Ghost Blade HD Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox One
The fact that Ghost Blade HD is a remaster of a Dreamcast game is little cause for surprise. There are several Dreamcast titles that would be welcomed with open arms on new generation consoles, but what is surprising is that the original Ghost Blade came out in 2015. Originally released fourteen years after the console’s discontinuation, Ghost Blade is an indie-made homebrew bullet hell 2D shooter, created by German developers Hucast games. Fast forward two years and Hucast have updated the former Dreamcast release with slick new graphics and brought it over to the Playstation 4, Xbox one, and Wii U.
Gameplay-wise there is not a whole lot on offer here; only five available stages with three difficulty settings, with a new hard mode having been added to the HD release, makes Ghost Blade HD a very short game indeed. Emphasis is put on obtaining high scores rather than completion, much like old-school arcades, allowing you to even input your name next to your score, despite also having your gamer tag attached to it. The whole experience feels like a love letter to the days of arcade gaming, right down to the continues being called credits and the vertical scrolling.
There are three scantily clad female pilots and their ships to choose from, each equipped with different guns and therefore shooting patterns; wide lasers and missiles, spread shot, and focused fire respectively. These are pretty standard for the genre and, outside of power ups that increase both rate of fire and size of bullets, that is about as varied as it gets in Ghost Blade HD. There are no special weapon-changing pickups, nor anything like Darius’s capture enemy mechanic, there aren't even any shields to speak of, it's a 2D shooter in its simplest form.
In each level players must focus on avoiding incoming enemy fire, rather than mitigating it through any means, in an attempt to last long enough to reach the boss of each stage. These giant enemies have such a wide and varied fire pattern, often filling the whole screen with no possible way to avoid incoming projectiles, it's most likely the majority of a player's lives will be used in these encounters. In fact, the dodging aspect of the game is often made infuriatingly difficult, even on easy mode, with some enemy ships exploding in showers of bullets in numbers that fill the screen. The idea seems to be either avoid everything and only fire when you have to, or learn which enemy ships to prioritise, something that requires such quick thinking that muscle memory will be your greatest asset.
It's learning the levels and aiming for the high score where the game gets its longevity from. With no story and lack of variation Ghost Blade HD gets stale quite quickly. There is a two-player option but it is local only, and the infinite scrolling score attack mode offers only a mish-mash of previously encountered maps and enemies. Even the female face of your ship is purely for aesthetics, they never speak nor is there any information about them. Given how lovingly the art has been done, there may have been some value in offering a few art cards and a dialogue box or two between stages. As it stands there's no real incentive to keep playing outside of the scoreboard - no extra ships, no unlockables, nothing. If the game was longer this would not be a problem, the challenge would be in completing the game. However, with its incredibly simple mechanics, making it longer would perhaps only serve to highlight these downfalls.
Each ship has only three weapons at its disposal, these being standard fire, precision fire (the same as standard fire but now all guns are pointed into a narrower beam), and a very limited amount of smart bombs that, when used, often clear the screen of all ships and occasionally all projectiles. On easy mode these bombs detonate every time you are hit, and charge on all modes via energy pickups dropped by defeated craft. That said, they require such a substantial amount to charge that spamming them is never an option, and are best saved for emergencies. The game never informs you of these different options, the only way to discover them is to go into the menu and read the button configuration, or to experiment. Even tutorial mode is nothing more than a slightly easier version of a level you have previously reached, like a practice mode. You can still die in the tutorial, and no actual tutoring happens. Nothing is ever explained to the player and, even after completing the game, the life system remains unclear - do you have a certain number of hits you can take? Sometimes you die in one shot, sometimes three or four, and it is never made clear why; if there was indeed a health bar, it was so well hidden as to be invisible.
All this being said, it is clear that some serious effort has been made to upgrade the whole experience since its Dreamcast release. Formerly blocky sprites are now smooth and clean cut, muted CRT-era colours are now bright, crisp, and lacking that jarring contrast between hues that simply upscaling often causes. The graphical overhaul is so complete that it’s clear this is no simple port, it's a labour of love. Aside from the new, harder, difficulty setting, other additions have been made in an effort to make the transition to a modern console. Options to lower the brightness of bullets have been included, as well as different wallpapers to fill the sidebars left by the vertical layout, or even settings to flip the screen and turn vertical scrolling into horizontal. This particular option fails to perform somewhat as it doesn't just flip the gameplay, but also the menus and all other screens, meaning you need to turn your head to read anything. The buttons remain mapped to their former layout as well,, turning up and down to left or right depending on which way you flipped the screen, a confusing setback that is almost guaranteed to end in some early player deaths.
It's not a terrible game, on the whole, clearly care has been taken to try and make Ghost Blade HD an enjoyable, if short, experience. The inclusion of a harder setting and two-player couch co-op is a very nice touch, but does little to ease the many flaws this title has. A little more effort on details like the orientation, tutorials, and a more informative HUD and it would be a fun little game. As it stands, however, it's too short, and not particularly user friendly.