There’s a common assumption that in order to make a game that looks spectacular, you need a big budget and a huge team. Astebreed from Edelweiss — the team who most recently brought us the excellent (and successful!) Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin — is the perfect example of how this is complete nonsense. Because Astebreed is one of the best-looking shoot ’em ups you’ll ever have the pleasure of enjoying.
In Astebreed, you take on the role of protagonist Roy as he attempts to fend off the invading Filune forces with the assistance of Fiona, a young girl who has been integrated into the systems of the Xbreed mech. Things quickly get complicated when Roy and Fiona discover that Fiona’s sister has sided with the enemy for some reason — and in true mecha tradition, there are plenty of philosophical and ethical questions to ponder along the way.
While Astebreed’s story is excellent — though its complexity means you’ll probably need a few playthroughs to parse it in full — the real attraction here is the top-notch, beautifully presented shoot ’em up action. Edelweiss are good at action games, and Astebreed is one of the best examples of them on top form.
Xbreed has multiple means of attacking. It can fire shots, lock on to enemies in either a cone-shaped area or a circular area around itself, and use a sword to make close-range attacks. These attacks aren’t just for different combat situations — they also play a key role in mastering the game’s scoring system.
Essentially, what you want to be doing in Astebreed is building up your multiplier by destroying enemies with shot attacks — and avoiding getting hit, which, of course, knackers your multiplier — and then “cashing in” that multiplier by hitting as many enemies as possible with a sweeping sword attack. It’s classic arcade-style risk versus reward, in other words; you can beat the game without using the sword at all, but if you want to take aim for high scores, you’ll need to master using it effectively.
To keep things interesting, Astebreed doesn’t unfold from a single perspective. Sometimes you’ll be playing a side-scroller, at other times you’ll be playing a vertical scroller or a 3D on-rails sequence. Transitions between these sequences always occur during downtime in the action — often to allow you to pay attention to dialogue sequences — and thus they’re never obtrusive; they simply keep the action feeling dynamic.
It would be easy for Astebreed to be an incredibly daunting shoot ’em up with its fast-paced action and relatively complex control system. And in the original release of the PC version, it was very daunting; thankfully, in the time since its original release, it has been refined considerably as well as receiving some excellent PS4 and Nintendo Switch ports, and it’s now a whole lot more approachable.
An excellent optional training sequence affords you the opportunity to practice various manoeuvres in a safe environment, as well as a chance to get to grips with how scoring works, and the narrative as a whole opens with an interactive prologue sequence that acts as a quick tutorial of sorts. Before long, you’ll be blasting foes like a pro — and a one-credit clear on the game’s easiest difficulty level is well within reach of even shoot ’em up rookies.
For those who want to take their game to the next level, Astebreed offers some in-depth score analysis systems, allowing you to see how your score and multiplier trended over the course of the level as a whole. Using this information, you can understand which parts of each stage you need to work on a bit more, and determine how you can improve your skills.
It really is an excellent example of a game that remains broadly accessible to a wide audience; while I perhaps wouldn’t recommend Astebreed as the first shoot ’em up you ever challenge thanks to its relatively complex controls and mechanics, it’s definitely one where you can pick up the basics relatively easily. And once you nail down those basics and achieve your first one-credit clear, it’s hard not to get drawn into wanting to improve your scores and really prove your skills.
And even if you’re not generally someone who replays things for high scores, Astebreed’s story is interesting, compelling and crams a surprising amount of quality narrative into the game’s relatively short run time. This is a game put together by people who understand that giant robot popular media is about much more than just… well, giant robots. There are some surprising twists and turns along the way; the war against the Filune is far from a simple affair, and by the time you reach the end you will doubtless have many questions.
However, if you’re someone who doesn’t give a toss about all that and you just want to blast various enemies into space dust, you can do just that; Astebreed features the option to completely turn off all its narrative content and simply play it as a straightforward arcade shooter. This is particularly great for high score runs, since when you’re taking aim for the top of the leaderboards the last thing you need is anime girls screaming in your ear. Unless you find that sort of thing inspiring, of course.
Astebreed is a good few years old at this point, but it remains an astonishingly good shoot ’em up that is all the more remarkable for being put together by such a small team. It’s beautifully presented with production values that rival full-price games, it has a well-crafted narrative that doesn’t feel throwaway — and most importantly, it’s a satisfying, fun shoot ’em up that every fan of the genre should have in their collection.
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