Microsoft Xbox 360
Akai Katana is a horizontal-scrolling shoot em up from Cave games that's mad, intense and a lot of fun. It’s surprising depth is unfortunately offset by its repetitiveness and niche appeal.
On the face of it Akai Katana is nothing new. It's a side-scrolling 2.5 D shoot-em-up where you control an aeroplane and fire a storm of missiles/lasers/bullets/nuclear bombs at waves of helicopters and tanks whilst dodging geometric storms of neon projectiles that are fired back at you. So far so Twin Bee. Each of the nine stages are fairly short and each has a boss at the end, typical to the genre. You can play through the whole game in about thirty minutes and if your reactions are quick you might not need more than ten or so continues.
So, on first play through the game seems run-of-the-mill, but that isn't the end of the story – oh no. There's more to Akai Katana than meets the eye and a casual few turns will quickly make it clear there are hidden depths. If you dare to open the manual a complex set of play mechanisms is revealed, the dense paragraphs of instructions dotted with terms like 'steel orbs', 'score items' and cryptic sentences like “try to herd bullets into groups and cancel them with your laser”. This goes on for about 12 relatively poorly-translated pages. Clearly it's trying to explain something, but what?
The manual is so unclear and so intriguing that if you want to understand the depths of Akai Katana the best source for information is the internet. On YouTube are videos made by the producer that show you how to play and how to get really high scores. Watching these may invoke 'what the...?!£$' responses, as suddenly it becomes obvious that there is a lot more to do here than tapping the trigger and dodging incoming fire. Here's an attempt at an explanation: if you hold down the fire button you enter 'attack mode'. When in this mode destroying enemies earns you 'energy items' that you collect to charge up your 'energy bar'. Tapping the fire button (rather than holding it down) puts you into 'defence mode' and destroying enemies in this mode earns you 'steel orbs', big wobbly blobs that your plane absorbs. When you've collected some energy you can tap X to transform your plane into a 'phantom' which is a little manga character with a sword inside a bubble (obviously). If you've collected 'steel orbs' whilst the plane these become powerful weapons orbiting your phantom that you can fire at enemies. Successful hits with the orbs forges katanas which you can subsequently hurl at enemies to generate big gold score items. Reload and repeat.
This might sound complex and in fact there is even more subtlety to it that described above but once you've got the hang of 'the basics' it's a satisfying and clever system, requiring you to modify your attacks at different stages of play in a sort of cycle – gather energy, collect steel orbs, switch to the phantom, convert the steel to swords and fling them at a flying battleship (or whatever is in your way) to generate big scores.
Of the enemies you fight, these are fairly uniform throughout the game with the same vehicles appearing over and over again. Each stage has a mid-stage boss which tends to take the form of a larger tank or plane but these are nothing that the genre hasn’t thrown up time and time again. At points the baddies become a little weirder, often in boss fights, when large swirling portals open and ocean going juggernauts and armoured battle trains cruise through the sky firing at you. The combat is frantic and intense and the bullets really do come thick and fast. At points it verges on the eye-bleedingly psychedelic. The fact that this game does not come plastered with warnings is a health and safety fail or a marketing win, depending on your point of view. Pleasingly the game suffers no noticeable framerate lag, even when the screen is completely jam-packed with ordnance and explosions. If you are playing this on a very large screen prepare to take regular breaks to bathe your eyeballs.
The game's look is soundly old school, using sprites rather than 3D, reminiscent of PlayStation One or Arcade titles from fifteen years ago or longer - indeed, Akai Katana is an arcade port. The graphical limitations are not problematic as the genre of shoot-em-up has a fine sprite-based heritage and Akai Katana sits soundly in this tradition. This is very much a case of playing to the fans rather than a decision to use fairly out-dated technology. The old-school visuals are perfectly adequate for after all, this is all about the action, not so much about the backdrop.
In terms of play options there is the main campaign mode, which you can play through with three different characters and can be played in single or co-op mode. Additionally there's a training mode where you can select any of the levels to practice on. Finally there are online leaderboards where you can compare your score with others.
For those who are fans of the series or of shoot-em-ups in general this will be a welcome challenge, especially because of the interesting combat mechanics. If you are up for perfecting your playthrough and getting super high scores Akai Katana has a lot to give. On the other hand, if you're not up for playing the same levels over and over again; if you're not up for being killed in frustrating and repetitive ways and if you're expecting anything like narrative you will be disappointed. It is hard to see many but the hardcore sticking with it for long.
All in all Akai Katana is a decent offering – good fun with a unique play system. If your idea of a good time is trying the same sequence until you can survive a quad-helix of spinning blue missiles without taking a single hit – then this will be heaven for you. If you're looking for a more casual experience or something with any sort of emotional engagement then you are likely to be disappointed as the game provides little in variety and no specific incentive to play through twice, apart from the aforementioned score chasing.
For some this will be their game of the year, but for most people it won't. Akai Katana is too niche to attain widespread appeal beyond existing fans. For most people, despite its retro and slightly bonkers charm Akai Katana will likely be played once or twice and then will become assigned to the bargain bucket of history. Aeroplanes that turn into sword-wielding cartoon characters: I’m afraid your time is yet to come.