Maidens of a Hollow Dream is a shoot ’em up that gets a bit weird very quickly.
The great thing about the shoot ’em up genre is that no-one really seems to question it when it gets a bit weird. While many shoot ’em ups these days do make an attempt to incorporate a narrative and distinct characters — sometimes with great success — the genre as a whole has always been mechanics-focused. And as such, it doesn’t really matter if the narrative ends up feeling like a bit of a fever dream — as it does in Maidens of a Hollow Dream.
In Maidens of a Hollow Dream, you take on the role of two girls named Romi and Manamo who attend a school named Tsukishimo Academy. In the game’s world — where men appear to have gone the way of the dodo and everyone else is gay — schools are dominant political powers who are seemingly constantly at war with one another, thanks in part to the fact that everyone seems to have formidable magic powers as well as the ability to tame giant creatures as servants. Tsukishimo Academy also appears to have a uniform policy that dictates no-one will wear anything down below except a tiny little “maebari” loincloth that barely covers one’s lady parts.
Romi and Manamo are members of the manga club, and are faced with a crisis — their club is to be shut down because the school believes that sitting and quietly reading manga isn’t a valid club activity. As such, there is clearly nothing for it but to compete in the school’s Bureibu contest, in which representatives from all the school clubs take to the skies, summon their servants and blast the ever-living crap out of one another with magic spells. Simple, right?
Okay, so the story is absolute nonsense — though to be fair, the game absolutely commits to the bit with some impressively detailed background lore available to read in the menus — but it forms a decent justification for the game’s more interesting mechanics. And Maidens of a Hollow Dream is most certainly a very interesting shoot ’em up in mechanical terms.
As a single player, you control both Romi and Manamo at the same time — one directly, one indirectly. You can switch between your “active” characters at the tap of a button, and the other will be pulled along on a trail of hearts as you move around.
There are a couple of reasons for this: firstly, the inactive character fades into the background and as such is not affected by enemy fire or background elements. The latter aspect is especially important as some levels feature seemingly impassable walls; in order to proceed past them you’ll need to manipulate the pair so that the inactive partner passes “through” the wall, then switch to them once they’re safely on the other side. It’s a similar idea to the teleport mechanic seen in games like FuturLab’s Velocity and Astro Port’s Zangeki Warp, only here it’s a little more fiddly to manipulate your “end point”.
The second, more major reason for having two characters on hand is that they each have different specialisms. Romi has powerful shots — even more powerful if you hold down the fire button for her “laser” attack — while Manamo has the ability to generate “alchemy fields” by hitting enemies with her weak but wide-spreading shots. Alchemy fields cause bullets to be cancelled and turn into gems when you destroy the enemy they’re focused on, and those gems can be used to charge up Romi and Manamo’s special attacks.
You can store up to three “levels” of special attack, with each providing temporary invincibility plus an increase to your score multiplier and attack power. At the maximum level of three charges, triggered by holding down the special attack button until Romi and Manamo share an intimate kiss with one another, you’ll get 32 times the normal amount of points, plus some screen-filling shots that are enough to obliterate pretty much everything except bosses without any difficulty whatsoever.
Interestingly, points are for more than just bragging rights in this — they also add to an experience meter, and levelling up causes both Romi and Manamo to increase their overall power level and maximum life. Pleasingly, although your score resets when you use a continue, your experience gain up until that point does not, so if you’re credit-feeding your way through the game you’ll still be able to enjoy the higher levels of power it’s possible to reach.
Enemies also drop coins as you destroy them, and between attempts you can spend these on special weapons and items to make Romi and Manamo’s life a little easier — there’s a trade-off, however, since the more powerful items you use, the lesser your scoring potential. In other words, the ultimate aim in Maidens of a Hollow Dream is to be able to clear the game on a single credit without making use of any special items — but while you’re learning and practicing the stages, the optional powerups can make things a bit more straightforward for you.
The game is well presented with some excellent large character sprites that are packed with personality, and while the game has a definite pixel art charm to it, it eschews a deliberately low-resolution display in favour of something that looks a bit more modern. It definitely has its own visual identity — and its use of some energetic, well composed and catchy Vocaloid songs as background music means that it sounds as distinctive as it looks.
It would be easy to dismiss Maidens of a Hollow Dream as a cheap fanservice-centric cash-in at a first glance. But while the fanservice angle is most definitely there to a ridiculously overexaggerated degree, the game backs up its sauciness with some really solid, interesting and creative mechanics, excellent level design and interesting boss encounters — as well as that aforementioned good presentation.
Definitely one well worth giving a shot — particularly if you’re fans of Cave’s shoot ’em ups. Deathsmiles fans in particular will be right at home with this one.
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