Insomnia | Reviews

Espgaluda II


By Alex Kierkegaard / December 2, 2006

For the first few weeks after Espgaluda II was released I found myself more or less beginning and ending each day with it. I'd visit Akihabara's Hey arcade early in the morning to get a couple of credits in before a line started forming, and then I'd go back late at night for a few more credits before closing time. During that period Cave's latest was all I cared about gaming-wise; everything else I cast aside or put on hold without a second thought.

At one point I was waiting in line together with an acquaintance (Gaijin Punch from gamengai -- a well-known connoisseur of all things Espgaluda), and we both couldn't help but wonder at how much more exciting this game looks than its predecessor. I am sure we felt that way because both of us had played the original to death by that point, but when I saw the two running side-by-side (in Hey's always thoughtfully laid-out STG section) all I could think of was how Galuda II makes the original seem... well, almost boring.

And that's some praise for the sequel coming from someone who holds the first game in such high regard. Because any way I looked at it, Espgaluda (2003) had it all: killer artwork and character design, a hi-tech medieval theme immaculately pulled off, the genius Kakusei mode, an adrenaline-pumping synthpop soundtrack -- and even a wonderful PS2 port that helped introduce the game to a wider international audience. How could something so good possibly get any better?

But if there's one company that knows how to improve on a masterpiece it's got to be Cave, with its Donpachi series a textbook example of how to evolve a game dramatically, while keeping intact all the good things that made it a success in the first place. And Espgaluda II is much like that: bigger, harder, prettier, and more complex than its predecessor. And though clearly not as great a step forward as the Donpachi sequels were from each other, that's not exactly a major criticism, nor should it be surprising. This is Cave's first game with a Roman numeral in the title, after all. No one can say they weren't warned.

What eventually happened was that Galuda II made me see minor shortcomings in the first game I hadn't even considered as such before. How, for example, most of the bosses in Espgaluda are really just generic mechanical contraptions -- not nearly as memorable as the distinct winged characters you go up against in this game. Or how the difficulty in Espgaluda suddenly jacks up near the end -- whereas here it smoothly ramps up throughout, giving a tougher, longer-lasting challenge overall, but starting out almost as easy and accessible as the first game.

Drawing such comparisons between the two games, and always deciding in favor of the sequel, is only natural of course, since Espgaluda II simply raises the bar across the board; whether we are talking about the depth of the system, the graphics, the music, or the attention to detail. As far as the graphics go this is several steps ahead of even Mushihime-sama (2004) -- a praiseworthy accomplishment considering how unreal that game looked when it first came out. But the new Hitachi SH-3-based board seems to be something of a 2D-rendering beast, whose power was only partially exploited in Mushihime, then underutilized in the recent, technically-unimpressive Ibara, and which is now for the first time finally unleashed to show its true potential. The enemies here are large and numerous, the sprites and backgrounds more detailed than ever, and the bullet count often exceeds 500 -- and all that with none of the unintentional, and at times slightly irritating, slowdown that was found in the latter stages of Mushi.

The artwork itself is refined and graceful; if purple and brown were the main colors in Espgaluda here a vivid yellow dominates, contrasting against the deep blue -- almost violet -- hues of the water in the second stage, the grey stones of the towering ramparts of the third, and the blossoming orange clouds of the brilliant explosions throughout. Though some of the stages have similar themes to those of the first game (the town, the castle, the heavily-fortified base), here their look is pulled off with much more style and flair. The cobblestone streets you fly over are more richly textured; the lofty spires of the castles and towers even loftier (so much so, in fact, that the fortress of the third stage is suspended in mid-air, reminding us of the giant battleship in the corresponding stage of the first game), while I can almost swear that the heavily armored enemy vehicles glint under the bright light of some unseen sun.

In the weeks leading up to game's release there were reports of outstanding animation work, which have surprisingly turned out to be true. Look at how smoothly the ship-mounted cannons rotate in the second stage, or at the little flapping wings that some of the larger, flying enemies possess -- to say nothing of the exquisiteness of the butterfly siblings themselves (there are three selectable characters this time, with the third Galuda, Asagi, joining the now grown-up Ageha and Tateha). And after several hundred credits I've yet to get over how cool the enormous glowing wings of the boss characters look, and how gracefully they undulate -- and even the mecha bosses (such as the armor-covered four-headed dragonsnake of the second stage) have turned out much more interesting this time round.

And beyond all that, Ikeda's team has used every special effect and showy technique in the book to make their new game stand out visually, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they've invented at least a couple of new ones. The screen scrolls not only forwards but also backwards, to the sides and diagonally; backgrounds rotate before certain showdowns, or totally change look during others, and when you enter or leave Kakusei Zesshikai (the new mode, more on which later) they are momentarily filtered using a cool negative-print effect, which is appropriately more flashy than what is used for the regular Kakusei modes in both Galudas.

As for the details, well, look at Ageha's rapier shot, with bolts of white energy weaving up and down its twin lasers, and tell me it's not the prettiest weapon you've seen in a shooter. Where can I start -- the dust rolling off the buildings at the start of Stage 2? The splashes of water when the first boss checks out, or the cherry blossom leaves that fill the screen when the third one does? Even the gems and gold which you collect, and the game's signature screen-filling multipliers, look more rich and detailed this time round. If I was forced to nitpick I'd point out that the game could have used some more variation in enemy types, but apart from that everything else is as perfect as it gets. In the top ten best-looking 2D games list which I've yet to put together Espgaluda II easily ranks alongside such polished gems as Dai Makaimura (1988), Alien vs. Predator (1994) and SNK's Gekka no Kenshi games. Among the desert of ugly 3D shooters you encounter in arcades these days this game is an oasis for weary, jaded eyes.

