Deathsmiles 2X review

Deathsmiles 2X represents some rather unexpected risk-taking on the part of ace Japanese arcade developer Cave. The follow-up to last year’s well-received, gothic-themed scrolling shooter Deathsmiles swaps 2D sprites for full-on 3D visuals, which is a first for any of Cave’s shooters. It’s also the first genuine import game to see Western release exclusively via Xbox Games on Demand – meaning that a good 90% of the game is in its original, raw Japanese form, totally unchanged from its boxed overseas release.

The game takes place on Christmas Eve, giving the setting a holiday-inspired touch. The story and voiceover is in untranslated Japanese, but really, all one needs to know is that your crew of adorable young magical girls is battling against a horrible bastardization of St. Nick called Satan Claws, and that is totally awesome. Well, the evil Santa part is, anyway – we’re sure the typical gaming demographic might feel… awkward… controlling a cast of barely-teenage girls (particularly when you see some of the story scenes without understanding the context).

Once you jump into the game, however, you’ll find a delightfully intense, action-heavy, magical-bullet-laden shooter that’s instantly accessible and appealing. Your chosen lass has a lot of firepower at her disposal, with two types of left- and right-facing shots (one activated with rapid button presses and the other through holding the button down), as well as a powerful homing attack her familiar can activate to take out enemy swarms and creatures lurking in the background. Stage designs are clever and the humorously twisted bosses are exceptionally well done, with surprising, challenging attack patterns that keep you on your toes. Stages have multiple selectable difficulty levels and there’s also a very technical scoring system to fuel the passions of those who obsess over achievements and leaderboard status. Naturally, more difficult, enemy-laden levels lead to higher score possibilities, adding further incentives to replay the game.

But as excellent as the gameplay is, it’s a bit of a tough nut to crack. The lack of English instructions obscures the intricacies of the scoring system for the standard Arcade and 2X modes to non-Japanese speakers (though some fans have picked up the slack, as seen in this excellent instructional video (opens in new tab)). There’s also a special Arrange mode with a completely different scoring scheme, but good luck figuring that one out on your own. Making matters worse are the visuals – that this is Cave’s first attempt at a polygon-driven shooter shows in the weak graphical presentation. The visuals in the Xbox 360-enhanced 2X and Arrange gameplay modes look akin to something you’d see on the Dreamcast, with crudely rendered polygon models and low-res textures – and the original Arcade mode looks even worse somehow. It’s a shame, too: you can imagine how some of the great level concepts, like the bizarre amusement park, would look so much cooler with more 3D expertise.

Despite everything it has going against it, Deathsmiles 2X stands out as one of the better shooters available in the Western market. It’s action-packed, easy to play, tough to master, and has a certain charm to it that makes you forgive its lackluster presentation. If you’re craving a very nicely made shooter – and don’t mind some language lessons in the process – Deathsmiles 2X ought to scratch that itch nicely. Just be careful who you play it in front of – you don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea…

May 27, 2011

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