Chances are, unless you're living in Japan or are spending an exorbitant amount of money on CAVE's awesome but stupidly expensive shoot 'em ups on smartphones, you're not getting a whole lot of action in that genre over here in the States. And while there might not be a ton of releases in the Shmup genre, the indie scene is trying their hardest to keep it alive and well.
Astebreed, which made its debut on the PS4 this week, is much less bullet-hell and instead more akin to Einhander on the PS1, which took a more cinematic approach to Shmups with a narrative and dynamic shifts in camera perspective. That means Astebreed is much less about peppering enemies in a hail of bullets while trying to dodge theirs, but more about skillfully switching between long range and close range weapons to maximize point values.
The shifting perspectives is actually one of Astebreed's key selling points. While Shmups tend to generally either be strictly vertical or horizontal, Astebreed shifts this viewpoint multiple times per level. That means you can start out behind your ship, then shifting to a top down view, then into vertical, then at an angle, etc. Edelweiss' previous game from 2012, Ether Vapor Remaster, did something similar but Astebreed takes it to a whole new level. While it might sound nauseating, it actually keeps the player engaged, always providing a different perspective on the action.
There is a story in Astebreed. You're a pilot of the powerful XBreed trying to take out some sort of alien planet-thing all the while in contact with your sister or sisters, oh and your father is dead? It's confusing and it certainly doesn't help that the narrative is unfolded as each stage plays out in small subtitles at the very bottom of the screen, since the entire game is in Japanese. Don't get me wrong, I certainly don't think that's a negative since historically story in Shmups were rather inconsequential. On the plus side, the characters themselves seemed to have gotten a more anime-style overhaul from the Steam version.
Astebreed's more anime-like visuals in the PS4 version (bottom)
Story aside, it's the gameplay where Astebreed shines, and certainly harks back to games from the PS1 era. Before I get to the actual mechanics of the game which will give Score hunters a lot to get excited about, I first want to point out the game's two modes, which completely change up how the game is played.
Original Mode gives players the chance to play the game as it was originally intended on Steam. You have an option between a focused shot or scatter shot with the Square and Circle buttons respectively. Holding them down will send out a lock-on cone which will scan any enemies that fly into it, and then unleash a barrage of missiles. This is useful when you're surrounded by a ton of smaller enemies or a swarm of missiles. The X button allows you to swing your powerful sword to take out enemies in an instant. The trade-off here is that it's only close range, meaning you have to get into dangerous territory to use it. It can also destroy any projecticles that aren't red, making it easier to focus on dodging a single color of bullets. Lastly, as you accumulate kills, you'll be able to unleash a mega powerful EX Attack that can devastate all enemies on screen.
Arrange Mode on the flipside makes the entire control scheme a bit simpler, making it an ideal mode for beginners and newcomers. The face buttons are no longer used and instead the control scheme shifts to the Triggers. You'll fire off a concentrated shot that's a mix between scattered and focused with the R2 button while swinging your sword with R1. You can melee dash with L1 and execute the EX Attack with L2. This frees up your right thumb to use the Right Stick, which is now used to scan the screen to lock-on to enemies. That means you can fully sweep the entire screen in mere seconds.
The intricacies of Astebreed lie in its scoring system. Instead of trying to survive a hail of bullets, you're instead tasked with building up score combos and then unleashing them at the perfect times. Shooting your long ranged weapons will continually increase your score multiplier in the top right of the screen. That multiplier however won't actually activate until you kill enemies with your sword. Once you slash with your sword, the multiplier will gradually decrease, which means you can't simply rely on using your sword the entire time, at least not if you're going for a high score. Knowing when the most amount of enemies is within your sword's reach is key to getting the highest possible multiplier score payoff. While I personally don't care much for Leaderboards or attaining High Scores, the fact that this system exists should please those that do.
Astebreed is a pretty gorgeous game, with crisp 1080p graphics showcasing every enemy, bullet and environment in complete clarity, despite the chaotic gameplay going on. It's also running at full 60fps, which should make the majority of you clamoring for that kind of stuff excited.
Astebreed's price tag is rather high on the PS4, going for $19.99. Though fans of Shmups know what they're getting into as the genre isn't known for length, but rather replaybility, which Astebreed certainly seems to have. Then again, comparing the price of Astebreed on PS4 versus numerous CAVE games on iOS that cost nearly the same, certainly makes it even more appealing.