Review: DeathSmiles (PC)

ds1We’re approaching 10 years since the heroines of DeathSmiles descended into arcades, but even now the unique themes and frantic action have kept the series alive and well in the hearts of shoot-‘em-up enthusiasts. When Cave announced it planned to release its catalog on Steam, DeathSmiles was practically a lock for the treatment, and its PC release stays in line with what players were able to experience on the Xbox 360.

The DeathSmiles series revolves around children who turn up missing from our reality and enter an alternate, fantasy-type world. Gathered and guided by a father figure in this new world, a group of girls selectable by the player use the abilities they have discovered to keep peace. In the first game, the appearance of monsters keeps increasing at an alarming rate and the girls fight their way to Hades Castle to discover the source.

The design of the charming game world is much of the allure of DeathSmiles, but the frantic danmaku-style gameplay, multidirection shooting and use of familiars have been the hook that keeps fans of the genre going back to the game for more.

Forgoing the standard flying aircraft versus armada format, DeathSmiles features a colorful, gothic-style world that pits the girls against all manner of demons and beasts. It’s uniqueness makes it stand out in the genre, and the unique graphics style again gets bolstered through an optional smoothing filter. While the player characters are smaller so they can weave in and out of the bullet patterns, most of the enemies are very large and detailed, including screen-filling, memorable boss encounters.

While the orientation is always horizontal, the play field can scroll horizontally or vertically, crafting some variety in the stage designs. Players can shoot left or right with separate button presses, and Cave wasn’t shy about having enemies swarm in from both sides of the screen to keep players challenged and focused on the action.

Each character can fire in standard or powerful variations, with the standard fire not doing as much damage, but allowing more mobility; obviously, then, the powerful variation does more damage, but reduces the player’s mobility. In DeathSmiles, mobility not only refers to the character’s movement speed, but the variations also allow the player to maneuver or lock the character’s familiar.

Familiars offer an additional method of firepower that differs between the characters, but they are also crucial in snuffing out the game’s “suicide bullets” that absolutely engulf the screen in the higher difficulties. Standard enemy fire in the game is represented with purple/red glowing bullets, but the special suicide bullets are yellow bullets that burst from defeated enemies or destroyed environmental elements. The characters’ familiars absorb these special bullets, and in game modes such as the 1.1 variant, they serve as the foundation of high scoring in the game.

Players will obviously always attempt to avoid being hit by enemy fire, but the game also involves a power trigger that builds as players collect items and stay safe from enemies. The different game modes allow players to activate this trigger at different times, but entering the mode allows players increased firepower, higher-scoring collectibles and can turn on-screen enemy fire into these scoring items when triggered. On top of that, players have the expected bomb items, or “magic” in DeathSmiles, that can be activated in a pinch.

As stated earlier, the Steam version of DeathSmiles offers up the collection of materials developed for the game outside of the mobile version additions, giving players three distinct versions of the game, with some having more variations within the versions. The arcade mode has been left intact in its original form, but players can also access the Magic Black Label variation, which adds another playable character, optional stage and the hardest difficulty toggle offered. The re-worked home versions also offer a Version 1.1 variant, that gives players more familiar control and tweaks how the power trigger and suicide bullets are implemented in the gameplay.

Overall, the uniqueness of the title in the genre is what allows it to shine. The smoothed over graphics give the title a colorful storybook feel, and that accompanied by an eerie, yet appropriate soundtrack. The sound effects include the booming explosions you’d expect, but adds in a number of elements such as the roars of enemy creatures and quips from the characters. When you look at the whole presentation package, the elements match the spooky fantasy motif the developer was aiming for.

ds2The gameplay and control are spot-on in the line of Cave shooting titles, and fans of the genre will find a lot to like if they are fine with the presentation. There are toggles and difficulty settings to cater to the shooter novices, but they also swing the other way to challenge veterans of the genre as well. The different modes change the game up more than it appears at face value, making the title easily accessible for players at a great deal.

DeathSmiles was always one of my favorite shooters of the last generation, and, if I had to nitpick, I would say some of the story translation decisions made parts of the story fall a little flat, but I always liked how different the title was. Prior to launch, I had a few issues with some of the downloaded replays of players on the high score table, but every other technical aspect of the game worked just fine.

The PC/Steam version of DeathSmiles makes the title even more accessible to players, and it doesn’t attempt to fix what isn’t broken. Overall, the game can be completed in 20-30 minutes, but there are compelling reasons to return now and again. This might not be enough for those who aren’t fans of the genre, but those who are always looking to push their scores further will get a lot of mileage between the different modes.

But, still Cave represents some of the best in the genre, so a title such as DeathSmiles is a good entry point to bullet hell titles. Steam is now quickly treating players to accelerated releases in the genre, but, as a niche genre, DeathSmiles was certainly a treat the first time it hit the thin U.S. shoot-’em-up market.

DeathSmiles comes in as a solid second pick for Cave games on Steam, and it will be interesting to see what becomes available from the catalog through Degica Games in the future. Hopefully this title sees enough interest so we can see a follow up of the second installment in time for Christmas!

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