• Shikigami No Shiro 2 Review - Nintendo Gamecube

    Alfa System adds to the Gamecube’s meagre shooting line up with Shikigami No Shiro 2, the follow up to a game originally housed on the Japanese PS2 and Xbox, before finally making its way out West as the confusingly monikered Mobile Light Force 2. This sequel eschews such complications and offers enough in the way of gaming treats to make any shooter fan feel like it’s come as a joint birthday and Christmas present.

    From the initial boot sequence to the game over page, virtually everything screams high production values. Beautifully ornate menu screens are clearly presented, with options helpfully written in English. Story cut-scenes are Japanese in both text and voice and can be turned off in the options menu. The menu is standard fare – 5 difficulty levels from Very Easy to Very Hard, 6 screen settings, 4 expanding the vertical play area whilst the last 2 offer a Tate mode to the left or right. A ‘Wait’ option is included, that when activated mimics the slowdown found in the arcade machine, for those players looking for the ‘pure’ experience.

    Each sub-screen taking you closer to the action is adorned with either stunning character art or colourful abstract design in keeping with the Shikigami universe, whilst the character select screen provides portraits of the 8 warriors as well as weapon demonstrations.

    3 weapons make up the player’s arsenal – the main shot, a limited supply of bombs, and the Shikigami attack. The Tension Bonus System from the original game returns in all of its simplicity and cunning - the player is rewarded with a score multiplier the closer they get to enemies or enemy fire. The hit box for each character, where they need to be damaged in order to lose a life, is dead centre, so bullets, enemies and scenery can be ‘buzzed’ for the maximum reward of an x8 multiplier. Tabs are kept on the number of x8 kills achieved, giving the player an idea of how well they’ve worked the system. The x8 graphic quickly becomes an addiction, a validation of skill - whilst x5 or x6 is initially a sign of progression, it quickly serves to taunt the player, reminding them only of points missed. Buzzing not only increases score, but also player firepower; the colour, sound and velocity of the main shot and character aura are altered adding a passionate intensity to the wanton destruction.

    From the very first wave, enemies swoop into the screen from the sides, behind, above and below. Whilst they mostly keep to standard shooter formations - triangles of 3, diamonds of 4, encircling the player, each wave slightly overlaps its predecessor, giving a ‘rolling’, rhythmic feel to proceedings. The further into a level reached, the faster the roll comes – imagine a heartbeat gradually accelerating and you’ll get the idea. It's here that the game sets itself apart from more formulaic shooters, as the player must contain the basic human need to destroy and allow themselves to become engulfed in a rippling blanket of enemies. Allowing the screen to fill with enemies and buckshot is a sure fire way of setting up a high score; leave anything alive too long though, and you’ll find yourself running out of room very quickly. In fact, the only respite offered is at the very beginning of each level and just prior to any boss fight, where the screen empties for a few seconds. Time enough to breathe perhaps, and prepare for the onslaught that inevitably follows.

    Boss fights themselves are suitably manic and also offer a lesson in restraint – the first few bosses can be despatched easily using bombs, but you will miss points in doing so. Huge scores lie in allowing each boss to unleash their fearsome attack, then polishing them off amidst a rain of fire. Indeed, later bosses require rapid switching between attacks in order to make your presence felt, affording the game a status greater than a simple memory test. If the traditional response in the face of great video game adversity is to hold down the auto-fire button, then Shikigami No Shiro 2 takes a decidedly non-traditional stance; it’s for the tactful player to read the situation, then react accordingly.

    Holding the fire button down activates the character’s Shikigami attack, a high-powered assault used to vacuum up coins left by downed enemies. Regardless of player temperament, whether naturally aggressive or defensive, there’s a character/attack combination to suit, and the potential for skill-development is limitless. However, there is a trade-off with use - character movement slows considerably, making it harder to dodge enemy bullets, so tactical potential increases substantially. If ships at the top of the screen unleash a curtain of fire, Kuga can hang back buzzing the shots whilst his Shikigami ghost flies off and destroys the enemies. Yet, if the screen is dense with craft, his ghost can’t move quickly enough to destroy them all. If Niigi comes under heavy fire, her cat shield will absorb bullets and return them to her aggressors tenfold – perfect for frontal assaults, not so good for attacks from behind. Unable to rely solely on any one weapon, the player is forced to utilise all of their skills in order to proceed.

    The risk/reward ratio system adds immeasurable depth to the game. It is fair; despite the high volume of enemies and buckshot, failure only ever rests at the thumbs of the individual. There’s a great deal happening on screen at all times, which could be initially daunting to new players; it may not match the sheer ferocity of enemy numbers as seen in say, the Donpachi series, but it’s not many worlds away. However, it’s never completely overwhelming and there are enough hooks to keep the player coming back for more – it’s simply an exciting game to pick up and play, providing an intense, but progressive experience. None of this would make any difference if the controls were lacking, but thankfully they’re airtight and the game has ‘one more go’ appeal in spades.

    Unfortunately, it’s not all milk and honey. Whilst on the whole very good, at various points the quality of the in-game graphics dips, not quite matching up to the high standard set in the first instance; some enemies lack definition and polish, whilst a couple of backgrounds dip a toe into bland territory. Similar accusations can be levelled at the sound; the music is fitting but not memorable, and the spot effects are functional rather than spectacular. Nothing here seriously detracts from the game itself - rather that it falls victim to its own high standards, so much so that even the smallest detraction is immediately noticeable.

    There is some bonus material included in the title; a practice mode allows any level reached in the main game to be selected, an art gallery showcases further character drawings and a password based online ranking system gives players the chance to find out how they stack against the rest of the world. For the truly masochistic player there’s an Extreme Mode version of the main game, where destroyed enemies leave ‘suicide bullets’ in their wake, as a last ditch attempt to spoil the fun.

    Shikigami No Shiro 2 is exciting, vital and offers a serious challenge. It controls beautifully and the care and attention lavished on it during production finish off an altogether superb package. Does it top the original? Yes, just, making it an essential purchase for any Gamecube owner with even a passing interest in the genre.

    Review by Geoff Denyer
    Score: 8/10
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