Deathsmiles: review

Cave’s magical girl shoot-’em-up, Deathsmiles, has had quite the nine year journey from its original arcade release to the recent PC port. After seeing an Xbox 360 version come to Western shores a mere three years after its Japanese debut, the game then saw iOS and Android versions in the intervening decade. So how well does a 2007 game hold up in 2016 after this tumultuous journey?

Like most bullet-hell shooters, Deathsmiles’ core gameplay holds up well enough thanks to the relative simplicity of its mechanics placed in the overwhelming challenges constructed in each level. Deathsmiles sees players take control of one of five magical girls who are then sent hurtling through a series of levels crammed full of extremely angry enemies firing purple bullets at them. Our magical girls aren’t entirely helpless, though; they can shoot back. Each character controls uniquely, with some having a wider range of attack, a higher base movement speed, or a higher speed while not shooting.

It’s a fairly routine affair if you’re at all used to the genre, but where Deathsmiles differs from the majority of similar games is the fact that each character comes with a unique ally that flies around your avatar, firing bullets at your enemies and shielding you from yellow attacks. These allies have very different mechanics; some will move around your character while you’re firing, while others will only move when you aren’t firing. One of the allies is in fact two allies who will both fire in their direction relative to you rather than the direction you are facing. It adds an exciting level of strategy to the gameplay, as you must be constantly aware of where your allies are while remaining cognizant of their own abilities and what you must do to get the most out of them.

Deathsmiles isn’t quite as impenetrable as other shoot-’em-ups as each level features three difficulty levels, with “Rank One” being substantially easier than what you might be used to, ramping up to the fairly challenging “Rank Three,” which each player can work their way up to at their own leisure, opting to perfect each difficulty as they go, dive straight into some high level bullet-hell action, or anything between.

The problem with the difficulty comes in some hold-overs from the game’s arcade origins, however. Upon losing all of your character’s three health bars, the game will pause to ask if you’d like to continue with the option not punishing you at all, removing the compulsion to actually improve at the game rather than simply beat your head against it. Replacing the screen, which would have been accompanies by “Insert Coin” in form of punishment in the arcade, would have done wonders for the game’s challenge and longevity.

There are other issues with the port in more technical forms: The game’s screen is surrounded on all sides by borders rather than stretched out to fill your screen, and there are two bizarre bars on either side of the screen repeating the top right of the actual game screen. There are also huge framerate issues during particularly intense boss fights, though this might be Cave’s way of slowing the action down for stylistic or gameplay reasons. Either way, it’s jarring and incredibly frustrating.

The game offers both the original version of Deathsmiles and the updated “Mega Black Label” version with the additional character, level, and “Rank 999” difficulty. These two versions are split into a further three: Arcade, Original, and 1.1. While we didn’t notice any differences between Original and 1.1, it’s safe to assume there might be some bug fixes in there. Since Mega Black Label 1.1 is the latest and definitive version of the game, the other five modes honestly feel a bit superfluous; their only differences being less content rather than different content.

The arcade modes of each version are also incredibly pixellated and not at all great to look at. This is a real shame as Deathsmiles has a really unique, well-realised claymation-like art style that serves to accentuate the game’s enemy and level design that derive a lot from early Castlevania games and look great doing so. Outside of the arcade modes, however, it looks great, further emphasising just how little the modes are needed. Another great aspect of the graphics is that enemy bullets are the only purple thing on the screen, allowing you to easily see exactly what is going on at all times. Aesthetically, it’s a very well designed game.

Boss design ranges from intimidating to eccentric.

The soundtrack is a little more underwhelming as it features a fairly forgettable score that leaves no impression at all on the player. Cave really could have done with the same Castlevania influence that informed their visual design here as it would have been a natural fit. Sound design overall isn’t too great; there were many times we heard some kind of sound and had no idea what it was signifying.

There is a thin veneer of a story in Deathsmiles with each of the five magical girls working through the levels to a different ending. It bears a striking resemblance to old fighting game stories in that its delivered halfway through the story, then right at the end. In another similarity it’s pretty short, its focus on hundreds of hours of replayability trying out different characters, strategies, and beating your own score rather than a dozen hours of campaign.

Deathsmiles is a tricky one to recommend: It has strong mechanics, a strong visual direction, and a great difficulty curve, but it’s all marred by technical mishaps, lack of punishment, and a deceptive assortment of superfluous modes. If none of those bother you and you’re just after a quick bullet-hell fix, then it will be a great addition to your library that just about stands the test of time. Otherwise, we’d look elsewhere.

critical score 5

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Written by Adam S

Hailing from Parts Unknown, Adam grew up with a passion for three things: Videogames, anime, and writing. Unfortunately his attempts to combine the three have yet to form Captain Planet, but they have produced some good byproducts.

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