Saturday, 22 January 2011

Japan Firsthand: Bullet Soul and Phantom Breaker impressions

On January 8th 2011 at the Ginza Pasela Resort in Tokyo, 5pb. Games held a showcase where reporters and gamers could try near-final builds of their two upcoming games: Phantom Breaker and Bullet Soul. The former is a fighter and the latter is a shooter; neither of which try to reinvent their respective genres. In fact, one could even assume that 5pb. Games are going right for Arcana Heart and Cave fans, because there are so many similarities going on. Nevertheless, both games do bring their own flavours to the table and may even surprise the most jaded gamers out there.

All pictures by CRIMExTHINK (click them for larger resolution)

Jienotsu says: You better click "read more" or I'm gonna beat you up!

The event kicked off at around noon. For the first hour or so, there was playful chatter between 5pb. president (and occasional denpa song composer) 志倉千代丸 (SHIKURA Chiyomaru), multiple cosplayers (including kickboxer celebrity Yuichiro "Jienotsu" Nagashima) and the crowd itself. As the event was broadcast live on NicoNico, the hosts frequently read some of the hilarious bullet-hell comments, including some pantsu requests. At some point, there was a mini-live performance featuring one of the cosplayers who actually sang the theme song from Bullet Soul.

Bullet Soul theme song performed live

All of the cosplayers together, with 5pb. president 志倉千代丸 on the right

Jienotsu and the other hosts warning folks about the two foreigners in the crowd

The first game to be showcased was Phantom Breaker, a straight-forward one-on-one fighter with an all-girl (bishoujo) cast, even though some of them kind of look like boys. On the voice acting side, there will be some interesting connections for anime fans. For instance, veteran seiyuu 田村ゆかり (TAMURA Yukari) voices Mei, a short magical girl with pink hair that bears a striking resemblance to Meruru from the "Ore no Imouto" series (whom she also voices). The beautiful character design is handled by 鈴平ひろ (SUZUHIRA Hiro), a female mangaka mostly known for her work on "Shuffle!".

Fighting in front of a high school

Two lottery winners were brought up on stage to fight against Jienotsu himself, which drew some hilarious comments. Each character supports two styles: quick and hard. The effects couldn't be any clearer. "Hard" hits deal more damage, but are easier to counter. Obviously "Quick" hits are harder to dodge but won't hurt as much. It's possible the characters move differently and sport different moves based on this selection, too. The style can't be changed on-the-fly, only when selecting a character. Speaking of which, the wait between selecting a character and actually starting a match did seem a little long, in part because of an unskippable introduction sequence that requires its own loading time. Like many other fighting games, a "Tension Gauge" fills up over time, which can then be converted into "Critical Hits" or "Overdrive Attack".

Fighting in front of Tokyo Big Sight (comiket)

In terms of graphics, everything looks very sharp. This is truly an HD game built from the ground up for the Xbox 360 system, not an arcade port. The characters are quite large on screen, however they seem to suffer from somewhat janky animation. Perhaps this is a tradeoff for the otherwise very solid framerate. It is certainly not comparable to BlazBlue or other similar games from Arc System Works. The backgrounds were either very interesting (fighting in front of Tokyo Big Sight is rad!) or uninspired (your typical high school campus), but there was an interesting transition from day to night after each round.

Unfortunately, the music kind of felt misplaced: if you're familiar with Visual Kei as a musical genre, then this is what you should expect. If you're not a fan, then you'll just have to turn it off or avoid the game altogether. Overall, Phantom Breaker probably won't rewrite history books, but as a first original fighting game from 5pb., things could have been a lot worse. Since long lineups for the playtest booths formed quite rapidly, I decided to pass.

Jienotsu and the Bullet Soul cosplayers.
The background says: Eighties-style hot-blooded shooting!

Now Bullet Soul, on the other hand, wasn't gonna get skipped. This is the game that made us want to attend the event in the first place! Being big fans of SHMUPs, we were eager to compare Bullet Soul to Cave's best efforts. Turns out we should be comparing it to something else, according to 5pb. In fact, they made that point over and over again: they worked their hardest to make this a homage to Super Star Soldier! They can't really call this a "spiritual successor" since they didn't make the original, but after seeing it in person and taking it for a spin, it's a shame Hudson aren't publishing it themselves!

