarstarstar

By Alex Kierkegaard / Januray 23, 2005


After the release of Dodonpachi Daioujou in 2002, Cave found themselves at a dead-end. Each game in the Donpachi series was harder than the previous one and Daioujou was so impossibly difficult that even today, four years later, most experienced shooter fans have trouble getting past the third stage. It was easy to see that, with DOJ, the series had come to an end. There was simply nowhere else to go in that direction. But where would Cave choose to take us next?

The problem they were facing was that the market for shoot 'em ups had been continuously shrinking since the end of the 16-bit era. In fact, most of the companies that made these games were long gone. Cave had managed to stay on top, and in business, by investing their work with a single-minded drive for excellence and an inspired creativity. But clearly, games like DDP DOJ, while admired and treasured by long-time fans of the genre, were not going to attract any new players.

Their next shooter, Ketsui, hinted at the direction the company had decided to take by significantly toning down the difficulty and making the system much more forgiving. The game wasn't easy by any means, but at least the casual player could enjoy it for the first couple of stages, and maybe, just maybe, persevere for the intense punishment that followed. Ketsui was a first step away from the increasingly esoteric shooters of the past, but if the constant decline in popularity of shoot'em ups was to be reversed, more radical changes were needed. And then November 2003 saw the release of Espgaluda, a game which set the company firmly on a new course, one which they are still actively pursuing today.

Espgaluda is ostensibly a prequel to 1998's Esprade, but the two games have very little in common, both in terms of setting and mechanics. Storywise, we are told that characters in both games have innate ESP (Extra Sensory Perception) abilities. But Rade takes place in 2018 Tokyo and Galuda in a fantasy land of medieval castles, so there doesn't seem to be any continuity between the characters and events in the two titles. Concerning mechanics, the only feature carried over to Galuda from Rade is the guard barrier--the rest of the system is brand new. If Cave eventually decides to release a sequel to Esprade, as many fans are hoping, they may well come up with an overarching plot connecting the two games but, until then, there's not much more to say on the subject.

The world of Espgaluda is a land of azure skies and rocky canyons, combining the magic of alchemy with the war machinery of the industrial revolution. The story is typically sparse. In an effort to secure the future of his kingdom, Jakou, the King of Shinra, develops the Spirit Engine, a device which seals the power of the spirit gems. Jakou uses his own genes for experiments and thus the male and female forms of Project Espgaluda are born. But his designs are thwarted by Hiodoshi, an alchemist working at the center of the project, who finds out about his master's cruel intentions and escapes with the young siblings, Ageha and his sister, Tateha. Meanwhile, Jakou, armed with the overwhelming force brought on by the Spirit Engine, goes to war with the neighboring countries. At the same time, he sents out servants to find and capture the siblings because, apparently, he needs them to unleash the full power of the Galuda. As the game opens, Hidiyoshi is murdered and the player takes to the skies on a quest to destroy the forces of Shinra and defeat Jakou.

Espgaluda's system revolves around the so-called Kakusei mode and is quite involved, so bear with me while I summarise the basics.

At the start the player has to choose between the two siblings. Ageha is the strongest, fastest of the two, but has a narrow shot, while Tateha is weaker and slower, but has a spread shot. The game basically uses a three-button layout. The first button is the regular shot, the second button activates the Kakusei mode, and the third engages the guard barrier. The shot button works as you'd expect and, just as in many other Cave games, holding it down results in a more powerful focused shot, but slows you down considerably (this is actually useful for dodging difficult bullet patterns). The game also supports a fourth button which works as a rapid-fire, so you don't have to keep tapping the shot button continuously. However, this is only available in cabinets with four or more buttons.

Pressing the second button engages the Kakusei mode. Your character switches sex (i.e. Ageha becomes female and Tateha male) and starts firing a more powerful version of the normal shot. But that is not all. While in Kakusei, the enemies, their bullets, as well as the scrolling speed of the game itself, slow down to a crawl, while the player's speed remains unaffected. This effectively allows you to dance around thick bullet patterns with ease. However, the moment you go into Kakusei mode the number of green gems in your possession starts to decrease alarmingly fast. This brings us to the next point.

In Espgaluda, apart from the standard power-up and life items, there are two kinds of items to collect: the above-mentioned green gems (which are officially called Seireiseki), and Gold Ingots. Green gems can only be acquired when you are in normal mode (i.e. not Kakusei). When destroying an enemy in normal mode these gems appear and are automatically collected by your character.

Gold Ingots, on the other hand, can mainly be acquired in Kakusei mode. If you destroy an enemy in that mode, all their bullets turn into Gold Ingots and are automatically collected. So what you have to do is let the enemies spread a lot of bullets while you whittle down their strength. Just when they are about to explode you turn into Kakusei mode, blow them up, and collect the Gold Ingots. Now, if you stay in Kakusei mode for too long and you run out of green gems, bad things start happening. Enemy bullets turn red and suddenly start raining down on you at impossibly fast speeds. This mode is called Kakusei Overmode and has four levels (1-4) depending on how long you remain in it. The higher the Overmode level, the more points you are awarded. However, for most players, staying in Kakusei Overmode for any length of time eventually results in death.

