REVIEW: Ghost Blade HD

Ghost Blade HD is a fairly typical bullet-hell shmup, not really doing anything new, instead sticking to a solid foundation that has been used well by many games in the genre. Unfortunately, it suffers from a few problems that really hold it back from hitting the potential that it clearly has.

Steam: Released
Type: Single-player
Genre: Bullet Hell
Developer: Hucast Games
Publisher: 2Dream
Release Date: 8 March, 2017

In an overall sense, the basic gameplay and mechanics of Ghost Blade should be instantly familiar to fans of bullet hell games. You have the usual five levels to go through, the usual tiny hitbox, and the usual high number of bullets coming at you in somewhat complicated patterns. And of course, the usual giant bosses at the end of each level. I keep using the word “usual” because these really are done in such a way that pretty much copies the basic gameplay template that has so often been used by the bullet hell genre, and to some degree “traditional” shmups as well. For the common mechanics it uses, it does so in a fairly competent way. The controls are good and easy to learn, and the basic shooting and bombing works well within the context of the design of each level. At times though, this really feels a bit too basic, as it sticks very closely to that template. Gameplay-wise, Ghost Blade does absolutely nothing that hasnt been seen plenty of times in the genre before, which might be seen as a major fault by genre veterans. While this doesnt stop the game from being fun and challenging, it does make it rather uninteresting mechanically.

As is the norm with the genre, there is more to the game beyond the absolute basics of shooting and dodging. There is a distinct focus on scoring with games in this genre, and you’re usually going to get the most value out of a bullet-hell game if you play for score rather than just for survival. Ghost Blade is no exception to this. Scoring in this game is a fairly basic combo system. As you continue exploding enemy ships, your combo count will continue to rise, acting as a multiplier for the amount of points that each enemy and pickup is worth. In addition to this, there is a form of bullet cancelling in the game. When you destroy a large enemy, the bullets that it has fired that are currently still on the screen will be cancelled, turning into stars and such that are then absorbed by your ship for extra points. Bullet cancelling mechanics of any sort can be very fun and satisfying, and also have the side effect of keeping the game’s difficulty a bit more manageable even for new players, as the targeting of the right ships in the swarm can cause particularly troubling patterns to dissipate before they can get to you. Unlike something like Dodonpachi, the comboing in Ghost Blade is fairly easy to manage. When you are not destroying things, the combo count will very slowly start to go down, but you dont really need to worry about this. Instead, the key to scoring well in this game is not dying (as that wrecks your combo), as well as destroying everything, letting as few enemies escape as possible. And of course, picking up assorted shiny gold things. Since the combo doesnt completely shatter if you take too long between kills like it does in Dodonpachi, it is far less frustrating, which is a good thing, at least in my opinion. What’s more, you arent really penalized for using bombs to defend yourself. Instead of picking up bombs, you’ll gain more of them over time as the bomb meter continues to fill during combat. You’ll tend to have plenty of these… they arent something that you get more of only rarely. This is another element that helps to mitigate what is usually a very high difficulty and a very nasty learning curve.

The problem though is that the scoring system just isnt all that interesting. It really boils down to “blow up all the things” and not much else, and for the most part you really can just ignore the combo counter. Granted, the sheer number of enemy ships and things in each level makes it quite difficult to score high, as keeping them from escaping can be very tough, particularly with so many bullet clouds coming at you. But still, it is a simplistic system. Of course, not everyone will care about this… I recognize that there are players that do not play these for score, and are just after a challenge and the fun of blasting loads of spaceships and fighting giant bosses. But for anyone familiar with the genre, this can be a real turnoff for this particular game, and is something that needs to be taken into account when deciding on a purchase. The good thing though is that the game is very accessible. The scoring system is much easier to get into than in many other bullet hell games, and there are multiple difficulty levels to choose from, so each player can find one that suits their own level of skill. In that way, for some players, the overall simplicity may be a good thing, instead of having a negative impact on the experience.

Of course, there’s alot more to any bullet hell game, or shmup of any sort, than just the basic mechanics and the idea of getting a high score. The real meat of a game like this, in my view at least, is the levels themselves, and the bullet patterns that you will encounter within them, as they are what creates the actual challenge, and are what the scoring system and game mechanics will entirely revolve around. Like you’d expect, enemies tend to come down from the top of the screen, flinging a gazillion pink, blue, and green bullets your way in their frantic attempt to stop you from reaching the end. The bigger the enemy ship, the more complicated and dangerous the pattern. The game will tend to fling an enormous number of ships at you at once… even moreso than most games in this genre. It can be rather difficult to keep track of all of the individual enemy targets that appear during combat at any section of the game. Levels are just the right length…. nothing like the overblown 5th stage of Dodonpachi Resurrection, for instance. For the most part, the game also has a well-balanced difficulty curve as the levels progress. There is a bit of a difficulty spike upon entering stage 4, but it’s not particularly terrible… nothing that you cant overcome with a bit of practice. Bosses of course throw the most complicated patterns of all at you, however they arent really that much more dangerous than some normal sections of each level that precedes them, so the boss fights dont present much of a difficulty spike themselves. The bosses are for the most part fairly well done, though I found their attack patterns to be a bit on the basic side… a bit underwhelming for a bullet hell game. And here we come to the big problem with it: the overall patterns just tend to be much too basic. This is not the complicated yet well structured chaos of something like Mushihime or Dodonpachi, nor is it the beautiful designs of Touhou. Even the heaviest attacks from the most dangerous foes just… arent all that interesting. Even some bosses will occaisionally fire what amounts to a randomized spray of bullets originating from a single point… basically the least interesting type of pattern a boss can use. This also applies to normal enemies as well. It means that the whole thing just doesnt have even close to the level of impact that so many other shmups of all sorts do, and that’s a real shame. It can make things feel repetitive at times, even tedious.

