Review - Akai Katana
"Oh, it's one of those arcade games where you shoot everything," said my other half when she walked in on me playing Akai Katana, completely missing the point of what she was watching. Well, kind of. You see, while it would have been easy for me to launch into a diatribe about how Cave's latest 'bullet hell' shooter is so much more, how it's got rich depth and tactics beyond belief that can take a lifetime to master, I can see her point. From where she was standing, all I was doing was firing endless bullets at things that sent just as many back my way… oh, and dying a lot. Score one for her, I guess.
Look past the insane amount of bullets, past the endless streams of enemies that seem to soak up attacks like a mutant sponge, past the relatively old-school graphics and rock guitar riffs that feel like they've been ripped out of an Eighties anime soundtrack and you'll find an experience that's as rewarding as it is sadistic. Essentially, it's the game equivalent of that Maths teacher at school that you always hated: deep down, he wants you to learn and improve yourself, but his teaching methods involve the back of a ruler and lots of detention. Yes, mastering all the arts that'll turn you into an expert Akai Katana player will take plenty of time, patience and (virtual) death, but you'll be grateful in the end. Really, you will.
Of course, the fact that Akai Katana is probably the most accessible shoot-'em-up that Cave has ever created certainly helps its appeal… not that you'd notice after just a minute of playing the first level. Less than 30 seconds in and huge waves of pink and blue bullets start to fill the screen, looking almost impenetrable at first glance as you try and inevitably fail to avoid the onslaught. Sure, you take down plenty of the enemies by sending your own bullets their way, holding down the A button to blast anything that moves… and then you die again. And again. And again. And then you hit Start to continue, thanking the arcade god that invented infinite continues before ploughing on regardless.
While it's perfectly acceptable to play Akai Katana (and, indeed, any bullet hell shooter) like that though, it's not the way it's meant to be played. As with all of Cave's games, there's an art to surviving the seemingly impossible assault and learning how it's done is where the real pleasure lies. Whether it's general skills like understanding hitboxes and the fact that only a small section of your ship needs to slip through each torrent of bullets or Akai Katana-specific ones focusing on the differences between attack/defence mode, each step towards enlightenment brings with it an advance in your skills, allowing you to stay alive just that little bit longer.
And there's plenty to learn, not least because the Xbox 360 version of Akai Katana has not one, but three different versions within it, each of which plays in its own unique way. The big difference lies between Origin and Slash modes, which offer completely different methods of survival: the former relies on repelling bullets with your shield and cancelling out attacks, while the latter sees you gather energy and score tokens around your 'option' (read: small satellite that moves around you) and then having them collide with bullets to increase their value. That the levels and enemies are the same works in your favour as it means there's at least something familiar to relate to as you learn each mode's strategies, but it still means you're getting three games for the price of one.
Granted, I'm not saying that Akai Katana is for everyone: it takes a certain kind of gamer to appreciate the game in its purest form (namely, the arcade shooter that most people will see it for) and another kind entirely to see through the bullets and spot the challenging-yet-rewarding experience that lies underneath. But does having a niche focus make it any less of a masterpiece? Not really, no. Against its peers, Akai Katana is one of the best examples of bullet hell (a genre Cave itself invented) and while hardcore players may see it as baby steps compared to some of the tougher titles out there, that actually makes it better by having the nerve to try and bring new players into the fold. After all, everyone's got to start somewhere, right?