Ah, bullet hell. The oh-so-appropriate nickname given to games that fill the screen with enemies and projectiles, requesting that you dodge and take them down simultaneously. Done correctly, these games can be equal parts challenging and rewarding — Ikaruga, Radiant Silvergun, Jamestown+… Go too far, however, and suddenly the fun vanishes. Thankfully, developer Edelweiss deftly walks that razor’s edge with the new PlayStation 4 shoot ’em up, Astebreed.
There’s actually a pretty intensive setup in play here with several different functions useable at once, but even with that the game handles immaculately. Probably your most important attack is the lock-on function, which can be deployed two ways: you can aim a cone using the right stick to paint targets, or you can press down on the stick to create a large bubble around your ship that will lock on to anything within its radius. Once released the floating orbs behind you disperse and attack.
You have a finite number of these orbs, but you’re able to assign multiple ones to larger enemies by keeping the target painted. An overcharge meter also fills up as you fight and block projectiles (more on that momentarily), allowing you to utilize a powerful EX attack that behaves differently based on how you locked on to your target(s). A standard gun rounds out your ranged attacks and can be used in conjunction with, or independent of, your other weapons.
In addition, your mech is also equipped with a sword, which possesses both offensive and defensive capabilities. When attacking, you can press once to swing or hold the button down to unleash a constant barrage of swings, deflecting the two most common types of projectiles in the process. There’s also a dashing melee strike that does added damage.
While everything works exceptionally well here, it’s worth noting that this scheme only applies to the “arranged” version of the game. The “original” levels utilize the PC setup, which maps your moves to the face buttons and doesn’t use the right analog stick.
It’s difficult to overstate how limiting that feels after starting with the PS4-centric setup, so unless you’re hardcore or are looking to squeeze more content out of the game you may want to just stick with the “arranged” game.
With a kickass mech at its center, Astebreed does a good job with the look and feel of both your ship and that of your foes. Colorful projectiles fill the screen, and the lock-on effect sends tiny colored orbs streaming out to engage the enemy. Level backgrounds aren’t that interesting, though given how much you need to keep track of it’s probably better that they’re largely nondescript.
All voice acting in the game is in Japanese with English subtitles — it sounds good, but it makes the story basically impossible to follow. Both the music and sound effects are effective in establishing the mood.
Edelweiss classifies Astebreed as a “cinematic shooter,” but after playing through the game multiple times I still only know the broadest strokes of the story: You’re the adopted son of a great pilot, and it’s up to you to face off against insurmountable odds and, well, surmount them. There is also something going on with your sisters, though I’m not 100 percent sure what it is.
That’s because, as noted, all of the voice work is in Japanese, and the English subtitles appear in the heat of battle, so any narrative occurring during the levels themselves is sure to be missed unless you can both read lines of text and battle dozens of enemies simultaneously. Of course, I can vouch for the fact that you don’t need much (any?) subtext to get into what’s happening on the screen.
As noted, Astebreed is part of the bullet hell subgenre. Don’t let that intimidate you, however, as the game is eminently fair in posing its challenge. In fact, if you don’t care about high scores most should be able to see things through to the end thanks to the sword’s ability to deflect incoming shots. It comes at a cost, though, as it decreases your score multiplier, encouraging those that want to ascend the leaderboards to use it sparingly and *gulp* dodge.
Old-school approaches — learning enemy patterns, experimenting with weaponry and tactics — still hold weight here, even while the game’s camera rotates dynamically throughout. Perspective changes are handled nimbly, and those switches help maintain the game’s excellent pacing by never letting you settle into one role for too long. It’s all exceptionally well done.
Although it’s a blast to play, Astebreed is thin on content. It spans just six chapters and shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes to complete. There are multiple difficulties to tackle across two modes, but as mentioned earlier, the “original” mode feels archaic next to the “arranged” version. That the asking prices is $19.99 exacerbates the short length.
If you enjoyed the likes of Ikaruga, Deathsmiles and others, Astebreed is a no brainer. If you enjoy shoot ’em ups but were intimated by those titles, Astebreed offers the compromise of success in exchange for lower scores, making it one of the more accessible and enjoyable bullet hell games I can remember. Even if it’s a little pricey, it’s worth the money.