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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Deathsmiles (Xbox 360)

Gamers looking for a classic shooter in the mold of Donpachi or Cotton will probably want to check out Deathsmiles. It comes from legendary shmup maestros Cave and has released on Xbox 360. Far from a mere arcade-port, this release includes several enhanced versions that include tweaked gameplay, improved graphics and other additional features. It's play mechanics are fairly standard, but there are a few twists that keep things interesting. There's several levels of difficulty as well, so players of different abilities can join in the fun. Look inside and discover why Deathsmiles is an entertaining and satisfying release that fans of the classic shooter won't want to miss.

Japanese developers Cave have built quite a reputation among shooter aficionados over their long and stories career with legendary franchises such as Donpachi building quite an audience. Their newest release, the gothic Lolita shooter Deathsmiles keeps their standards high. It began life as an arcade game and is now translated and converted to the Xbox 360 with numerous enhancement and special modes. Players can also choose to play in the standard arcade mode with is a decent port of the original game, though the visuals look pixellated when you play in this mode. There's also a version 1.1 arranged mode that adds some features and the Xbox 360 mode that includes upgraded visuals plus the ability to control your secondary or familiar character. There are also additional variations of the game included with each mode, which include a Mega Black Label for the arcade mode that includes an additional playable character, a new level plus a new harder level of difficulty labeled 999 is available at the main menu. It's a very intense mode, so don't go into it lightly. Additional options available include the ability to resize the screen, play in co-op mode with a friend or online and a replay mode where you can relive your greatest battles. All of these modes add plenty of replay value to the game, though there are only so many ways to play through the levels. These extras do give the game the feeling of being a complete package and the special modes offer mostly welcome upgrades to the gameplay.

Deathsmiles' gameplay is fairly interesting for a bullet hell shooter and while it doesn't break a ton of new ground, there are some innovative shooters. Most horizontally scrolling shooters are quite linear, but Deathsmiles allows you to shoot from either direction. More importantly, the levels and massive boss encounters have numerous power-ups and weapons that you can collect to enhance your firepower. One of the key strategies in the game is to use your character's power-ups to increase your counter. As your counter increases, you'll gain more points for collecting items that your opponents drop when you shoot them down. As you gain more points, you'll earn additional upgrades and even higher scores that you can use to add to your powers. During each level, the collection of power-ups also allows you to earn additional lives, which can come in quite handy. Standard shots are used for the most part, but you can also unleash giant attacks called bombs that can inflict a ton of damage on any nearby opponents. These are useful in clearing out difficult sections, but you should be careful and save them for boss encounters, which can be really intense. The gameplay is quite intense and most of your energy is spent navigating the bombs and waves of bullets that your opponents unleash. This isn't too difficult in the earlier stages but becomes harder as you move deeper into the game. Your skills are tested later on as the patterns become increasingly complex and you have less room for error. This makes for what can become a very difficult game, which can be frustrating. However, there are plenty of continues available, and this makes progression easier though not a cakewalk. Deathsmiles' design and layout is fairly traditional in terms of level design but there are some areas where you'll need to stay alert to sudden attacks. Like many shooters, good reflexes and anticipation helps a lot and most players should have little trouble playing through its levels. The game's structure is fairly interesting as well. Unlike many shooters, which shove level after level at you, Deathsmiles allows you to select which level you'll undertake next. This non-linear approach allows you to go through the game faster by skipping some levels. You can also visit all its 'chapters' if you want to gain a higher score, though this makes completing the journey harder. While it's not the easiest game in the world to master, Deathsmiles strikes a good balance between challenge and reward with plenty of power-ups and cool extras to go along with the intense boss battles. Experienced players should be able to progress through its levels and advance to its epic final boss confrontation with a little effort and persistence. Its design and controls are superb and this makes for a highly satisfying and entertaining shmup that stands with Cave's best in terms of design, presentation and mechanics.

Like many of Cave's previous shooters, there's quite an impressive attention to detail evident in its presentation and visuals. This is what sets Deathsmiles apart from the many shmups of recent vintage. A big part of what makes the game so appealing is its luscious visuals. The game takes place in 2D space but many of its backgrounds are richly detailed with incredible animation and color that literally pops of the screen. There's a great deal of variety in the environments you traverse and most players will find the eye candy quite excellent. Despite the gothic appearance of the characters and the somewhat morbid approach, there's still plenty of colorful levels and brightly rendered environments, making this feel more like an anime movie than a dark horror film. Deathsmiles' beautiful character animations are silky smooth throughout, making the game a joy to watch, especially in replay mode. The game's waves of bullets explode in impressive patterns that fill the screen with color and make for an intense experience throughout. Like many bullet-hell shooters, each stage delivers an impressive amount of intense action throughout and this intense pace is punctuated by very slick power-up animations when you release a screen filling bomb. It's visual polish is evident with beautiful design throughout. The high quality visuals are consistent and this approach goes a long way, extending to the menus and cut-scenes to create a consistently excellent aesthetic. The standard game looks good, but the visuals really impress when you play the special remixed Xbox edition, which has been redrawn for HD screens and really showcases how good the design is. Deathsmiles' music matches the look and feel of the game, complimenting the dark and somewhat gothic feel of the game, though there are a few reprises of some classic Donpachi music in the boss sections, which gives things a cool old-school feel. One thing players might want to know is that the dialogue of the main characters has been subtitled for the North American release, which helps to keep things feeling at least a little bit authentic.

Deathsmiles probably won't appeal to a large section of gamers, its bullet-hell gameplay and somewhat short length, combined with its difficulty in harder settings will probably be off-putting to those used to more casual titles. However, its traditional approach and solid gameplay mechanics should appeal more to old-school players, who expect a challenge from their games. Deathsmiles' long learning curve means some players will probably play through it once and miss out on the nuances of its familiar systems and score multiplier modes. There are several levels of difficulty and different gameplay modes that should help to extend its replay value for dedicated players. The use of both front and back attacks makes the gameplay more interesting than most shooters and its branching level designs give it more variety than most linear shooters offer. There are some very intense battles throughout the game, and Deathsmiles' use of massive bullet-hell patterns delivers quite an impressive challenge, requiring players to think about their position and use the special attacks sparingly. This gives the game more depth than you'd think, and there's more than pattern memorization at play here. The game's excellent visuals and the solid gameplay mechanics make it well worth your time. Deathsmiles' finely tuned and challenging levels and massive amounts of firepower give it a visceral thrill that most titles on the market are hard pressed to match. While it's definitely not for everyone, Deathsmiles is a great classic shooter in the classic mold with several innovative features and multiple modes of play that delivers a solidly entertaining and challenging shooter.

- Michael Palisano

Grade: B

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