5pb. recently released this explosive promotional video, so make sure to check it out first.

As you can see, everything's in place for this game to become a legendary SHMUP. The characters were designed by 渡辺明夫, a female illustrator who's behind a ridiculous amount of artwork such as MOSAIC.WAV's first album, The SoulTaker and the Djibril series. The music was composed by 伊藤賢治 (ITOU Kenji, Romancing Saga) and 高橋コウタ (TAKAHASHI Kouta, Ridge Racer), united under the name RESONATOR. All that's missing is for fans of the genre to embrace it warmly and light up the XBLA leaderboards for years to come. We'll see how well the game fares this April 7 2011 when it comes out in Japan, but if it does fail it won't be because 5pb didn't try their best. Until then, here are some impressions.

There are three different ships/characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Zenichi (red) is the fast type with a wide shot. Yure (blue) has a lock-on laser and is the balanced type. Sadahaar (yellow) is the slow-but-powerful big guy who fires a steady stream of devastating missiles. Of course the game supports offline 2-player, but I'm not sure about online. There will be leaderboards, replays and some form of XBLA Marketplace support. Downloadable characters? Extra levels? No further information was provided, but people should expect content of some kind as early as March 2011 (they hinted at a demo containing the first level).

Jienotsu didn't actually play Bullet Soul. "Too many bullets!", he said.

The game's claim-to-fame is the Soul Gauge, which fills up as you play and acts as a score multiplier of sorts. When enemies are destroyed, their bullets turn to souls which are added to the bar when you touch them. This is kind of similar to Kakusei mode in ESPGaluda, except it's always enabled. This did seem to make the game a tad easier. The hit box also seemed very small, but it wasn't visible or configurable (confirmed by 5pb. staff). The demo units were using the Normal difficulty, which seemed fairly easy to me. Of course we were probably playing the first couple levels of the game, but clearly this game does not aim to be the most hardcore Bullet-Hell experience out there, more of a high-score/Caravan affair. Speaking of which, 5pb. will travel across Japan in search of the best Bullet Soul player, much like Hudson Soft used to do with Star Soldier back in the days.

In terms of visuals, this is clearly one of the most gorgeous SHMUPs ever made. The level of detail is impressive, whether you're flying over a metropolis or in deep space. The explosions are stunning and even when the screen was filled with bullets, there was no slowdown. This can be a minus depending on who you ask, but maybe harder difficulty levels offer some kind of slowdown to help you get through bigger waves. The bosses I've seen have multiple destructible parts and fly around the screen in a hyperactive manner. You can also blow up some of the environment, which in turn leads to "destruction" and "mystery" bonus points.  Controls are quite tight, spot-on for the genre. Because of the crowd, I didn't quite hear the music but I'm sure you'll agree that we can give the benefit of the doubt to these two musical masterminds.

Absolutely stunning backgrounds... you'll just have to trust me on this one

I did ask one of the senior producers a very important question: Will Bullet Soul be released on a region-free disc? "We're strongly thinking about it!" was his answer. Unfortunately that's not a "yes", but at least it's not a firm "no". I asked him if they were aware that Cave games are doing fairly well in the US thanks to region-free releases and Deathsmiles being published by Aksys. Yes, they know that there is a potential fanbase for Bullet Soul outside of Japan and he really wants everyone to be able to enjoy Bullet Soul without having to buy a second XBox. Then when I asked why 99% of the game (menus, options, text labels) was already in English, he answered with a wink.

For more coverage, 5pb. has a complete list of all media outlets which attended the event. Dengeki has a great piece in particular, as it includes a humorous interview with 志倉千代丸 and Jienotsu.

Some dirty foreigner giving Bullet Soul a try...
Oh wait, that's me. Here tooHere again.

We walked away from this event feeling very positive. Not just because we were going to see REDALiCE, t+pazolite and IOSYS at MegaPeer, but also because we both agreed that Bullet Soul is a great SHMUP done right. Although I wish they could have confirmed region-free discs for either game, there's still a couple months to go before they go gold after all. Perhaps if diehard shooting fans really want to play Bullet Soul on their non-Japanese Xbox, they should contact 5pb. Games and let them know what's up. On the other hand, both games are quite charming and definitely above-average, so hopefully some US publishers are considering them as we speak.

1 comment:

Hung said...

This is fantastic!