What’s more, the different enemy attacks arent even all that varied. It often feels like there are actually very few types, simply repeating over and over again throughout the course of the game. For example, there are so very, very many enemies, usually big ones, that will attack with a frontal “V” pattern, two lines of pink bullets with a gap between them. While this type of enemy serves a definite and useful function within a given level’s design, it appears so very often in every single level that you are likely to get more than a bit tired of seeing it. Same with many other foes, like the ones that explode into a ring of blue shots, or the little guys that fire some basic shots at you and then launch themselves directly at you in a straight line. Each new stage tends to have very little to differentiate it from other stages in the game, which just adds to the overall repetition and creates a very bland feeling to the whole thing, particularly when considered along with the very basic game mechanics. This doesnt ruin the difficulty of the game though… most players will still find plenty of challenge here, since the enemies are so numerous, with these repetitive yet still dangerous patterns coming from all over the place. But that doesnt excuse how very often these repeat, and how uninteresting they can be. Not to mention that players who are very experienced with the genre are likely to find the game to be a bit on the easy side. It took me about 2 hours to 1cc (clear the game without using continues) the Normal difficulty of the main game mode for the first time… even as experienced as I am, it’s rare that I beat one of these that quickly. Similarly, I found myself finishing the short-but-fun Score Attack mode without dying at all after about 30 minutes of practice. There is a Hard mode, but it’s still not hugely difficult. Overall then, for experienced players, the challenge level may not be enough to compel them to keep playing this and can really lower the longevity.

Graphically, the game is gorgeous. Bright colors, very well detailed designs on every enemy ship and boss, and awesome looking backdrops permeate every single part of the game. It really is a sight to behold, in the moments when you can get a good look at things underneath the crazed clusters of doom that fly your way. There is one problem with this though: in a few too many parts of the game, there is a distinct lack of contrast between the bullets, and the background. A huge number of the bullets in the game are pink in color, and the game makes very heavy use of backgrounds that are red/pink/purple. This means that sometimes, it can be hard to really spot some of the bullets, particularly small ones, and can lead to some deaths that can be very frustrating… nobody likes that “what even hit me?” feeling in a game like this. Now, to some degree, this isnt just a problem with this game, but a problem with the genre as a whole. I’ve found that even the greatest and most experienced developers out there will make this mistake from time to time in many of their games. It’s something that, over time, you learn to deal with in each one. However, I found that in this game, it occurred a bit more often than what I would have expected. It’s hardly a gamebreaker… but it sure can be annoying. Some players will have more trouble with this than others… it’s a matter of any given individual’s perception, and it’s hard to predict whether or not it will affect you. Frustrating when it does though. The music in the game, now, presents no problems at all. I loved the soundtrack in this one, particularly the boss theme. It really sets the stage for the frantic, berserk combat you’ll be experiencing as you progress.

So how would I rate Ghost Blade HD as a whole? Honestly, as I’ve continued playing it, I’ve had some very conflicting thoughts on it. On one hand, what it does, it does well. The basic mechanics are solid, the bullet cancelling is still as enjoyable and satisfying as ever, and while the game is a bit easy to me, it’s going to be very accessible to those who are less experienced, and that’s a very welcome thing in a genre that usually just starts off by punching you with the force of a collapsing star. And the score attack mode is a very nice bonus, a short burst of wild bullet-hell action focused entirely on wrecking as many things as you can in a single stage made just for that mode. But on the other hand, it does absolutely nothing new whatsoever, and the somewhat dull bullet patterns create a sense of mediocrity that I cannot ignore in a review. Along with the issues of the bullet contrast creating the potential for occaisional frustrating deaths in some areas. I have had a good time with the game overall… for as negative as parts of this review may sound, it’s absolutely not a bad game. But this genre has gotten more and more crowded over time, and there are many better games out there that I think should be experienced first. But of course, to some degree this is all very subjective. I’ve often heard so many opinons on different games that absolutely contrast each other, with some players utterly loathing games that others think are the best thing ever. So your mileage may vary, with this game. My own final verdict though is that while the game is solid, this might be one of those sorts where it’s best to wait for a sale, and go for other games first. Solid, yet flawed. And it’s too bad… it could have been so much more.

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June 2017

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