Finally, just as in Esprade, by pressing and holding the third button a green barrier is created around the character, making him (or her) invincible. When doing this the green bar at the bottom of the screen will start to deplete. By releasing the button, the barrier disappears and turns into a laser, which acts as a kind of "bomb". The longer the button is held, the bigger the barrier, and the more powerful the lasers that will be shot. In Kakusei mode you can still use the guard barrier but there is also an auto-barrier enabled, presumably to help you out in tough spots. This means that the guard barrier is automatically activated if you get hit by a bullet or collide with an enemy.

And that's more or less how the system works. Now, it is quite possible to 1CC the game without going into Kakusei mode at all, just by using the shot and guard barrier buttons. There are two very compelling reasons not to do this, however. The first one is obvious: life is easier in Kakusei, since enemies and bullets are slowed down. The second reason is that your score will suck if you don't keep collecting Gold Ingots.

The system might seem complex at first, and, well, it is, but it allows for great flexibility. You can milk the Kakusei mode to make the game easier; you can hone your technique to maximize the Gold Ingots (and therefore, your score); or you can do what I do and play the whole game in Kakusei Overmode--impossibly difficult but also very exciting. Regardless, going for a high score is a lot of fun and extremely rewarding. It requires much practice, very good timing, and also some memorization, because you need to know when each enemy is about to die.

Espgaluda is very beautiful, but it might take you a while to realize it. The artwork is not the kind that screams out at you and demands your attention, the way the art in Cave's next game, Mushihime-sama, does. It's all quite unassuming. Deep browns and dark blues contrast with symmettrical pink/red bullet patterns and elaborate explosions, to create a visual trip that will stay with you long after you've destroyed every last one of Shinra's soldiers. Even the numerous score multipliers the game throws all over the screen, and the accompanying slowdown, blend perfectly with the action, and give the player a great sense of satisfaction. The animation is also done to a very high standard. Soldiers explode in fountains of blood, Jakou's henchmen gracefully flap their mechanical or ethereal wings, and the huge war machines that you face move and attack in a suitably menacing manner.

The music is done by, among others, Manabu Namiki, who previously worked on the haunting DDP DOJ score. Who would have thought that fast electronic beats and dance music would work so well in a shooter set in a medieval fantasy world? It doesn't even matter whether you like dance music or not (for the record, I can't stand it). The soundtrack fits perfectly with the Kakusei system and you soon find yourself switching back and forth to the beat of the music, destroying hordes of enemies left and right, and filling the screen with an insane amount of gems, gold and score multipliers, wishing the level would never end. The 3rd and 4th Stages are the best in this respect.

This is truly phenomenal work and proves beyond doubt how important each piece (system, art, sound) in the creative puzzle of a modern shooting game is. No one could have possibly imagined a game like this back in the glory days of 2D shoot 'em ups. Cave are the universally acknowledged masters of the manic shooter, and Espgaluda ranks easily among their best works to date.

What sets this game apart from previous Cave games is how accessible it is. A casual player can sit down and get to the 2nd Stage mid-boss after only a couple of tries. With a bit more practice, and using the Kakusei mode and the guard barrier to the full, the same player could maybe get as far as the 3rd Stage. Progressing further requires considerable skill, but the difficulty increases smoothly--it doesn't suddenly jack up as in Ketsui.

What's more, since at any time, if you have gems available, you can enter Kakusei mode and slow down incoming bullets, it is relatively easy to get past some of the tough spots in the game (at least during the first few stages--this tactic doesn't really work later on, because by then the screen is continuously full of bullets and you'd run out of gems pretty fast). Wasting gems in this way might be bad for your score, but it allows inexperienced players to progress further than they otherwise would have. After they've managed to get through a tough spot a few times, they may feel more confident to try it in normal mode the next time. And that's how their skill improves. Previous Cave games assumed the player had already mastered the art of finding a path through a thick haze of bullets. Espgaluda teaches you how.

Those who complain that the game is too easy are probably the same ones who complain that DOJ is too hard. In this respect, I am glad Cave is doing their own thing and ignoring the old-timers. Because there is no "correct" difficulty that every single shooter must aim to achieve. Rather, there is a wide spectrum of difficulty levels and we need games to cover all of it. If you are looking for a touger challenge then here is an impossible one: play the whole game in Kakusei Overmode. I can get to the 4th Stage in this way, how far can you get?

The other aspect of Galuda that marks a radical change in Cave's tactics is the switch to more likeable, sexy characters. The bright yellows and soft blues of the promotional art are a far cry from the dark, heavier stuff of previous games. When Galuda was released no one noted this shift, but by now (think Princess Reko in Mushihime-sama and the Rose Sisters of Ibara and PinkSweets) it is obvious what the company is up to. Sex sells, and attracts attention to a genre that is all but forgotten these days. If that's what it takes to keep the company in business and making shooters then, hey, I am all for it. But regardless of whether you find Cave's new practices deplorable, there is no denying the beauty of the art in all those games. That's part of the reason why posters and promotional materials for Cave titles are going for such outrageous prices on eBay and Yahoo! Auctions Japan. And I for one am happy to pilot the butterfly siblings or the sexy insect princess, instead of yet more spaceships and WWII planes.


Thanks to MrMonkeyMan for the superplay videos.