I have to admit, when I first headed in to Ghost Blade HD, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. Information seemed to be scarce, and even the official website for the game didn’t tell me a massive amount. The words “bullet hell” and “shoot-em-up” seemed to be mentioned a lot. “What could possibly go wrong, I thought? I’m an old skool gamer, I played Axelay on the SNES, surely this is just a pretender?” (Google it, kids!). Thus thinking, I fired up the Xbox and sallied forth.
First impressions are good, with a simple to navigate and suitably retro looking menu allowing you to choose your game mode, with Single Player, Two Player, Training or Score Attack in place. Feeling brave, I initially hit the Single Player, and then was given a chance to choose one of three pilots and her corresponding ship. The ladies in question had decided to buy their space suits from the Ann Summers range, and faster than I could say “Aren’t you cold in that?”, I had selected a difficulty (Normal because, well, old skool, etc) and we were into a mission. It started off slowly, as these games do, so I wasn’t lulled into a false sense of security just yet.
Having taken the time to peruse the instructions (chosen from the main menu by going into help), I knew I had two firing modes and a giant bomb to choose from. Holding the X button on the controller gives what the game calls “Focused Fire” whilst A brings “Normal Fire”, with B being a screen clearing smart bomb. Moving the ship is mapped to the left stick, so off I went. What the instructions failed to mention is that the ship moves slowly in focused fire mode, so switching between the two modes requires a bit of learning in itself.
The game screen is a strip in the middle third of the screen, with the left and right margins being graphical backdrops, which can be customised should you wish. I can honestly say that once the action started, the opportunity to look anywhere other than dead centre is non existent! This has the effect of keeping the action centered and claustrophobic, and once the bullets started flying I found myself wishing for some extra screen to fly into. If you have a telly that can be mounted vertically (because who doesn’t, right?) the developers have got you covered. If you choose “Tate” mode in the graphics options, the entire screen can be utilised, but again scrolling from bottom to top. Sadly my telly doesn’t do this, and trying to play in this mode turns Ghost Blade HD into a side scrolling shooter that doesn’t go so well.
So, onto the first stage and this is where I need to drop you a pro tip: Turn off the Xbox notifications, because nothing in this game will kill you faster than a friend coming online and hiding the bit of the screen where your ship seems to spend most of its time. Enemies come in increasing numbers, and as you shoot them, they drop gold stars and power ups for your ship. These increase the number of turrets you have flying alongside you to increase damage output, or give you three-way fire, depending on your choice of ship. Again, so far, so ‘90s era shoot-em-up. Soon I was fully tooled up, unleashing vibrant laser death on anything that came my way and feeling like a super badass. However, Ghost Blade HD then decided to step its game up to match my new awesomeness, throwing huge turrets that fire green balls of doom, or larger spaceship enemies that fire the lethal pink ovals of despair. This then was the promised bullet hell, and my goodness they weren’t overstating the case.
Bullets by and large come from the top of the screen at the beginning of the stage, but by the end of it they come from every direction, seemingly all at once. Ships that I destroyed were throwing out colossal rings of bullets, and also certain enemies, if they weren’t destroyed quickly enough, were going on Kamikaze runs and trying to ram me. Add to this limited lives, and limited continues, and the recipe for the game appears to be firmly set on the punishing end of the spectrum. For the record, that first run took me four continues to get to the boss, and I killed it on the last life of my last continue. Needless to say, I didn’t last long on my attempt of the second stage.
Bosses at the end of each stage fill the screen and have seemingly impenetrable defenses that come straight out of the ‘90s shoot-em-up book of cliches, and Ghost Blade HD doesn’t pull any punches here either. That first boss was a giant spaceship with two orbiting turrets, each of which can be destroyed. Taking them out actually makes the main body of the ship fire more projectiles at you, but he wasn’t really too much of an issue. It was here that I first noticed a handy side effect of the smart bombs that you can fire. You see, if you have backed yourself into a corner with no possibility of dodging incoming fire (and believe me, this happens all the time) then a smart bomb will not only damage the enemies on screen, but will also destroy all of the bullets coming your way – easy mode actually uses an auto bomb feature for you, setting one off if you are about to die for as long as you have stock. Once they are gone, then obviously the next bullet makes a neat hole in your ship and you die, dropping your power ups and making your next ship stock again. Luckily, when you respawn, the ship is invincible for a brief period, enabling you to grab the power ups again.
This then, is the totality of the game. Shoot some stuff, fight a boss, fight some more stuff, rinse and repeat. The stages vary in enemies and intensity, obviously getting harder as you go on, and score chasing is the hook that will keep you coming back for more. Each time the baddies get the better of you and you need to use a continue, your score is reset to zero, and each time you die your combo counter is reset to zero. The key to the big scores then is, quite obviously, not to die! What could be easier? Besides rocket science and brain surgery, of course…
I’m the first to admit that my reflexes aren’t what they were, being a man of advancing years, but being a thorough kind of reviewer I had to play on both Easy and Hard difficulty. Easy mode is actually doable for me. According to the instructions, the bullets in easy are slowed down by 10% and with the aforementioned auto bomb feature, I could actually get to the end and defeat the final boss. I was shocked to find that there are only five levels in the game, and playing with my son in two Player mode (he’s six and has the reflexes of cat tanked up on Red Bull), we were able to finish the everything Ghost Blade HD has in 20 minutes. A long game this isn’t, but I have to admit I haven’t been able to finish it on Normal difficulty yet, getting to the mid point of stage 5 before running out of lives.
Hard difficulty is another beast altogether. I have never seen as many bullets and projectiles of every hue on the screen before, and I’m happy to report I did manage to complete Stage 1. And only Stage 1, because after that my bottom had a surfeit of caps in it, and I headed back to the safer waters of Normal and Easy. The desire to do better, and to see your name climb the Global Ranking scoreboards is very strong. I’m currently second in the world for my score on Easy mode, and no it doesn’t matter that the game isn’t out as I write this and that there are only seven names on the board!
Audio wise and this game deserves particular mention. The sound effects for the bullets, and the crunching explosions that occur as you take out the enemy ships or succumb yourself are all top notch, and really add to the game. The fast paced, thumping soundtrack also helps in this regard, doing a great job of raising the tension as the levels go on. I’m way too old to know what style of music it is, but the fast beats and electronic effects blend with the shooting to make a tasty cocktail to keep you firing. Plus my 6 year old co-reviewer said that the music was “awesome”, and endorsements don’t come any better than that!
All in the garden isn’t rosy, however. When the action gets busy and hectic (and it does – bullet hell, remember?), the game suffers from some awful slowdown. I don’t expect to see a console of the power of the Xbox One to struggle to cope with a game using a third of the screen with, let’s face it, fairly simple graphics, but it there it is. It’s more pronounced when you aren’t using Focused Fire, and the difference it makes is very large as learning attack patterns and bullet speeds is absolutely crucial to a game like this. Having those suddenly change half way through a level is more than enough to throw you off your stride and lead to some cheap feeling deaths. I even moved the game from one of my external drives to the internal to see if it made a difference and it did slightly improve matters, but the slow down persisted, making the game even harder.
All in all, Ghost Blade HD is a very enjoyable game. It is unashamedly retro, and captures the vibe of the 90’s shoot-em-up very well. The slow down is annoying but isn’t a deal breaker, because with practice it is possible to compensate for it. The addition of the Global Leaderboards brings in the chance for competition, and if you are willing to invest the time to learn the enemies attack patterns, then the chances for score chasing fun go through the roof. With local co-op play and the score attack mode, the 1990s have never looked so good.