Bullet-hell shooters are a very specific breed of game, one that usually requires a very specific group of players to enjoy them. Whilst anyone can of course jump on in, chances are the only ones who will really enjoy them are those who either like being the ultimate underdog in an overbearing battle, or those who have mastered cat-like reflexes and see each title as a test to prove nothing is impossible. Surprisingly though, despite having been the interest of a rather niche market for some time, recent years have seen these types of games rising in popularity. With another recently arriving on Xbox One, I jumped in to see if I had the necessary reflexes or if I’d simply be throwing my controller across the room in rage.
If you’ve played games like the Sky Force series or even the multiple Raiden titles that have appeared on Xbox One either natively or via backward compatibility, then you’ll be familiar with the gameplay on offer in Shikhondo: Soul Eater. For those unaware what that means though, Shikhondo is played as a scrolling bullet-hell shooter and is a game from the genre which requires players to have nimble fingers, quick reactions and the skill of a god if they hope to make any decent progress.
There are six different game modes to get stuck into; Arcade Mode, Boss Rush, Local Co-op, Hardcore, Novice, and Custom all available from the off. Arcade Mode is the obvious starting point of choice – simply because it sounds like the most fulfilling out of the options available. The goal here is to survive five unique levels of monumental bullet-spraying madness, each of which require you to take down the many enemies that litter the screen, before entering a 1-on-1 showdown with the monstrous bosses at the end in a bid to claim their souls.
It’s hardly unusual to see a bullet-hell game that doesn’t come with a narrative driven campaign attached, at the very least, but it would have been nice to have had some kind of a story, or at the very least an explanation as to why you are expected to put yourself through the torture of fighting through multiple monstrous bosses. Unfortunately, Shikhondo: Soul Eater doesn’t exactly deliver on this front, and whilst there is plenty of scope for a story to exist through a finely detailed art style, and two unique characters for players to choose from, it seems the opportunity has been sadly missed.
Fortunately, things aren’t all doom and gloom though, because what Shikhondo lacks in story, it more than makes up for in gameplay itself and is a blast to play, even if the Arcade Mode is only a very brief 30 minutes to an hour-long experience to complete the overall goal.
The focus of gameplay comes down to your ability to be able to dodge the hundreds of bullets being fired in your direction at any given second, as you try to maintain a flow of direct hits on the enemies. At first this looks like a monumental task as the characters you play as aren’t exactly small when compared to just how much room there is on the playfield. Fortunately though, you don’t have to worry about bullets hitting your character but rather the small glowing circle that sits within the centre of each one. This small dot represents what you are actually controlling and with movement proving rather fast and fluid, even an entirely full screen of bullets can be dodged with ease on the easier difficulties.
To get through each level though, you’ll need to rely on more than just some fine manoeuvring skills to get you out of the spot of bother you find yourself in. To help with this players have the option of a couple of attacks; holding the A button will spray a never-ending barrage of bullets at angles across the screen if you are playing as the character known as ‘Grim Reaper’, whilst holding it with ‘The Girl’ will see a more focused line of fire that guides itself toward enemies.
Throw a press of the right trigger into the mix and all those stray bullets will immediately come into a concentrated line of fire directly in front of you. This is great against bosses, but it also slows down movement speed so isn’t best when trying to navigate a minefield of bullets.
The other option comes from filling your Soul Gauge. This is filled by being close to enemy bullets and once full, players can unleash a devastating Soul attack that immediately eliminates all enemy bullets onscreen; if anything, it is a great tactic for boss fights when things start to become overbearing.
Should things go wrong though, Shikhondo does at least have a little bit of heart in there and the option to continue should you find yourself losing all of your lives is very welcome.
That’s generally all there is to the gameplay, and whilst it sounds rather simplistic – and it is when compared to other bullet-hell shooters – the sheer beauty of the game makes for some rather unexpectedly peaceful yet action-packed gameplay. With bullets that are often fired in patterns that, although predictable, require concentration to avoid, Shikhondo’s gameplay starts to feel more like a respectable ballet rather than a unforgiving and brutal shooter. Mix that with the incredible Japanese art-style that covers the borders of the screen, and the soothing, yet upbeat music in the background, the game really starts to feel unique and original – something that’s not easy in a market that’s quickly becoming saturated with bullet-hell adventures.
Before I let you head on over to the Xbox Store to pick up your copy of Shikhondo: Soul Eater, let me fill you in on what else is on offer. The addition of the five other modes seem to make the price point more warranted.
So of course Novice and Hardcore are pretty much self-explanatory, but just in case you were still wondering, Novice is the mode to go to if you simply want to appreciate the natural beauty of Shikhondo: Soul Eater. Hardcore meanwhile is a little more in-depth and this one gives you just one life from which to complete the game. There are no continues allowed here, but your Soul Gauge will now charge twice as fast.
Custom on the other hand allows players to tailor their own difficulty and experience – albeit with limited options, whilst Boss Rush is the one to go to if you want a truly epic challenge as this pits players against the five bosses one after the other. That’s five bosses, with two boss forms for each to take down one after the other. Yeah, rather you than me.
Whether that’s enough to warrant an immediate purchase though or whether you’d prefer to wait for a sale is up to you, but if you want a unique and oddly original title that will leave a memorable impression, then Shikhondo: Soul Eater is one you need in your collection. With a beautiful art style accompanying the game from the menus to the final boss, gameplay that’s smoother than dancing on ice and able to provide plenty of opportunity for replayability with its increasingly challenging difficulties and numerous game modes, this is a game that shouldn’t be missed if bullet-hell shooters are your type of thing.