Reviews | Naomi
By Alex Kierkegaard / November 13, 2006
After years of producing inspired mahjong titles, Warashi returns to the STG scene in order to cash in on the genre's relative renaissance. Unfortunately for them, it doesn't look like there will be much cashing in to be done, since players are mostly ignoring it. In fact, as happened with MileStone's shooters, Chaos Field and Radirgy, I predict that in less than a year locating an Exelica cab anywhere in Japan will not be an easy task.
The reason for this poor reception is that Triggerheart Exelica is a shooting game where, ideally, you do very little shooting. What you have to do instead is lock on to and capture enemy ships, and then use them as shields and/or throw them at other enemies. Although you do get to use your main shot on occasion, Exelica in fact feels and plays a lot like a puzzle game, and while that in itself is not a bad thing, it goes a long way towards explaining why shooter fans don't seem to like it. The fact that it looks like shit goes the rest of the way.
In any case the capturing mechanic is undoubtedly the game's outstanding aspect, so here's how it works. Much like in Psikyo's Zero Gunner (1997), by holding down the so-called "anchor shoot" button you lock on to whichever enemy you are facing. While in lock-on mode your fire is automatically aimed at your target, regardless of where you are on screen, and your flying speed slows down to a crawl (this is especially useful during boss fights because, similarly to the focused shot in Cave's shooters, it helps you navigate dense bullet patterns with more accuracy). Now the above only holds for ground units and bosses. When you use the anchor shoot against flying enemies something entirely different happens.
Flying enemies can be captured, if you keep the anchor button held down long enough. The larger the enemy the longer the capturing process takes; small ships are captured almost instantly, while larger ones can take up to several seconds (during which time you'll have to keep dodging incoming bullets while unable to return fire). While capturing, a counter appears next to the enemy ship giving you an indication of how long you have to go before the process is completed.
Once you have captured an enemy you have two choices: you can either use him as a shield, or you can fling him back to crash into other enemies. If you use an enemy ship as a shield you have to pay attention to its health bar, which decreases with every hit it absorbs, until the ship finally explodes (the explosion doesn't harm you, but it damages enemies, including ground units and bosses).
Throwing enemies is more complicated. There are two ways to do it, both of which can be useful depending on the circumstances. The easy way is to give the captured enemy ship a slight nudge in one direction, thus causing it to slam into nearby enemies. The hard way is to swing him around you a few times to gain momentum, and then fling him. The second technique may be a bit harder to pull off, but if you do it right you can take out many enemies in one go, and at the same time clear a path through a dense cloud of bullets. Also, by swinging an enemy around continuously you can carry him along with you, to make use of him at a later point (in an approaching boss fight, for example).
And that's more or less how capturing works. There are also power-ups for your main shot as well as the obligatory screen-clearing bombs, both of which are useful initially, though they become largely superfluous once you start using the capturing mechanic to good effect. Oh and I forgot to mention, you get to choose between two selectable characters -- the "Triggerhearts" Exelica and Cruel Tear -- which differ only in shot types: Exelica uses a spread shot while Cruel Tear a linear shot. Apart from that they control identically.
Now the controls take a bit of getting used to, and the fact that the tutorial doesn't animate the on-screen buttons to go along with the instructions doesn't help either. The main difficulty is in the whole swinging thing. This is how it goes.
Once you've captured an enemy you can then hold down the shot button to "reel him in" towards you (which helps if you are planning to use him as a shield), or you can, in addition, start rotating the stick (in either a clockwise or a counter-clockwise direction), to begin the swinging motion. The second option is tough because you have to maintain a steady rhythm to the swing, and also because it renders your character effectively defenseless (dodging is nearly impossible while you are rotating). Releasing the enemy at this point will result in him flying off, away from you, with a velocity determined by your speed of revolution and the direction you are facing when you let go of the anchor button. Another tricky point here is timing the release of the enemy ship so that it goes off in the direction you want it to, instead of simply flying off-screen.
All the above doesn't come naturally, since it's so different to everything else you've played before, and you'll definitely waste a lot of credits getting used to the controls. The good news is that the system works very smoothly once you master it, and is much more fun in practice than reading my explanation or watching the videos would suggest. Warashi's designers deserve a pat on the back here for a job well done; it seems that all those years of making mahjong games have not dulled their STG-creating skills.
Now scoring is the heart of the game, and is also very well-done. Destroyed enemies release yellow items which slowly grow in size, and value, as time goes by. The more of these you collect the higher your score multiplier becomes. Items have to be manually collected, except for those coming from enemies destroyed with a lock-on, which are automatically picked up. A good idea is to often use captured enemies as shields, since all bullets that fall on them turn into items, and are also automatically picked up. In addition, at the end of each stage you receive bonuses for remaining lives and bombs, total number of items collected, and also a weight bonus, which depends on the number and size of the enemies you captured during the stage.
