It’s very rare in today’s world of extensive media coverage that a video game can sneak up on you, can genuinely come out of nowhere and become a surprise hit. Sure, some video games sneak through the cracks and arrive with little or no fanfare, but that’s usually because they’re, well, rubbish and have been shamefully snuck out of the door by an embarrassed publisher.
That’s not the case for Edelweiss’ hugely impressive shooter Astebreed though. Why the release has been so low key, I have no idea, but this little know Japanese indie developer has quietly delivered one of the finest 2D shooters in years, a game that, while perhaps slightly short of matching the technical brilliance of Housemarque’s, Resogun, makes up for any perceived technical limitations with a sense of style and spectacle that is often lacking from the genre.
That’s not to say that the game isn’t technically impressive of course – it can get a tad manic at times, but the 1080p and 60fps visuals ensure that it runs like a dream, the scoring system is fantastic and the moment to moment gameplay is both frantic and addictive without the need for slavish pattern memorisation. Of course, remembering enemy attack patterns certainly doesn’t harm, but for the most part, this is a game built upon reacting to your surrounding and ultimately using the right tools for the right job.
Surprisingly for a game of this ilk, the tools in question are extremely varied – rather than the usual collection of upgradable blasters and screen-clearing bomb attacks, Astebreed gives you access to all of your abilities right from the off, inviting you to learn their capabilities and improve your own skills with them in the process. Yes, there is a standard blaster attack, but there is also a very effective melee sword attack, a thrusting dive attack that also serves as a dodge ability and a collection of very cool super EX abilities based upon how much energy you have stored at the time. The biggest twist though comes in the form of a lock-on mechanic that can be shot out in a circle surrounding your ship or via and cone-like sphere controlled by the right thumbstick. Not only does this mean that you can attack from every angle, but fundamentally, turns Astebreed into some kind of bizarre, but unquestionably successful, cross between a classic 2D schmup and an 3D on-rails shooter akin to Sin & Punishment or Panzer Dragoon. It might sound odd, but the combination works, creating a game that somehow manages to deliver the best of both worlds.
Not only does the unique weaponry hint at on-rail shooter mechanics, but like many games in the genre, the dynamic camera also moves around the screen to portray the action from numerous different angles. The core gameplay remains the same, but the clever use of camera movement ensures that the perspective of the action never remains fixed for too long. This serves to give the game a much more cinematic feel while also retaining a sense of excitement and spectacle for those uninterested in score chasing.
In fact, despite getting rather tricky towards the end and being home to an array of difficulty settings, Astebreed is one of the more ‘newbie’ friendly shooters on the market. Sure, we can all wax lyrical on the joys of Treasure’s, Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun, but for those without a passing knowledge of the genre, death will come quick, it will come often and it will be relentless. Astebreed at least attempts to ease players in – that might be partly down to the unique mechanics, but whatever the reason, the Prologue and first few stages aren’t too taxing. Of course, getting a decent score in any stage remains a challenge (the combo system requires quite a bit of skill), but in regards to simply surviving, that doesn’t become a problem until later in the game.
Speaking of problems –Astebreed isn’t without them. I mentioned previously how manic things can get, but honestly, when the bullets are flying and you’re diving around the screen in your slick looking mech, it is possible to completely lose track of your ship (ship? Is a mech a ship?). Whatever it is, amidst the madness, it can go missing, especially during the visually impressive EX abilities that can end with you in a completely different part of the screen. You’ll soon find yourself again of course, but it’s still disconcerting that you can suddenly lose track of your whereabouts in the middle of battle.
Outside of the core gameplay, I don’t think anyone would be shocked if I told them that the story is pants (it is), but regardless, if it’s there, I’d like the opportunity to follow it. Sadly, due to a lack of English voice work, following the story becomes essentially impossible. While the nonsensical nature of Astebreed ensures that is the case at the best of times, subtitles during battle means that any attempt to keep up with story remains an ultimately futile affair. The action is just too intense to look down and read what’s going on below. It’s not a game breaker of course, but Astebreed does put a greater emphasis on story than most shooters, so expect to be especially confused when you are asked to sit through a relatively lengthy cut-scene at the end of the game.
And that brings me to my final issue with Astebreed – the length of the game. Score chasers and shooter aficionados will not be surprised by the six short levels that make up Astebreed’s 2 hour long campaign, but for those new to the genre, they might feel a little short changed by the relatively short running time. It might be one of the longer shooters on the market (believe it or not), but that will not provide solace to those used to a little more bang for their buck. That’s the nature of the genre though – not only would a 7 hour long schmup be very hard to make, but it would also be utterly exhausting. I played this game in one sitting and it was plenty long enough for me. What matters is that I fully intend to come back to it. Not only to enjoy what is a masterfully crafted shooter for a second time, but more importantly to start thinking about score chasing – to look beyond the experience and start to think of it purely as a test of skill (mercifully, you can turn off the chat when you want to get serious).
Astebreed isn’t without its faults, but let’s be clear; the positives outweigh the negatives on a scale of 10-1. This is a genuinely fantastic shooter that simultaneously embraces the traditions of the genre while somehow feeling like a totally unique and wholly individual experience. Half Gradius and half Sin & Punishment, this fantastic anime-inspired sci-fi shooter takes its inspirations and combines them to create something new and exciting. Astebreed is one of the best shooters I have played in quite some time and comfortably stands as one of the the year’s most pleasant and wholly unexpected surprises. If nothing else, it’s a hell of a calling card for developer, Edelweiss.
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