At long last, the most sacred month on the Community Game-Along calendar is here, Shmuptember! Each week, I’ll be bringing you weekly impressions and reviews of the shoot ’em up games (shmups) I try out on my Twitch channel. I had a blast exploring this genre during last year’s Shmuptember, so I’m very excited to be making my return trip to bullet hell.
For week 1, I’m kicking things off with two newer shmups with strong ties to the doujin (Japanese indie) scene. Drainus is from one of my favorite Japanese indie studios, Team Ladybug, and The Disappearing of Gensokyo is a Chinese-made spinoff of the cult Japanese indie shmup series Touhou Project.
Team Ladybug has been churning out a regular stream of high-quality Metroidvania games with shmup elements (e.g. Record of Lodoss War) but, to my knowledge, they haven’t released any pure shmups… until now. Drainus is a side-scrolling shoot ’em up that incorporates visual novel story-telling and ship customization.
The game’s signature mechanic is that your ship has a shield that can drain energy from enemy bullets and bounce them back. This mechanic creates an intense risk-reward system since the shield overheats very quickly, so activating it at just the right time is crucial. Throughout the game, you collect upgrade points that allow you to modify your ship’s guns, bombs, and shields. These upgrades persist throughout the campaign and you can reconfigure them at any time (even in the middle of a boss battle).
Mechanically, Drainus is right where you want a shmup to be: easy to understand, difficult to master, and deep enough to avoid monotony. I found that the deflector shield added a great sense of tension to the game; your incentive is always to charge the shield until right before it overheats to release the biggest volley of reflected bullets. The shield was also essential to getting out of sticky situations but would be your undoing if you overheated it at the wrong time.
Another mechanic I appreciated was ship customization options. Being able to tailor my loadout based on the situation added a nice sense of variety to the gameplay. However, since your ship’s special weapons deactivate when you take damage, at no point does purchasing upgrades trivialize the challenge of the core gameplay. After all, Drainus is a shmup, not an RPG. That being said, the game features a save system and frequent checkpoints, so it’s still far more forgiving than arcade-style shmups.
From an artistic standpoint, Drainus is a very strong entry in the shoot ’em genre. It features a hard-driving EDM soundtrack that perfectly suits the intensity of the gameplay. The game’s use of pixel art and low-poly models gives the game a nice retro vibe without looking dated. Lastly, by shmup standards, Drainus has a surprisingly decent story and writing. It’s a fairly standard sci-fi story but the execution kept me engaged enough to keep reading rather than skipping straight to the action.
The only negative aspect of Drainus is that its checkpoint and power-up system can sometimes get you stuck in tricky situations. Your ship has 4 or 5 upgrade slots that also serve as your HP. If you have been collecting power-up tokens and taking little damage, you can have all of your weapons/upgrades activated at once and survive several hits. However, if you’ve taken a few hits in a place where there are no power-up tokens to collect, you can be shot down with one hit and are stuck with only the weakest gun.
This means that if you’re on a roll, you can cruise around while dishing out damage and not worrying about the occasional mistake. If you haven’t been so careful, you could get stuck having to fly perfectly while very slowly plinking away at enemies with a peashooter. The game is mostly pretty good about supplying you with power-ups when you need them, but I had a few cases in the last few levels where I would mess up right after a checkpoint and have to struggle through a boss battle in an underpowered state. Despite this, the game is fair enough to always have a path to victory even when the odds are against you.
Overall, Drainus is one of the best horizontal scrolling shmups I’ve played. Team Ladybug’s penchant for innovating 2D game design while still retaining the soul of a retro game continues to impress me. This game presents a well-rounded package for shmup veterans and is a great game for people who have enjoyed basic shmups in the past and are interested in trying something with a little more depth.
Link to highlight video: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/1588790670
Geek to Geek Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Talking Frog Wingmen
Touhou: The Disappearing of Gensokyo (PC)
Needing something a little more laid back after the intensity of Drainus, I spent the second half of this week with a bizarre shmup/RPG spinoff of the Touhou bullet-hell series. The Disappearing of Gensokyo features twin-stick shooter action coupled with a story starring characters from throughout the Touhou franchise. In other words, it offers alternating barrages of bullets and fan service.
The Story: Nani?!
I’ll cut right to the chase: As someone who hasn’t played any mainline Touhou games, this game’s story and characters are real weird. You play as Tenshi, a celestial being (that looks like an anime school girl) who is reluctantly tasked with suppressing invasions of yokai that threaten the peace of both the human world and spirit realm. As the story progresses, she is joined by companion characters including witches, singing fairies, and gun-toting rabbit girls from the moon. (I swear I wasn’t hallucinating that last one.)
The interactions between these characters likely make sense to long-time Touhou fans since most of the dialog seems to be full of in-jokes and memes. To a newbie like me, however, it’s like a surreal fever dream. It doesn’t make a lot of sense but is still funny as non-sequitur humor. The game includes a few Touhou lore documents throughout the world, so I actually feel like I am becoming more familiar with the franchise despite not being in this game’s target audience.
The Gameplay: Danmaku Lite
The Disappearing of Gensokyo is described as an “action RPG”, but the RPG elements are pretty minimal. The game offers a central hub area where you can talk to NPCs and upgrade your character, but the majority of your time will be spent in linear twin-stick shooter stages. In each stage, you can bring two characters with you, usually Tenshi and one companion, and swap between them instantaneously. The playable characters all have unique weapons with different reload times and power levels, so swapping between party members feels distinct and tactically significant. From a mechanics standpoint, this strikes me as the game’s greatest strength.
As far as the action goes, I found The Disappearing of Gensokyo to be pretty inconsistent. In some cases, blasting through enemies feels very forgiving and I ccould progress via spamming attacks and face-tanking. Other times, it seemed like a minor mistake could lead to instant death. Admittedly, I’m not very far into the game, so it could be that I just don’t fully understand what I’m doing, but my initial impression is that there’s some imbalance here. The checkpoints are similarly inconsistent, so I also ran into a few situations where I had to retread a significant part of a level to return to an area where I messed up.
Based on what I’ve played so far, the gameplay of The Disappearing of Gensokyo is serviceable enough to play as a gap-filler game but is unlikely to be a marquee game for Shmuptember. The quirky story and characters, on the other hand, may end up being enough to get me to give this game another session or two. At the very least, it’s got me more interested in playing a mainline Touhou game, and that’s certainly worth something.
Link to highlight video: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/1588792822
Shmuptember 2022 Week 1 Closing Thoughts
Week 1 offered an eclectic taste of what the Japanese and Chinese indie shmup scenes have to offer. I’m looking forward to going down even more rabbit holes within the shoot ’em genre in the coming weeks!