- Publisher: Rising Star Games
- Developer: Cave
- ESRB Rating: “T" for Teen
- Genre: Shoot-Em-Up
- Pros: Excellent precision gameplay; awesome scoring system; lots of content; two distinctly different modes
- Cons: Serious slowdown; tutorial is hidden
There is a story here but, it doesn't matter so I'll spare you the details. It doesn't involve goth lolis (DeathSmiles) or large breasted moe girls riding their ships into combat (Otomedius Excellent), at least, so it does have that going for it. Instead it is sort of World War II-era airplanes - with some extra special features of course - fighting against tanks and choppers and ships and mostly normal things, at least until you fight the superpowered human boss enemies at the end of each stage.
Akai Katana has one set of levels that you can play in two very different modes either solo or in co-op. There are also three selectable characters, each with their own unique shot patterns and abilities. The two modes are Origin and Slash, and even though you play through the same levels in each, they play vastly different from each other. There is also a third mode, Climax, which is an ultra hard version of Origin. In addition, there are training modes, a novice difficulty (that is still hard), leaderboards, and replay mode where you can watch the top scorers in the world on their playthroughs. Each of the modes only takes less than 30 minutes to play through, but the key to these sort of games is replaying everything over and over again to try to get high scores, so the brevity of the campaign doesn't matter much. The game has infinite continues, but you lose your high score when you continue which keeps things in balance so you're rewarded for playing well but it isn't so unforgiving that novice players can't get through it.
The basics of the game are like any other bullet hell shooter. There are lots of brightly colored bullets flying around the screen and you have to somehow manage to dodge them all while also firing your own projectiles at enemies to destroy them. Akai Katana does a good job of making this as easy as possible (and easy is a relative term here) by clearly marking your ship's hit box - a small glowing bit in the middle that is the only thing that will take damage - and by making sure all of the enemy bullets are distinct from your own hail of bullets flying across the screen. This makes it easy to keep track of where you are and what you actually need to dodge, something that a lot of other shmups don't do such a good job of. Akai Katana is still bloody difficult, but it is easier to play and get into, which makes a world of difference.
In Origin mode defeating enemies gives you little energy powerups that float around your ship as long as you hold the fire button, and when you release it the energy is stored in your meter. You need that energy to power your phantom form. Here is the important bit, your phantom form is the only form you can earn gold powerups in, which exponentially raises your score. Your phantom form also is invincible as long as you have energy, which is a safe way to navigate the hundreds of bullets onscreen at once at times. The flip side to this, however, is that while the bullets don't hit you, they sort of hover around you until your shield runs out, at which point they can kill you (unless you bounce them back at enemies ...). Origin mode is a constant back and forth between building up energy, trying to score as high as possible while in phantom form, and using phantom to deflect bullets. It is flat out crazy.
Slash mode changes things up by introducing steel and katanas in addition to the energy and gold powerups flying all over the screen. The idea here is that while in normal form you tap the attack button, which causes enemies to drop steel powerups. Pick up enough steel and when you switch to phamtom mode, the steel turns into giant awesome katanas that slowly fly across the screen, killing everything in their way and dealing out massive damage. You still have to pick up normal energy to power your phantom mode, however, so Slash mode becomes a fun back and forth between collecting energy with one type of shot, collecting steel with another type of shot, and then switching to phantom mode to dish out as much damage as possible in order to earn points. You can also build up hit combos into the thousands, which is awesome. Of the two modes, Slash is definitely the more interesting one and the one where we spent most of our time.
One important thing to note is that these mechanics are kind of confusing (and I probably didn't do a great job explaining any of it ...), which is why you should check out the tutorial videos in the game before you start playing. Or, do like I did and play through the game a few times before you discover the tutorial videos and then be completely amazed at how different playing the game is when you first start versus when you actually know what you're doing. Why didn't I know what I was doing for so long? Because the tutorial videos are only accessed by pressing "B" on the start menu, something that isn't actually indicated anywhere within the game itself. I found it on accident, but when I did finally see the videos and learn how the heck to actually play, all of a sudden Akai Katana was a whole new (and very addictive) ball game. It was honestly fun enough even when I didn't know what I was doing, but knowing how to score and play properly put it at a totally different level. It went from just another shmup, to easily my favorite one on Xbox 360.
One slight complaint I do have is that there is some massive slowdown when things get really crazy. It may or may not be intentional - the slowdown does help you squeeze through some tight places easier - but it is honestly more of a distraction than anything to have the game grind down to single digit FPS. It only happens at certain points in a couple of levels, but it is really bad.
The presentation is nice and straightforward. We like that the game only takes a few seconds to get to the menu once you start it up, which is awesome in this era where every game has a dozen developer logos or copyright pages or something before you actually get to play. Akai Katana starts up nice and quick. The menus are clean and easy to understand. The gameplay, as mentioned above, is sharp looking and easy to see what you're doing. It has to be noted that the Origin mode is 4:3 size while Climax and Slash are both 16:9 and fill the screen. The sound isn't anything particularly special with decent music, lots of explosions, and the cries of your character as they use a bomb (and/or die ...). The dialogue is all in Japanese.
In the end, Akai Katana is one of the best shoot-em-ups on Xbox 360, which is saying something since there are a lot of good ones on the system already. It isn't just about surviving through bullet hell, either, it also has some great and addictive scoring mechanics that really sink their teeth into you and keep you playing. You can buy a physical copy of the game for under $20 used, but you can also buy it for $25 as a download on Xbox 360 Games on Demand. For a game you're likely going to end up playing a lot, paying a little extra for the convenience of always having it on your hard drive might just be worth it. No matter which way you get your hands on it, Akai Katana is a great shmup that we highly recommend for a purchase.