But wait -- there's more! Warashi has designed what it calls a Variable Boss Attack System (V.B.A.S.), which is nothing more than their version of what everyone else calls rank. Basically, the more items in your possession when you reach a boss, the more manic the bullet patterns he throws at you. Again here Warashi should be congratulated for making the workings of this system clear (on their website), so that players can adjust their strategies accordingly, instead of having to waste endless hours experimenting, as is normal with other rank-heavy shooters (e.g. Raizing and Yagawa-designed Cave titles).
All this sounds a bit too complicated, doesn't it? In fact, of all the shooters I've recently played I'd say only Radirgy's system is of comparable complexity. And I find it amusing that both these games make the same fatal mistake, which is to assume that the most important aspect of a shooter is its system, otherwise known as the 'scoring gimmick'. Because, you see, there is a very good reason fans of the genre use the word gimmick to describe the increasingly labyrinthine systems developers invent to differentiate their games from everyone else's. But if the scoring gimmick is not the most important aspect of a shooter, then what is?
To answer this question you have to look at what function the score serves, and how all these complex scoring systems came into being in the first place. The idea originally was that the score should reflect how well you are doing in the game. In the old days it would roughly go along with stage progression, so that by the time you reached the end you would have more or less achieved your maximum score.
More complex systems started appearing throughout the mid- and late-90s, whose main purpose was to add longevity, replaybility and depth to the otherwise relatively shallow shooters, so that players would have a good reason to keep going back to them even after they had seen the ending. Of course this approach would be irrelevant to a crappy shooter, because you wouldn't want to be playing it in the first place, let alone keep going back to it until you'd mastered its system (and on the other hand consider that you would have played R-Type even if the game didn't keep score).
So what makes the difference between a good and a bad shoooter then, if not the scoring system?
Well, it's the difference between something like Ketsui and third-rate efforts like Radirgy: the enemy designs and attack patterns; the "wow" moments when the bosses unleash their destructive firepower; the addictiveness of causing massive damage to enemies and obstacles; the layout of the stages; the music that sets your soul on fire -- all these are things that contribute to making a great shooter. All these are things that Triggerheart Exelica and other recent, similarly uninspired efforts lack.
Warashi assumed that the system was the game's most important aspect, and thus devoted all their time and resources to it, while neglecting EVERY SINGLE other aspect of making a decent shooter. The enemies all look and move like the vaguely mechanical amorphous blobs that they are; your twelve-year-old cousin can draw more memorable bosses, and their bullet patterns are mostly cheap copies of those found in Cave games; the backgrounds are either a muddy mess or look like the inside of a deserted warehouse... there are exactly zero wow moments in the game, and no reason whatsoever to want to see what the next stage holds (more blobs, no doubt). You might as well have been playing in a blank background with vector-shaped enemies, because that's what this feels like; an online flash game with a cool throwing mechanic.
And it's not a matter of polygon counts or flashy effects either. They could have gone for a stylized, minimalist look for example, instead of this amateurish mess (in fact calling the look and design of the game amateurish is an insult to amateurs). The artists and character designers who worked on Exelica really messed the game up, with eye-gouging color schemes and zero personality.
And unfortunately, not only your eyes but also your ears have to suffer while playing this, because annoyingly high-pitched, garbled sound effects abound. The only saving grace is the soundtrack, which is a flashback to the good old 16-bit days of cheap midi synth music.
Making matters worse is the almost complete lack of adrenaline-filled twitch sections, at least if you are playing the game the way it was meant to be played (i.e. by using the capturing mechanic continuously). The pace is slow and methodic, involving lots of strategy and carefully-planned boss milking, and little need for improvisation or good reflexes. Exelica is all pattern, which is why I said at the beginning that it resembles more a puzzle game than a shooter. Its problem is that it's too complex for a shooter and too hard to get into for a puzzle game, and that's why so few people are playing it.
But it's not by any means a complete loss. Swinging the larger enemies around, smashing others and cancelling bullets, while vacuuming up tons of items is an experience unlike that of any other shooting game, and looks pretty damn cool when it gets going. A friend of mine, who doesn't know a thing about shooters, saw me playing one day and was duly impressed. I guess when more people can play this game properly (it takes quite some practice) more players will see that and eventually flock to it.
If Warashi had been smarter about it, and combined their surprisingly well-made capturing system with pure shooting sections, while devoting more effort to the overall design and presentation, they would have had a winner. Hopefully they'll figure all this out and return next time with a game I can wholeheartedly recommend. Let's at least hope they don't give up and go back to making more mahjong games. Doesn't the world have enough of those already?
Screens courtesy of Gpara.com. Thanks to muultra for the Stage 1 video.