Akai Katana – Review
Some of you regular readers may remember our scathing review of Sine Mora, a horizontally-scrolling shoot ‘em up that was visually quite impressive but lacking in pretty much every aspect of the gameplay. Despite the fact that it was, in all fairness, utter shit, many other review outlets bestowed it with accolades and it ended up with a meta-score of 83%, thanks, in part, to several nines and tens from fuckwitted reviewers who wouldn’t know a decent shoot ‘em up if it went to their kid’s school with a shotgun and a trenchcoat.
So, the question remains: if Sine Mora is worth a nine (which it isn’t, but whatever) then what is Akai Katana worth, given that it outshines Sine Mora in every possible way? While we criticised Sine Mora for being “A slow, joyless trudge through seven levels of mechanised twattery” and generally bemoaned the sheer drudgery of the game, we did at least understand that it was the developer’s first stab at the genre. Akai Katana, however, comes from Cave, the premier developer of Japanese ‘bullet hell’ shooters and therefore has a lot more expectation on it.
Thankfully, Akai Katana totally delivers. Now, I’ve reviewed a few of their games before and I’m always a little hesitant to do so. I’m not an expert, and if you really want to know if Cave have nailed the gameplay perfectly for the kind of folks that can 1CC (one credit complete) these sort of games, I’m not your guy. However, not everyone is an elite cyborg from the planet Skill and what we want to know is, is this game still going to have any appeal to the casual player? As ever with Cave, the answer is yes. They always seem to manage to cram in enough fun before things get insane and Akai Katana gets the balance just right. If you’re new to the genre, think Trials HD. You can still get a ton of fun out of the game even if the Extreme tracks are just something that is in the game for other people.
Akai Katana is the latest in a line of Cave shooters that have made it over to the Xbox 360. Ordinarily, Cave focus on the vertically-scrolling type (with the excellent DoDonPachi: Resurrection and Guwange being already available in Europe, as well as Espgaluda II and Muchi-Muchi Pork being available in Japan), but they have dabbled with the horizontal sort as well with the excellent, if a little sketchy (y’know in a Japanese kind of way), Deathsmiles (and also the never-to-be-released-on-the-360 Capcom-licensed Pro Gear). Akai Katana is one of the latter type, which arguably suits the home consoles more given that your TV is the right shape for it.
The plot is more convoluted bullshit about teenage pilots who are taking on some huge military force – standard fare for this type of game – with tiny, but well-armed, planes. There are three to pick from, offering focused firepower, less-powerful spread firing and a third, medium character that has a bit of both about them; initially that’s all you have to know. It’s the standard ‘lone fighter against an army’ type of gameplay that you’ve seen in countless similar games such as Gradius, R-Type, Prehistoric Isle, Under Defeat and the aforementioned anti-fun shooter Sine Mora.
With lavish, colourful graphics – the standard hand-drawn sprites we are used to with Cave titles – and frantic, eye-melting action, Akai Katana is an exciting and dramatic shoot ‘em up that sets a fast pace early on and never lets up. Inexperienced players are aided by each character being able to absolutely piss hot lead across the screen and even though the enemy is spewing even more bullets back at you (as in the tradition in bullet hell shooters), the sensible bullet patterns, clean graphics and choice of ship speeds means that you’ve always got a chance of surviving any barrage that comes your way. Later levels require practice and some degree of memorisation (although not in a hateful, finnicky Ikaruga way) but progress is possible and the difficulty curve is fairly smooth throughout. Although, you will have to channel autistic Japanese superpowers later on in the game.
Cave shooters always have a gameplay twist that separates them from each other and Akai Katana’s is your alternate ‘phantom’ mode that, depending on which of the game’s three modes you are playing, will increase your potency in different ways. In the game’s standard ‘Origin’ mode (which I’m guessing is a straight port of the coin-op), going into phantom mode allows you to avoid, manipulate and deflect bullets (which offers protection and big scoring opportunities). ‘Climax’ Mode is an adapted version of Origin mode that offers a few gameplay tweaks and, more importantly, expands the screen area to fit modern hi-def televisions.
The star attraction, at least for me, is the excellent ‘Slash’ Mode which also uses a 16:9 display but has much bigger changes to the gameplay. In this mode, switching to your phantom form allows you to collect katanas which can then be launched at enemies for lots of damage and some fantastic scoring opportunities. As with any Cave game, you can play for survival and progress or you can concentrate on maximising your scoring, which adds a hefty risk vs. reward mechanic as you go out of your way to raise your score while putting yourself in danger.
Whatever mode you find yourself playing, the gameplay is always smooth, fast and utterly enjoyable but, unless you are chasing specific achievements, it may be a short-lived experience. Akai Katana betrays its coin-op roots when it comes to longevity (clocking in at just a few minutes) with the main focus being on replayability, which could mean that casual players will be finished with the game after a couple of days. The alternative (playing through the lengthy, cut and paste bullshit of Sine Mora) is worse but Akai Katana is a short, focused game that does one thing and does it exceptionally well.
Beyond the main action there isn’t a whole lot else to Akai Katana. Setting highscores and uploading replays is the main goal and while there is some limited local-only co-op gameplay to be had, there is nothing here in the way of sub-games or extras. Also, if history repeats itself, the game will probably have a rapid and substantial price drop soon.Pros
- Suitable for casual and expert players
- Dramatic and dynamic visuals that never obscure the core action
- Scoring mechanics add an extra level of depth to the game
- Fairly decent tutorials explain the game modes and scoring mechanics
- Quite short
- Forget about the last 300 or so gamerscore unless you're an expert or planning on putting in a lot of time becoming one.
- No stage select option for practicing the later levels and boss battles
Genre experts can add or subtract to that score depending on their own experience and knowledge of the in-depth nuances of the Cave brand, but novice and casual players will find Akai Katana to be a challenging, but fair, game that will test their skills. It surpasses any horizontally scrolling shoot 'em up on the system (although Omega Five on Xbox Live Arcade is still an absolute gem of a game). Questions remain over the longevity of Akai Katana if all you want to do is play it for fun, but mastering it is a longterm goal that you may never manage.
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