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Akai Katana

Score: 75%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Rising Star Games
Developer: CAVE Interactive
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Arcade/ Shooter/ Classic/Retro

Graphics & Sound:

Some innovation comes from combination, “mashups” as they are fondly known in the Tech start-up world. In the gaming world, we see this with trends like Action/RPG games, where developers try to bring out the best in both genres. Other kinds of novelty arise when developers accentuate traits or characteristics of a game, such as the still legendary lineup of a game like Suikoden, if you’re old enough to remember that game. Akai Katana is a prime example of the latter category, turning the proverbial dial up to 11 for the side-scrolling arcade shooting genre. I really hate the term “bullet hell,” but that tends to be the label attached to these types of games.

The bullet part they certainly got right... The shower of enemy firepower is well matched by what you can unleash from your plane, and that’s not counting the flurry of items dropped by downed units. The backgrounds hearken back to any classic side-scroller, with lots of depth and variety to keep things interesting. It’s a short game, so there’s no excuse for things not to stay fresh. If you like things over-the-top and somewhat Bollywood-inspired, you’re going to love Akai Katana. There are some characters posing in dramatic scenes that appear between levels, but it’s never quite clear what’s causing the drama or how the characters are even related. Somewhere, somebody knows the full story. Greatest thing: You don’t need to know anything to enjoy the action in Akai Katana. There’s even a handy Replay Mode if you need to relive your former glories...


Gameplay:

Unless you’re a professional side-scrolling arcade-action person studying your past games like a Monday-morning quarterback, Replay Mode won’t hold you for long. What will keep your attention are the three main modes for play here, taking you from raw arcade action (Origin Mode) to finessed home-console port (Climax Mode). Between these extremes is Slash Mode, which improves on the arcade experience visually (16:9 vs. 4:3 perspective) and with lots of new gameplay options. It might surprise you to know that there are dimensions to playing Akai Katana that go beyond simply mashing buttons, and it’s true. Devoted players can craft a very different experience during the game than raw noobies.

You start by selecting one of the three modes, and determining whether you’ll be playing co-op with a friend or flying solo. There’s no online co-op, but you can scan the leaderboards to determine where you stand against your friends on Xbox LIVE or the competition worldwide. You choose which of three pilots to play, and then dive right into the action. The general layout of each level is to battle a horde of enemies, conquer a mid-boss, and then defeat the main boss for that level. Your plane comes equipped with an orbiting weapon, referred to as an Option. You can also transform your plane by summoning a Phantom, useful when unleashing massive attacks that can earn you equally massive scores. This switching isn’t as intuitive as say the light/dark interchange in a game like Ikaruga, but it does play a strategic role in the game and needs to be mastered. Learning the ins and outs of transformation and scoring is what separates the casual players from the more serious contenders.


Difficulty:

So, the word “casual” probably doesn’t deserve to be used in proximity to Akai Katana. There is something called Novice Mode that can be enabled to dull the game for novitiates, but this genre just doesn’t suffer fools or green peas. If you’re looking to relive the classic arcade shooting games of your youth, you might be up for this. It shares some of the same elements (timing, attack/defense strategy) that made games like Zaxxon (yes, I went there) or Einhander great, but it introduces a lot more complexity and some mechanics that require what may seem like micromanagement to a purist. If you’re okay with hitting the continue button frequently, you can breeze through Akai Katana in no time at all. This doesn’t really represent how the game is meant to be played, but it can still be fun and may fit with what younger players want from their experience. A slightly more invested and skilled player will try to turn off Novice Mode and play through with the fewest number of Continues used. The third bucket is full of people who want big scores and like to see themselves on world leaderboards. To accomplish this, you’ll need to embrace the game's unique mechanics and play through in a very structured and disciplined way. If all you want is button-mashing, Akai Katana has that on offer, but it’s also a game capable of doing so much more.

Game Mechanics:

Akai Katana has almost an elemental triangle of sorts, the key to putting up big scores. The base elements are Steel and Energy. You can use these in combination to summon your alter ego called a Phantom, who can then harvest Katanas from enemies and rack up the highest possible scores in the game. To really pull this off, you need to perform specific actions against enemies, when you are in the proper mode. Playing this way takes discipline and is more dangerous. There are visual indicators and tutorials around how all this works, but we’d be telling a lie if we said anything about optimizing scores in Akai Katana was intuitive. You’ll have to learn how to switch modes from attack to defense to summon, in order to time attacks. Get it wrong and you can blow potentially lucrative scoring segments, which you only have in limited supply considering that waves of enemies don’t pause for you to get your act together. As we said earlier, you can mash buttons and enjoy yourself, but if you’re serious about playing Akai Katana as it was designed to be played, you’re going to have to practice.

The good news? Playing Akai Katana as intended makes the whole experience more fun, at least to those of us still addicted to do-or-die arcade action. If you’re looking for sophisticated character development, slick next-gen visuals, and massive levels of customization, seek elsewhere. This whole genre is about twisting your head and testing your reflexes, not to mention overstimulating your visual cortex frequently. Tsubaki, Botan, and Shion may not mean much to you now, but the brave pilots of Akai Katana should earn their place alongside similar arcade titles in the game library of true fans. For more casual fans, we’ll say that games like Ikaruga are probably better starting points, on the basis of keeping things simpler and going a bit easier on your budget. Akai Katana was built to appease a specialty audience with specialty tastes, which it does well.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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