Hucast is finally bringing their talents to 21st century hardware.
You could be forgiven for being unacquainted with Hucast’s work. DUX, Redux: Dark Matters, Redux 2, and the oddball platformer Alice’s Mom’s Rescue are all modern titles from the low-key German developer. These games haven’t gotten much traction from the dedicated shoot ’em up / bullet-hell community because they were independently produced for the Sega Dreamcast, a system born in 1998, given a death sentence in 2001, and officially unsupported after Karous was released in 2007. Ghost Blade, Hucast’s latest vertical shoot ’em up, was released for the Dreamcast in 2015.
While some of Hucast’s releases have made their way to the PC, Ghost Blade HD is the first one to land on modern consoles. The shoot ’em up genre—where a tiny ship capable of immense offense must annihilate obstinate hordes of enemies and dance through rains of gun fire—is noticeably underrepresented on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Ghost Blade HD’s relative novelty and smart price ($10) seems like a perfect match for a starved market.
Familiarity creeps over Ghost Blade HD’s fleet of three ships. While each have the same basic control scheme—a weak spread-fire, a concentrated and powerful straight-ahead fire, and a screen-clearing bomb—variance only appears to lie with the spread fire. Milan spreads in a tiny angle, Rekka offers a slightly wider straight column, and Ghost features the (obviously best) wide angle and wider range of fire. Those hoping for a titular melee-focused blade to make an appearance will be left unfulfilled.
Organization, in scale and scope, also conforms to the basic rules of vertical shoot ’em ups. Through five levels of intensifying activity, rogue ships both small and large will swoop in and volley brightly colored bullets in distinct patterns. Most of this is telegraphed, approaching ships are sometimes visible a few layers below the active screen, and jerk-moves out of nowhere are rare. Considerable ship upgrades are available, but, strangely, seem complete after less than a minute of play. Ghost Blade HD takes the player from 0 to 60 very quickly, operating under the assumption that more firepower always equals a better game (a thesis that is generally correct).
Ghost Blade HD’s only measure of progression is how much of the screen is filled with bullets. Which, yes, of course — the term “bullet hell” exists for a reason, but in Ghost Blade HD it appears to come at the cost of complex patterns of appreciable variance. The five bosses that cap off each stage usually have a gimmick like a separate, optional bullet-spewing pieces hovering around, but they’re easily dismissed. Ghost Blade HD feels like the outline of a greater game, or an exercise in basic maneuvers without a flourish.
Ghost Blade HD can be finished in about twenty minutes. Brevity is often a grievance, but in a shoot ’em up’s case, it’s typically an asset. The genre is derived from the birth of the arcade, where the pursuit of perfection trumped basic completion. Progress isn’t linear, it’s collected and refined into an inspirational blend of planning and improvisation. Ghost Blade HD aims for this, vanquished enemies transform into stars that are collected and assembled into your score, but it doesn’t have the chops to make it an attractive, engaging process. It feels like I’m churning through it, not molding my brain around its process.
Nevertheless, Ghost Blade HD makes a decent run at fostering that kind of mindset. Easy, normal, and hard modes are present. Easy, in particular, is interesting because it auto-deploys a bomb in place of taking damage. This not only wipes the screen free of opponents, it essentially gives you at least three extra ships. A score attack mode grants infinite lives and transitions the challenge into, well, a high score and works well for practice. An actual practice mode, where you can select between stages and bosses, is also present.
The whole game is also playable cooperatively. While I don’t actually have any way to confirm this information, I half suspect Ghost Blade HD isn’t actually tuned for this. My wife and I destroyed the game on normal, when both of us struggled with a normal solo run. It’s possible that we either lucked out or temporarily became schmup savants, but a better guess is that Ghost Blade HD wasn’t equipped to deal with the outrageous firepower cooperative play brings. It was still enjoyable, if not a little mindless.
Scores of tweaks and options are also accounted for. If you’re equipped to vertically orient your television, tate mode (as god intended) from either direction is an option. Various presentation options, like turning off built-in slowdown or rendering certain objects transparent, are available too. Leaderboards, both local and online, are expected and available. Ghost Blade HD also comes with a remixed soundtrack, which is appreciated even though the default mix is already so good.
There’s also a distinct lack of quality control around Ghost Blade HD’s periphery. The language used to describe the game’s trophies is horribly localized, either misleading the player (“no miss ship” actually means “don’t lose a ship”) or embarrassing itself with obvious miss-spellings or repeating words. This isn’t a huge deal and doesn’t really affect the game, but it’s a statement of quality when no one with a reasonable grasp on the English language even looked at these sentences before Ghost Blade HD went out the door. If the developer doesn’t care, why should I?
While shoot ’em ups are conspicuously underrepresented on modern hardware, Ghost Blade HD’s presence amounts to little more than a fleeting cameo. Just because it’s the only port in the storm doesn’t mean that anyone will stick around after the raging winds subside.