The Laser Guide to Video Games - Soldier Blade (PC Engine) -  Review









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Soldier Blade (PC Engine- Hudson Soft - 1992)

Starting from unusually elaborate cut-scenes, you can tell almost immediately that Solider Blade will stand apart from the typical shoot-'em-up fare. Intricate backgrounds, smooth animation combine with an outstanding soundtrack to create a title that brings you right into the center of the action. A perfectly implemented first-stage familiarizes you with the basic play-mechanics. The power-up and speed control systems are easy to understand, giving you plenty of flexibilitity along the way. A smooth control system allows you to command your ship easirly across the screen, maneuving it at two-different pre-set speeds. Using the slow-mode is best for beginners looking to learn the basics, but its somewhat limited and hurts you when you want to get out of the line of fire. Implementing fast-speed is probably going to be the default mode for most gamers, since it offers increased flexibility and accuracy once you get the basics down-pat. Soldier Blade's design and implementation is fairly intuitve, so this shouldn't take long.

Refined after three previous installements, the game's structure and controls are sleek and responsive, there should be no problem controlling the ship and piloting it through waves of bullets. Anitcipating attack patterns and bullet configurations is key to defeating foes and surviving later waves. You'll face aggressive and abundant enemies that showcase relatively sophisticated AI. They don't sit in place mindlessly and instead chase you every move, giving you little breathing space between assaults. There's some leeway in the stacked power-ups which degrade your powers but don't immediately destroy and send you back to the start of the current level. This makes Soldier Blade more accessible than most shooters but it still remains quite challenging. It's especially true during the harder difficulty levels, where enemies attack with increased speed and many additional shots. The increase ferocity makes for a more challenging, but increasingly satisfying game. You'll need excellent reflexes and a good sense of anticipation if you want to survive. At first, the opponents might appear difficutl to counter, especially several levels deep. but after some practice with repeated play, you can learn to anticipate and destroy them intuitively.
Standard enemies put up a fight, but you need to be more careful when larger foes attack, especially in groups.These can impede your defenses and whittle down accumulated power-ups mercilessly, so you need to stay out of their way and learn to counter-attack them when they leave an opening. Much of Soldier Blade's difficulty depends on the player's experience and level of skill, but this can be disbursed somewhat by charging power-ups and knowing when to implement them, which goes a long way in flattening the learning curve. Soldier Blade's design is slightly more elaborate than most PC Engine shooters, but the game implements a fairly good balance between difficulty and accessibility. It maintains an excellent consistency in play mechanics throughout. This means successfully traversing early stages will aid you when you reach more difficult later areas, with you built-up skills enhancing your overall skill-set without becoming overtly harsh. Its intuitive design and excellent play-balance means most players should have little trouble progressing to later stages.

The game's power-up system is fairly elaborate but straight-forward and easy to understand. The first element you'll be able to collect are side-ships which reflect and mirror your position and fire additional shots at foes. These are pretty good at supplementing your ship but not your only offense. As you defeat enemies. they'll release smaller pods that subsequently swing from side to side. When these are collected, they enhance and add to your power significantly. There are three basic types: Red pods represent standard shots, Blue pods powerful laser fire and finally Green pods which uleash wave attacks. As your ship accumulates power. it can sweep over enemies with much less effort. These stacking enhancements quickly allowing you to reach full-power and take command of the playfield, cutting through enemies with little effort. This gives you what feels like near impunity, at least for a short time against standard enemies. Bosses can counter these with larger more powerful shots that can quickly drain your powers and destroy your ship. These weapons can be quite effective. However, you need to be careful since you lose energy and downgrade a level when you're ensnared by a single shot, so you need to avoid taking too many hits.

However, there's another key advantage on your side. Each power-up level allows you to fire off single-burst super attacks. These can take the form of targeted or homing attacks that allow you to hone in on their weak-spots remotely for a brief time, or unleash a powerful blue laser beam that fills a quarter of the screen which destroys anything in its path. However, this burst only lasts a few seconds so use it sparingly. Additionally, the green homing missiles and red vulcan shots are limited to only a couple of diminishing attacks, depenidng on how many levels you've powered-up, so you need to be careful when you use them. An effective strategy is to save them for when you encounter one of the bosses, since they help to counter their larger shots and elaborate attack patterns. They usually won't defeat a boss on their own with a single implementation, but can significantly degrade its abilities by destroying portions of the machines, such as blowing up an arm or leg on a powerful mech. This has the effect of significanrly reducing its firepower while giving additional room to manuever around the screen without fear of getting caught in its massive attacks without an escape route.

Soldier Blade's basic level structure is divided into standard sections, where you have to fight off a relentless assault of foes. When you reach each stage's half-way point, the action pauses for a significant sub-boss, where you have to battle against a single large foe in order to progress. These are relatively simple to defeat, at least in the early stages. The strategy here is to find their weak spot or vulnerable section while avoiding the streaming bullets they throw your way. It usually won't take long to defeat them, and with a little bit of practice, should almost become second nature. Another spell of standard shooting follows which is usually relatively straightforward. Finally, you have to defeat an elaborate and aggressive final end-boss. These usually comprise of a huge enemy that attacks you on multiple fronts, with multiple assault types such as targeted missiles. massive flowing weapons and other projectiles that must be dodged. Waiting for them to display a weak point then exploiting that section takes practice but is usually rewarded with a satisfyingly large explosion. After you've demolished an end-level boss, you move on to the next stage where the battle resumes over new terrain.

