Deathsmiles PC Review
The term “Bullet Hell” was once used to describe a specific, and more hardcore subsidiary of the shoot ‘em up genre of games, popularized with classic 2D titles like Gradius, R-Type, 1942 and the like. Featuring an almost cruel number of enemy bullets and projectiles for players to test their reflexes (and sanity) against, Bullet Hell games have more or less taken over the shoot ‘em up genre entirely in both player demand and YouTube videos. Even if you aren’t the sort of hardcore fan who imports Tohou games (and collect the never-ending amount of daily fan-art), it’s still worth admiring online videos of players showcasing their inhuman bullet-dodging skills.
Japanese developer Cave has earned a reputation as one of the premiere companies for Bullet Hell output, with Deathsmiles being one of their most popular and recognizable titles. Originally released in Japanese arcades, Deathsmiles was the first Cave shooter to make its way westward on the Xbox 360. Its sequel soon followed as well as several other Cave titles, eventually making their way into smartphones as well. Now, Deathsmiles earns the distinction of being the first Cave shooter to hit PC; though Steam is no stranger to Bullet Hell games at this point, Cave’s formal debut is no doubt good news for many masochistic shooter fans.
Like with most shoot ‘em ups, Deathsmiles has a brief story premise that is no doubt expanded by outside material; notable for its Gothic Lolita cast and Halloween-themed enemy and stage designs, Deathsmiles’ visuals and music is a charming throwback to monster-themed games like Castlevania, and the synth-meets-rock soundtrack only bridges the similarities even further. The 2D sprites will no doubt be seen as “antiquated” by the same pool of gamers who dismiss 2D fighting games like Street Fighter III, but will no doubt be appreciated by their target audience the most. Best of all, this version has the option to use the original Arcade visuals or the spruced-up revision made for consoles as well as the requisite resizing and blurring options (hint: never, ever pick the “smooth” setting in these games).
Players select one of four playable witches, each controlling the same but featuring different types of projectiles as well as a familiar who follows them in every stage. The goal is the standard MO of all shoot ‘em ups: don’t die. Stages scroll automatically from left to right, and players must take out the endless swarm of enemies standing in their way while dodging enough bullets to cover up a star system. At the end of each stage is a massive boss, some which are grotesquely detailed, such as a gigantic cow and a face pulled down by hook chains. Stages can be tackled in any order as well as difficulty, but they will all have to be completed in order to reach the finale, which can take under an hour depending on how many continues it takes.
Shoot ‘em ups are not known for their length, but rather their longevity; the game may offer infinite continues, but depending how obsessive you are with your leaderboard ranking, it could take significant time replaying those stages over and over in order to achieve the least amount of deaths as possible. The good news is that Cave shooters are generally more forgiving with their difficulty, and also include a merciful amount of slowdown for when the bullets gets hellish. Like the Xbox 360 version, the PC release of Deathsmiles also includes other modes beyond its original Arcade release, including an extra playable character and a “Level 99” difficulty mode, which is exactly as taxing as it sounds: in this mode, not only do enemies pelt you with bullets, even their dropped power-ups cause damage, requiring players to collect them with their familiars. For the truly psychotic, this mode will satisfy those looking for a true 2D challenge.
The only downside is that despite the numerous modes and features, it still features the same number of stages, enemies, and length; if you aren’t the type who like to replay arcade-length shooters over and over for the best possible score, then Deathsmiles may not be for you. For arcade enthusiasts with a controller of their choice plugged into their PC’s USB port, this PC re-release is both the definitive version and one of the best Bullet Hell experiences you can have, which makes it the perfect blend of Heaven and Hell for those seeking an eye-crossing, thumb-mashing challenge.