And this attention to detail is not limited to the graphics; it's nice to see that rapid-fire support is now standard and doesn't have to be hacked in by the arcade operators, or how you can choose between two different control schemes at the start. Even the soundtrack is an improvement; less catchy and more refined than that of the first title, with Manabu Namiki taking over from N.T and coming up with new tunes in the spirit of the original, as well as remixing some of the old ones at certain points. The third stage track is again by far the most memorable (which is something of a tradition for Cave, going back all the way to Donpachi), and the boss music is simply tension-enhancing awesomeness. Everywhere you care to look the game is impeccable, and by far the most polished Cave production yet.

About the only real criticism I could level at this second Galuda concerns its system, which is even more complex than that of the original -- itself as complex as a shooter can get without its title starting with "Battle" and ending with "Garegga". Thankfully I had Gaijin Punch explain it to me (who has since posted a detailed strategy guide in the Shmups forum), otherwise I would have spent weeks trying to figure everything out on my own (in my defence, though, I had to keep pumping coins, whereas GP has bought the arcade board to play at home).

So what's the deal with the system, then? Well, you see, Tsuneki Ikeda, Cave's star director and chief programmer, seems to take pride in evolving a game's system whenever he does sequels, something which goes to his credit, I suppose. The problem when tinkering with an already perfectly functioning system, however, is that there's a chance you might break it. And while this game's system is certainly not broken, it doesn't work quite as naturally as that of the original -- at least not at first (just the fact that I am calling Espgaluda's system 'natural' shows how a few hundred hours of playing a game will distort one's powers of judgement).

The problem comes with this new mode called Kakusei Zesshikkai. Espgaluda II retains all the modes of the first game -- Normal, Kakusei Shikai, Kakusei Shikai Over -- but adds this new mode (with its Over variant) which changes significantly the way you go about scoring high. Everything else works more or less exactly as before: you have the regular and rapier shots, the guard barrier, the gem and gold counters, and you still switch between modes at a touch of the Kakusei button -- but now by holding it down for a second longer you enter the dreaded Kakusei Zesshikai.

Now in this new mode bullets are again slowed down and turn purple in color, as in regular Kakusei Shikai, but when you cancel them (by destroying the enemies which fired them) they do not just disappear. What happens is that they spawn even more bullets, which instantly change direction and head straight for you, regardless of where you are on screen. So now even bullets that have passed you cannot be safely ignored! What's more, in Zesshikai, enemies keep spewing fiercer bullet patterns than in any other mode.

As you might imagine this whole setup is extremely challenging, and there really is no point in playing this game if you are not at least fairly competent in the first one. Because those who've never played the original will have a hard time lasting more than a couple of seconds in Zesshikai -- not to mention how impossible they'll find trying to understand what all these baffling modes do while several hundred angry bullets are chasing them around the screen.

So why go into this new mode at all then, if it's so much harder? Well, you see. while the multiplier for cancelled bullets goes up to 100 in Kakusei, in Zesshikai it goes up to 500. So if you simply play the game as you would play its predecessor (something which is entirely possible -- you can 1CC it without ever going into Zesshikai, or even, as before, without ever even using the Kakusei button) your score will be about five times less than if you used Zesshikai to good effect.

Apart from scoring then there's really no other reason to use this mode (perhaps with the exception of a couple of spots in the latter stages, which are actually tackled a bit more easily by switching deftly between the various modes), and this is the problem. A shooter's system is much more elegant when its correct use benefits both survival and scoring at the same time, as games like Giga Wing (1999), Shikigami no Shiro (2001), and of course the first Galuda, have demonstrated. Because Zesshikai doesn't do this it feels as if it was tacked-on just in order to add depth to the system, and so justify the sequel in they eyes of demanding Cave fans.

One more reason the new system is less elegant is that, if you exploit it properly, it makes the regular Kakusei mode largely superfluous. Watch the superplay video and you'll see what I mean -- the player hardly ever uses it. It would have been much preferable to completely substitute the old Kakusei mode for the new one (though of course in that case they would have had to make more changes to how the gems and gold work) instead of having both, which leads to new players keeping away from the new mode, and experienced ones almost completely ignoring the old one.

The upshot is that the system is even more flexible than before, while at the same time retaining its unique style and flow. Once you become familiar with it you still find yourself switching back and forth between modes, looking for big scoring opportunities and planning carefully your route through a stage, only this time you have a lot more to think about (because in Zesshikai not only gems but also gold is depleted).

Zesshikai is something of an acquired taste -- in videos it looks slow and boring, and when you first try it out it will seem cumbersome and hard to exploit in order to increase your score (indeed, initially your score will probably take a dive as a result of using it), but stick with it and you'll eventually get hooked into its distinct brand of start-stop manicness. And when you feel like playing the whole game as an exercise in adrenaline-filled twichiness, you can just go into the super-fast Overmode in the beginning and forget entirely about the Kakusei button. Playing Espgaluda II in this way will give you just as much of a challenge as a DOJ or a Ketsui.

So the system is not the epitome of elegance and can be somewhat hard to adjust to, but it works great once you get used to it, and is deeper and much more challenging than before, and the bottom line is I'll take it any day over Mushi's asinine piano-playing, or Ibara's postgraduate course in "Experimental Rank Mechanics". The fact that the stages, enemies and bullet patterns offer so much variety and character, the graphics are so dazzling and the music so dynamic, all add up to one hell of a package. And though this is not the best Cave shooter yet -- I can easily come up with half a dozen other titles more deserving of this distinction -- it's definitely the most refined and polished one. Espgaluda II is Cave showing off where a decade of single-minded pursuit of excellence will get you. Here's to the next ten years being just as fruitful.

Superplay video courtesy of Minamo no Tsuki.