The standard game unfolds at a consistent pace, allowing a satisfying jounrey to unfold at a good rate that never becomes unbalanced or excessively frustrating. An intuitive power-up system, excellent mix of enemies and some powerful, yet beatable bosses means that you can usually get the pacing and skills down effectively enough to move ahead without straining you fingers excessively. This makes for a satisfying experience for the most part, but there are some welcome additional "Caravan" modes that bring more depth to Soldier Blade. These are strictly-timed survival modes where you attempt to gain the highest score on the clock before times run out or you lose all your lives. Multilple opponents attack in swarms and you have to defeat them as quickly as possible, while collecting bonuses and other items to help you survive. Lasting for Two-minutes in this short mode is a somewhat difficult task but maintaining your focus and agility in the longer Five-minute mode takes significantly more concentration and skill. Its a nice change of pace to see these modes included on a standard-edition card, instead of the usual approach of only showing up on 'limited edition compettion' cards that are typically much harder to find and much more expensive. These timed modes are simpler, lack the bosses and multiple-stages of the main game but provide an entertaining diversion that gives some addiditional arcade-style play that creates an enjoyable diversion from the intensity of the main experience.

Conveying its visuals brilliantly, Soldier Blade brings the shoot-'em-up genre to life in vivid style that creates an exciting gaming universe to battle through. The first thing you'll probably encounter are the elaborate cloud-strewn backdrops that scroll beautifully in parts. These create an occasionally beautiful counter to the typically dark, space backdrops that predominate its contemporaries. They scroll seamlessly in the background and mark a triumphant technical acheivement for the hardware. It's all the more impressive considering the limitations of Hu-Card technology with its relatively constrained storage capacity, This is all the more impressive when you consider that two visual modes are implemnented, There's a standard approach that fills the entire screen. This looks great and is rich in detail. However, the gane goes further than most by implementing an exceptional arcade 'tate-style' mode that shrinks the scale narrowly, to make for a rectangular, yet still quite attractive mode that doesn't sacrifice animation or details when implemented.Switching between these modes is largely a matter of personal preference, but on a larger screen, the edge is apparently with the narrower arcade-style mode which gives a clearer field of vision without compromising the fantastic visuals.

Soldier Blade's main ships are fluidly animated and occasionally quite large, Many of the opposing ships showcase an impressive level of detail with exceptional animation and movement that flows together effectively, Thier impressove design goes a long way in explaining the game's longevity in appeal with impressive designs that implement a high degree of detail in their mechanical and futuristic designs. These consist of mechanical desings, robotic visuals and brightly colored weapons that contrast effectively in most areas. The game's visual engine is impressive and consistent. It flows exceedingly well throughout, with little in the way of slow-down or glitches. The game's graphic artists performed an excellent job in designing and creating a coherent and consistent visual approach that stands a few levels above that seen in most shoot-'em-ups on the console. LIkewise. the music and soundtrack achieve an excellent consistency that compliments the action without overwhelming the game. It mirrors the action effectively, staying somehow in the distance during normal stretches while quickening its pace and intensity when you face a boss. Sound effects take little chances here and there, with some impressive voice-sampling helping to accentuate specific areas while never going overboard. Soldier Blade's audio and soundtrack maintains an impressive consistency, lending a strong appeal throughout the gameplay.

Continuing the saga from three earlier games (Star Soldier on NES/Famicom, Super Star Soldier & Final Soldier on PC Engine were its antecents) this title represents the culmination of skill and knowledge, making it one of the more impressive shoot-'em-ups on the platform. Its play-balance is superb and consistent, offering an excellent blend of skill and challenge that should keep players satisfied for an extended period. Its accessible weapons and upgrade system is easy to understand for the most part yet offers plentiful flexibilty with impressive rewards consisting of mass-explosions and screen-clearing sections that bring ample engagement to its gameplay. Smartly designed enemies offer significant challenge without feeling cheap or frustrating. From a gameplay standpoint, experienced shoot-'em-up players should have little trouble gearing up. Intuitive controls are fluid and straightforward throughout, making for a shallow learning curve that most players should be able to learn quickly. Mutltiple skill levels and speed settings create additional accessibility without compromising its intensity of challenge without narrowing its appeal to only the most seriously devoted players. Solider Blade maintains a strong consistency throughout, exceeding the typical expectations for the genre in most respects and never losing sight of its primary objective. It's one of the most consistently entertaining titles on the platform that delivers an aesthetically pleasing title that impresses from a technical standpoint. Soldier Blade is a satisfying, enduringly exciting and, occasionally challenging shoot-'em-up that delivers abundant visual appeal alongside visceral excitement.

- Michael Palisano