If you want a handy cribsheet for which of Psikyo’s shoot ’em up’s to buy, it’s this: go for the games that are in ALL CAPS. For reasons that are purely coincidental, the best of the best are GUNBIRD, GUNBIRD 2 and TENGAI. Psikyo is at its best when it’s shouting.
TENGAI is, confusingly enough, the second in the Samurai Aces series. We made the mistake of playing Samurai Aces III first, thinking that the new custodians of the series, City Connection, had neglected to release the second. But no: this is a continuation of the Samurai Aces series, but it chooses to lean on the name of one of its main characters – the battle-hardened monk Tengai – rather than keep the brand going. Perhaps they thought they would confuse some Tenchu fans in the process.
TENGAI is also not your typical Psikyo game. This is evident from the first few seconds, as it opts for horizontal shooting over vertical. It’s not completely alien to Psikyo – Sol Divide and Samurai Aces III do the same – but it was a deviation for a development house that didn’t really deal in deviations. Once you’ve played a Psikyo game, you’ve got a good understanding of all of them.
But while the perspective might have shifted (the aspect ratio is also expanded, taking up the majority of your widescreen TV, give or take a couple of thin margins), the formula is intact. You are picking your choice of hero, then catapulting yourself right into the action, with short levels that are three-quarters disposable enemies, and one-quarter hulking behemoth, as a boss eclipses most of the screen and tosses salvo after salvo of missiles at you. They tend to be multi-phased, shedding armour and forms as you whittle away at their defenses.
The bosses in TENGAI are unsurpassed among Psikyo’s back-catalogue. They’re absolutely stellar in all aspects. A wolf-train gets derailed, falling into lava before jettisoning a kind of skull helicopter to face you. A giant mech can only be seen one limb at a time, before exploding to reveal a Godzilla with a visible brain for you to pummel. It’s like a Michael Bay wet dream, and they’re just as good to fight as they are to encounter, since each phase requires a different approach and replies with a novel set of attacks.
There’s nothing particularly new in the attacks you have at your disposal. It’s the same combination of power-ups, which stack up to make you a commanding force, and smart bombs, which simultaneously clear the battlefield of enemies and protect you from some – if not all – of the incoming attacks.
Both the attacks and the smart bombs are character-specific, so there’s reason to play multiple times with different characters. The characters also have little familiars with them too: animals that contribute to the attacks. Tengai (we assume we have to shout his name: TENGAI) has a wee falcon who supplements his necklace-attacks (we have no other name for them: they look like pearl rosaries). His smart bomb is a super-saayan beam that is utterly devastating and miles better than any other attack we discovered. Miko has an inari fox, and fires what looks like paper at enemies, with a smart bomb that is a reasonably ineffective kanji bomb.
We played four characters to completion, and they’re a tad uneven. As mentioned, Miko’s smart bomb is too area-locked (you have to hope that enemies wander into the yield), and characters like Katana are rubbish across the board. His chain lightning smart bomb seems exceptionally weak, and his spear familiars are equally ineffective. You could argue that they’re built in difficulty settings, but TENGAI has those already.
But perhaps the most major quibble with TENGAI is that the main characters feel slow. Perhaps it has something to do with the new horizontal viewpoint, and some psychological impact of that, but we found that maneuverability wasn’t as hot as in, well, all the other Psikyo titles. These are swift, agile little shmups, and TENGAI feels like it has gone down a single gear from all the others. It’s noticeable, but not game-sinking.
The story’s as good as Samurai Aces, in that it’s terrible: once again, you’re assaulting a floating citadel, but at least there’s an objective this time. You’re a mercenary looking to save a princess. So, we’re porting in the plot from Super Mario. Luckily, the branching is an absolute doozy. Not only are the levels random, with enough extra levels to mean that you can’t quite predict what you will face, but the ending level is up to you. You can storm the front gates (leading to – at least in our experience – a more selfish ending), or you can take the side entrance or subterranean one (different characters have different choices). This tends to lead to the ‘good’ ending. The choice, which is by no means a given in a Psikyo game, is great, and gives you two times the reasons to replay.
And you will replay, because the variation in levels and characters is niftily stark. We immediately restarted again and again and again, as we found a compulsion to see different endings and test ourselves on other difficulties. On that note, TENGAI is perfectly pitched. It’s not as easy as the GUNBIRD series, and not as savage as Strikers 1945 III. It’s found a sweet spot, and is camped there.
Having reversed back to play TENGAI after Samurai Aces III, we can say with confidence that you should stop here. It definitely doesn’t get better after this. TENGAI is the zenith of the Samurai Aces series, and it’s one of Psikyo’s finest. Who knew a game featuring a flying battle-monk could be so entertaining?
You can buy TENGAI from the Xbox Store