Danmaku, which translates to “bullet hell” contains in its very name the core of something dangerous, even defiant. That it’s such a polarizing genre is no surprise when you consider that, at its root, it is a thing characterized by excess over economy. Therefore, adrenaline-seeking gamers crave it while claustrophobics hate it with a passion.
Love it or hate it, nobody can deny the arrival of genre grandmasters CAVE on the App Store went a long way in cementing the credibility of iOS devices as a legitimate gaming platform. That’s because CAVE, above all other stalwart bullet hell developers, has earned a reputation among serious gamers for releasing high quality and highly absorbing action-arcade titles. Deathsmiles (out now, $11.99) is no different. It will wow and exhilarate you, then challenge and baffle you before understanding finally washes over you and sends you to a peaceful place full of gothic monsters, neon projectiles, and insane score multipliers. This, my friends, is bullet hell Zen.
In what has become a longstanding tradition with their ports, CAVE has added a new mode, (the explicable “iPhone mode”), to Deathsmiles and it brings a mass of extra features with it. Essentially, it’s an ongoing campaign mode that allows you to customize your character through the use of a shop and enemy drops. If at first that seems like an odd thing to do with an arcade game that normally takes about 30 minutes to complete (either with continues which will fudge your score or in deft, single-credit fashion after many hours of practice), it makes more sense once you begin playing through newly unlocked difficulty levels, which add extra cutscenes and more layers to the story. It’s one of the game’s real strengths that it’s the first on iOS by CAVE other than their direct-to-iPhone Mushihimesama Bug Panic in which an English-speaking player can follow and get wrapped up in its plot. In addition, it introduces a newly playable character, the oft-insufferable Princess Tiara, and her “ugly cat” Mu. Although Tiara can be annoying, it is really interesting to follow her adventure, with each new difficulty level adding new twists to the storyline.
Those unfamiliar with the original arcade version will be happy to hear that the “Arcade Mode” allows you to play as one of four other characters who each have slightly different attributes. Veterans of prior CAVE releases Dodonpachi Resurrection and Espgaluda II will recognize many of the gameplay elements found in those games, such as a regular and focused shot, bombs, (called “magic” here), and a scoring system that is extremely deep and will probably require you read a guide to completely figure out how to maximize your high scores. What makes Deathsmiles different from those titles is variations on how these elements function in relation to the level designs, which emphasize some different skills like prioritizing targets and catching items that enemies drop without letting them hit the ground.
The levels were designed magnificently for play in the arcade and will keep you on your toes no matter how seasoned a bullet hell gamer you are, especially on the higher difficulty levels. The game’s gothic, Castlevania-inspired look is another nice turn for CAVE, as it delivers impressive visuals that, while not in Retina Display supported glory, look as good as anything else with a heavy 16-bit inspiration. The protagonist characters are quirky and full of personality, while most of the enemy sprites are menacing, pre-rendered 3D monsters that are excellently varied in their design, both visual and functional since they have such a wide array of attacks and movements. In motion, Deathsmiles is awesome to behold: a symphony of chaos and destruction married to beautifully drawn scenery and incredibly fluid kinetics, bursting at the seams with ballistic savagery.
The music is of the highest quality and sounds like something you might hear in a classic horror film. It’s immediately evident that CAVE is a heavy hitter when you hear the obviously professional level of the music they pack into their games and any one of the soundtracks they’ve put into their iOS releases is worth owning in its own right. Sounds are meaty and satisfying—I can’t help but love the crunchy explosions or the voice work, (even if I have no idea what they’re saying since I don’t speak Japanese). Some people do have an aversion to anime style and those who don’t like colorful young female characters may be annoyed on this point, but if you’ve ever found yourself sitting through anything that might at one point have been described as “Japanimation,” you should enjoy the art style and the voices.
The game does have some flaws, however. Although I lauded the level design earlier, it doesn’t work as well in the palm of your hand as it might in an arcade or a home console. Whereas Espgaluda II and Dodonpachi Resurrection were extremely well-suited to iOS and basically flawless in how they were ported, Deathsmiles is less of a natural fit. CAVE offers up lots of options to deal with the problems that crop up, but ultimately you’ll need to compromise in a way that might cause some players a substantial amount of frustration. The problem with this port is a fundamental one—it is not as comfortable to control this game in landscape as those others were in portrait. Also, there are a lot more enemies coming at you from all sides here than in Dodonpachi Resurrection and Espgaluda II, which almost entirely focused attention on action occurring in the direction of your character or ship’s movement. This means that having a finger placed on the screen in this horizontally scrolling game is a lot more dangerous than in those vertically scrolling games. If you use the smallest screen resolution then it pretty much negates this problem, but it means the margin of error is that much slimmer, and it really is brutal when you have perhaps a couple of millimeters in which to slip between deadly objects.
In addition, CAVE made a few omissions in the options, including the not-surprising-if-you’ve-got-any-other-CAVE-ports-on-iOS lack of a resume function, (although the game does support multi-tasking), which will cause you to lose all your campaign progress if you close the app or reboot your device before finishing all the levels, and the lack of a build that is universal or native to the iPad. On a more personal note, it bugs me no small bit that there isn’t an option to flip the display on my iPod Touch, meaning I have to play with the earphone jack jutting out of the lower-left corner of my device. Man, I hate that!
Despite these flaws, it is hard to fault a developer for doing their best to refine something they already do so well and at the same time bring new things to the table, which is what Deathsmiles surely does. However, mostly as a result of the awkwardness of having critical areas of the screen blocked by my woefully opaque appendages, Deathsmiles, though still a masterpiece does not quite satisfy the way Dodonpachi Resurrection or Espgaluda II did.
iFanzine Verdict: Though not without some kinks due to its fit on an iPhone’s screen and the way that level design punishes those with large hands, Deathsmiles is another triple-A effort from CAVE that will have you feverishly replaying its two game modes many times over if you’re interested in bolstering your position on its Game Center leaderboards. A must-have title for arcade-action fans and a no-brainer for lovers of side-scrolling shoot’em ups, even at its premium price.