Deathsmiles is Cave’s horizontally scrolling shoot-em up where you battle forces of evil as an angel, or better yet, a goth loli with a help from your familiar. It delivers a more friendly difficulty, while still retaining the original Cave formula. Not to mention its brilliant design and polish are all you might expect from a shmup of high caliber.
Deathsmiles was originally released in late 2007, in arcades across Japan. This was the first Cave shooter to get a release on a console in the west. After its success on Xbox 360, it also got an iOS port and a sequel in 2009. And after the explosive Mushihimesama release on Steam, what naturally followed was a Deathsmiles release on the platform.
While most shmups with a horizontal layout can get a bit stale, Deathsmiles changes up the typical formula with it’s control scheme. Namely, you get two fire buttons, one firing left and the other right. Holding them down together gives you an additional attack that auto-targets enemies in a circle around you. Holding down a single attack button gives you more firepower, but at the cost of slowing you down. Of course, there are the standard bombs for clearing out whole screens of enemies and bullets.
In Deathsmiles enemies can come from pretty much any direction so you will always be on edge. This has somewhat been alleviated with inclusion of enemy warnings that pop up when enemies start swarming in from a different direction. Your familiar acts as a shield which is especially helpful when you are in a tight spot. It can deflect certain types of attacks, but the controls can get a bit in the way while positioning it.
You get 3 lives, but your character can also take partial damage, so you have a bit more leeway than normally. You can just hurl “coins” to get continues until the end of the game, but for those of you that crave greater challenge there is Mega Black Label’s 999 difficulty level that really ups the difficulty with it’s suicide attacks, similar to Touhou’s harder difficulty levels. Overall the difficulty level of Deathsmiles may be a notch less than standard Cave fare, but it still offers challenge for the experienced player, especially with the later stages and various scoring techniques that can be employed.
There are 6 versions of the game available, each a different mode of play. Version 1.1 offers some improvements over the original like scoring changes, easier familiar movement and of course the graphical overhaul that was available on the Xbox 360 port of the game. Mega Black Label mode (MBL) adds on a fifth playable character, Sakura, a really powerful witch that possesses two familiars. Still, you could easily get away with playing only the Mega Black Label 1.1 Version, as it is the latest version, but I applaud the developers for including the other modes as well. Additionally there are Score Attack and Training Modes. The training mode permits you to select any of the original 4 characters and any of the stages in the game with different rules.
The game’s original aspect ratio of 4:3 was kept, but what is great is that you can scale it up in order to fit your screen perfectly. Other than that there is the option of changing backgrounds on rotation, which is interesting. There is co-op support so you can whip out this game anytime your friends come by.
There are four (five in Mega Black Label) playable characters which all have different attacks and a trusty familiar. They are: Windia, a girl in a white frilly dress wielding a Scythe, accompanied by an owl; Casper, a blonde girl that wields a pair of scissors and is accompanied by a bat; Follett, a quiet, nerdy girl dressed in green that has a dragon familiar; Rosa, the oldest girl and the most seductive looking in her red dress and whip accompanied by a fairy familiar; And finally Sakura, Mega Black Label unlockable character that delivers the most firepower with her broom and two crow familiars.
The story involves around one character’s dad, but like with most shmups and their stories, everything comes across a bit out of a left field. Nevertheless, depending on the character you chose and the decision at the end you will get a different neat little ending for each character.
Even though the game is heavily gothic themed, the enemy variety is there. After all not many games feature witches, tanks and dragons all in one universe. Not to mention the game’s memorable bosses which come across as very wacky – like an angry cow with cyberspace looking cubes floating around, or a tree that hurls apples with creepy looking smiles at you. Deathsmiles is full of charm, even in its less refined aspects. Like the awkward sound effect that characters make as they walk the level select screen. One more notable feature in Deathsmiles is that you can select which stage to go to next, which just isn’t seen enough in most other shmups and allows you to tailor your experience a bit each time you play.
Deathsmiles may be a bit more open for newcomers to the genre with its easier opening levels and simpler control scheme, but it still manages to deliver the classic Cave bullet hell experience with it’s later levels. Not to mention that there is still depth for those that seek racking massive points after mastering the game. Deathsmiles’ scoring system is intricate and involves picking up crowns and skulls left behind different enemies. The trick is to use different attacks for each enemy as some attacks yield better rewards. When you pick up enough stuff, you can press both shot buttons to get a power boost. After that it all comes down to juggling the rewards in order to stay in the powered up mode as long as possible.
Overall Deathsmiles is thoroughly enjoyable shmup and what’s even better is you don’t even have to be very experienced with the genre to appreciate it, so I would definitely recommend it to those who want to try out their first shmup. The genre’s veterans will also get their money’s worth by giving Deathsmiles a spin.