One of my favourite things about the shoot ’em up genre is how, over the years, different developers have taken the basic formula of “shoot things and don’t get hit”, and spun it off in different directions. One of the most common means of doing this is taking one of the genre’s core mechanics and handling it a little differently — which is exactly what we see with Z-Warp, a new vertical scroller from developer Panda Indie Studio and publisher-localiser eastasiasoft.
On a basic level, Z-Warp resembles a bullet hell shoot ’em up in the Cave mould: you have a weapon that acts differently according to whether you tap the fire button or hold it; you have a tiny hitbox to squeeze through itsy-bitsy gaps between screen-filling bullet patterns; there’s a strong emphasis on efficiently destroying enemies in order to maximise your scoring potential, in this case through maintaining a combo to keep a multiplier topped up.
Where Z-Warp differs from the norm is in how it handles bombs. In most bullet hell games, bombs are used as a last-resort panic option to clear the screen of bullets — sometimes automatically, depending on how generous the developers are and/or the difficulty levels they’ve made available — and strictly limited in quantity. In Z-Warp, however, you have an unlimited stock of bombs, with just one caveat: after using one, you have to wait for a new one to charge.
Z-Warp’s bombs can be unleashed in two distinct stages. If dropped while partially charged, they’ll clear the bullets within a marked circular area on screen, turning them into point-scoring skulls and netting you a small amount of points per bullet, increased by the current score multiplier. The closer your charge level is to full, the larger the area will be. Conversely, allow a bomb to charge fully and it becomes a “Killer Bomb”, which means that it not only clears bullets, it also destroys any enemies caught in the blast.
This isn’t just a gimmick, either. Both Z-Warp’s levels and boss encounters are designed with heavy use of this mechanic in mind, meaning that you’ll be firing off bombs a lot more frequently than in any other game of this kind.
This adds a really distinctive, dynamic feel to the game — and adds a new twist on learning the levels and boss fights. As well as simply learning to avoid attack patterns and find openings to unleash your own salvos, you also need to learn the best times to set off a bomb — and whether a Killer bomb is required, or if just a regular bullet-cancelling one will do the trick.
A couple of great examples come pretty early in the game. The first boss, for example, features several bullet patterns that can easily be avoided if you’re familiar with the conventions of bullet hell games — simply slip through the impossible-looking gaps between the bullets. But one phase of the boss fight features bullets that are too tightly packed together to be able to avoid — meaning that you have to use your bombs in order to keep yourself safe.
The second stage, meanwhile, features seemingly impassable walls that can only be removed by destroying specific enemy types. But in some cases, the enemies you need to destroy are on the far side of the walls — meaning you’ll need a bomb to hit them, since your bullets are absorbed by the walls. The game wordlessly teaches you this mechanic by placing an “immediate killer bomb” power-up in front of one of the first walls in the level, and trusts you to be smart enough to figure the rest out for yourself. This mechanic then returns with a twist in a later stage.
There are several different difficulty levels in the game, with the easiest mode making bullet patterns a little less dense and also removing some enemies’ tendency to launch “suicide bullets” when destroyed — make no mistake, it’s still pretty tough, though. The normal mode offers a well-balanced but stiff challenge, and for shoot ’em up veterans there is both a Hardcore difficulty and a looping, dynamic-difficulty Endless mode to challenge.
Presentation-wise, Z-Warp is excellent, adopting a consistent and well-implemented low-resolution pixel art style that even goes so far as to simulate the aliasing and distortion on low-resolution sprites when they are scaled or rotated. There’s a prominent seizure warning as the game opens and it’s not kidding around; this is a vibrantly colourful, visually noisy game, with most of your time being spent amid pulsing bullets and energetically animated enemies.
There is, unfortunately, no accessibility option to tone down the more visually stimulating colourful elements, though you can turn off screen shake and the score pop-ups that appear, making for a somewhat cleaner, clearer display if you so desire. Just look on the experience with everything turned on as something of an homage to Eugene Jarvis’ classic ’80s arcade games like Robotron and Defender with all their pulsing colours!
The soundtrack, composed by electronic music specialist Elezeid and available on Bandcamp, is particularly worthy of note. It strikes a great balance between the high-energy sound of ’90s shoot ’em ups with the fuller sounds and thicker textures modern technology is capable of, and when combined with the distinctive colour scheme and aesthetic that each level has, makes every stage of Z-Warp feel highly memorable and unique.
You’ll notice I haven’t really mentioned the plot of Z-Warp at all. In true shoot ’em up tradition, it doesn’t really matter — but it’s also strangely inconsistent. Supposedly you’ve been sent off into the far reaches of space to search for the black box of a missing experimental fighter, and yet as soon as you start your mission you are, without explanation, working your way through the digestive tract of some gigantic demonic beastie who appears to have swallowed a large number of significantly smaller demonic beasties.
Metal as fuck? Yes, absolutely. Thematically consistent? Hmm. Questionable — but as I say, this is a shoot ’em up, and thus it absolutely does not matter in the slightest.
Z-Warp is, overall, a really great game, and further proof that eastasiasoft has a good eye for modern indie shoot ’em ups that can comfortably stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some classics of the genre. It’s a strong, well put together game with some thoroughly lovely presentation, and accessible but challenging and distinctive mechanics. Definitely highly recommended.
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