Game: Deathsmiles I & II
Release Date: December 15, 2021
Platform: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, Switch
If you're into shooters, you'd have to be living in a… cave to not be familiar with Japanese developer, Cave. The creators of legendary “shmups” such as DoDonPachi and Mushihimesama are revered for their craftsmanship. Mostly focusing on “bullet hell” style shooters, Cave's products tend to have a bit more visual character than competitors'. Few titles in Cave's illustrious catalogue show off their artistic side quite as effectively as 2007's Deathsmiles and its sequel.
The original Deathsmiles released for Xbox 360 in North America in 2010 with new modes and improved balance. The sequel followed in 2011, but only as an untranslated digital release. A full decade later, we're finally getting a proper localized release of Deathsmiles II alongside the original, courtesy of publisher City Connection.
Premise and Setting
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more Halloween-themed game than the original Deathsmiles. The game has a lighthearted spooky atmosphere that is not dissimilar to Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas – just more anime. The game is set in a parallel, magical world called Gilverado, which has come under attack by hordes of demons.
Gilverado's only hope is a group of girls who originated from the real world and are able to wield powerful magic in Gilverado. You travel to various locations within Gilverado, battling demons, ghosts, and all manner of mythological monsters. There's not much story to speak of, but you'll eventually find a way to stop the demons and possibly return to the real world.
Possibly taking a cue from the aforementioned Nightmare Before Christmas, Deathsmiles II is Christmas-themed. It also has a proper introductory sequence in which Santa — I mean Satan Claws — wreaks havoc upon the girls' home and Gilverado in general. It's all very tongue-in-cheek, and silly things like hearing a bit of “Joy to the World” before every boss fight brings a huge smile to my face.
Deathsmiles is hardly a complicated horizontal side-scrolling shooter, but it has some unique quirks. You select one of four magical “gothic lolita” girls, choose an appropriately spooky level (each with three difficulty options), and start shooting undead baddies. Your character shoots a beam of magic left or right, while their “familiar” companion hovers around them. Familiars are key to surviving the higher difficulty modes and raking in huge scores. They not only provide support firepower, but can also absorb yellow “bullets” that explode out of fallen enemies.
For “bullet hell” games, Deathsmiles I & II are surprisingly lenient in terms of difficulty – at least in “Normal” mode with default settings and stage challenge levels. Enemies bombard you with waves of bullets, but your hitbox (a glowing circle in the center of the character model) is small enough to maneuver through them with ease. Limited “bomb” items clear the screen when things become hectic, and you can enter a temporary “Power Up mode” after collecting a certain number of items from defeated enemies.
If the first game's “Normal” mode doesn't pose enough of a challenge for you, there are several additional modes that shake things up. The “1.1” mode offers rebalanced difficulty and some adjusted mechanics. Using bombs reduces your item count, but you can also activate Power Up mode with fewer items. The biggest change, however, is being able to adjust the position of your familiar with the right analog stick. This makes absorbing yellow bullets a much more strategic affair, and also allows you to more efficiently take down bosses.
Deathsmiles II has an “Arrange” mode that operates similarly to the original game's 1.1 mode. The game is easier than its predecessor by default, and a new ability that allows you to throw your familiar across the screen makes things even easier. However, exploiting abilities such as the familiar throw isn't the best way to rack up a huge score. Enemies also leave behind homing bullets when killed after using certain abilities. They're easy enough to dodge by themselves, but can make things hectic when you're trying to avoid other hazards.
Graphics and Sound
Deathsmiles sets itself apart from most other shooters with excellent art direction. For a land overrun by undead ghouls, Gilverado feels very much alive. Backgrounds are filled with macabre little details that lend well to the Halloween-inspired tone. Enemies are pre-rendered sprites that straddle the line between menacing and silly. Bosses are impressively large and imposing, and often change in appearance as the battle progresses. Your mileage may vary with the character designs, however, which aim to please a certain demographic in a way that will make many roll their eyes.
Deathsmiles II updates the visual style in a rather surprising way, by replacing the pre-rendered sprites with fully polygonal 3D models. The result is a slightly less charming presentation, but the 3D graphics allow for more cinematic boss introductions. The visual tone is a bit more vibrant than the first game, which is appropriate given the Christmas-inspired theme.
Both games have incredible soundtracks full of hard-rocking tunes tinged with a gothic influence. The first level music in Deathsmiles is particularly good, and sounds like it could fit well in a Castlevania game. I can't really think of much higher praise than that! Sound effects do their job well, with plenty of explosions, shrieks, and growls, as well as a copious amount of girls yelling “Tasukete!”
Is $40 an appropriate asking price for two shooters that are over a decade old? It sounds like a lot, but when you consider how most comparable re-releases are $15-20, it's not so bad – especially when you consider how this is the first time Deathsmiles II is available in English. There's no question that the original Deathsmiles is more polished than its sequel. They're both very fun, if fleeting (it takes roughly 30 minutes to finish each game) experiences, however. If you have even a passing interest in shoot 'em ups, this compilation is a must.