From 1942 to Star Soldier to Sin and Punishment to Ikaruga, shmup types of games have always seemed to keep the same core concept- dodge a massive amount of enemies’ shots while taking them all out and surviving the crazy bosses that wait for you at the end of each stage.
You do this while continuously evolving in terms of gameplay mechanics and style, keeping the controls tight and precise and the replay value high. Astebreed, the latest bullet hell game from independent Japanese developer Edelweiss, raises the bar for excellence in shoot em up games so high that it’s hard to ignore how fantastic it is.
Available on PC, Astebreed is the spiritual successor to Ether Vapor, also released for the PC in 2007. It continues the combination of gorgeous 2.5D graphics with tried-and-true shmup mechanics, all while throwing in an even more insanely awesome dynamic camera that swings around during battle, changing your perspective at a moment’s notice and making every battle feel like a climactic moment from how intense it can be.
It’s fascinating how something so simple as changing the camera angle throughout the course of the level can make an already intense game so much more intense. And did I forget to mention the mechs? Anyone who is a fan of mecha anime such as Gundam will greatly appreciate the design of the mechs in this game, as well as the fluid way they move through space and in combat, and quickly switch between weapons at a moment’s notice to respond to any onslaught.
Players have a few different plans of attack in Astebreed. The main weapon on the mech that you control through the entirety of the game is called the Lucis, a swarming mass of blue spheres of energy that the player can command to do different things at will. Players are also equipped with a scatter shot that allows the player to hit many enemies at once, at the cost of damage dealt to each enemy hit, and a focus shot, which fires straight ahead and does the maximum amount of damage.
There is also a badass melee attack that when used repeatedly can block shots from hitting the player as well as destroying bad guys very quickly. All three attacks have secondary modes to use, where the scatter shot can slowly lock onto multiple target and hit all of them at once, and the focus shot can quickly lock onto any specific enemies that you aim at and hit them individually over time.
The melee attacks secondary charges over time, and when activated, will do one of a few different attacks, normally covering a wide area of the screen. The tactical element of the game is knowing when to use what attack to efficiently block shots and survive, because not knowing what you’re doing will end in punishing deaths. Again, and again.
Artistically, Astebreed is gorgeous. Space is vast and beautiful, and enemy types, while having a bit of color swapping here and there, are detailed and fun to look at. I actually found myself dying a few times because I was so interested in looking at the designs of the ships I was fighting, as well as the mech I was piloting. The game runs flawlessly, with no lag, even when the screen is full of enemies and laser beam shots.
The music pulses as you blast your way through level after level, and I even left the main menu up to listen to the song that plays for a good ten minutes or so. Voice work, while being in Japanese, is great, and really conveys emotion from the characters, especially one of the more crazy ones. As you progress through the game, cut scenes play, revealing more back story, while unlocking hand drawn artwork to be viewed in the extras gallery after completing the game.
Speaking of the story, Astebreed has a pretty good one as far as shmup stories go. An evil alien race called the Filune has been destroying entire worlds and is now attempting to wipe out humanity. The game has an optional prologue that sheds a bit more light on exactly what is going on in the game, and introduces us to a few more characters that seem to not have much importance to the overall story. However, the appearances of these seemingly random characters will be explained more as the game goes on.
Players assume the role of the rookie pilot Roy Beckett, who is sent on a suicide mission with a unique mech called the XBreed to stop the Filune and save mankind. The story does have many anime clichés in it, but that doesn’t really seem to drag the story down as much as the one major complaint I have with the game: The game’s most important dialogue takes place during the intense, don’t look-at-anything-other-than-your-ship gameplay, and are entirely in Japanese with English subtitles.
This means that if you’re anything like me, you kind of want to win the game you’re playing, and will naturally sacrifice knowing what the characters are talking about in order to continue progressing. Because of this, I had almost no idea what had happened in the game, outside of what information the cut scenes gave me and the brief instances of dialogue where there were very few enemies on screen for me to deal with. However, I’m sure I can speak for many players (including myself) when I say that I’m not really here for the story.
However, upon completing the game, the Documents section of the extras menu reveals more information on the many locales and characters of the game, as well the history of the games world. It even includes backstory on a few characters who are only in the prologue, so be sure to check it out if you want to know more about who those few characters are and why they appear in the game in the first place. This extra chunk of information was awesome to see, because it really felt like the developers took a lot of time to invest in creating an interesting universe.
But what this game really boils down to is the difficulty moving at a pace that works in tandem with the gameplay to creating a wonderful challenge and flow. Shmups are known to be extremely challenging, and Astebreed is no exception, taking me hours to complete on normal difficulty. As said before, the game really becomes tactical in a sense, and you really need to feel your way through the levels and learn when to switch your plan of attack.
Even though the XBreed has shields that recharge over time, taking even one shot interrupts the process, and coming back from having almost no shields can quickly spiral out of control, right into a continue screen. Astebreed actually has a checkpoint system, which definitely helps stifle the rage that I know I was fighting to contain while playing some of the tougher parts of the game, but it doesn’t take away any of the challenge of the levels.
That challenge is a good thing though, and even though I’m not sure if I could ever beat the hard difficulty that unlocks after beat the game on normal, it’s good to know that it’s always there in case I want to try again. I’ve beaten the game three of four times now on normal difficulty, and that’s still pretty tough for me to do, especially when it comes to the games last level, which is just crazy. It took me at least an hour or so to just beat the game’s final boss. I mean, I might not be the best at these types of games, but I didn’t think that I was that bad, but I guess the game taught me a hard lesson.
Astebreed is a fantastic game overall. Edelweiss has outdone themselves in terms of gameplay, music, art, and even, (if you’re willing to read it) the story of a war between humanity and the Filune, along with the rookie pilot Roy Beckett and his allies in a struggle to save mankind.
The only issue I have with the game, and it is a minor one, is the inability to know what the characters are talking about for most of the time you play, but this is so easy to overlook once you remember that the game you are playing is absolutely freaking awesome.
Seriously bursting at the seams with style and beauty from every corner, Astebreed is a must play, and will continue to be a must play long after you’ve beaten it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some more Filune ships to blow up.
Astebreed was reviewed using a code provided by Playism. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.