Home > Shmup, Xbox Indie > Vorpal [REVIEW]

Vorpal [REVIEW]

Vorpal: released December 30th, 2010
Developer: Red Wolf
Platforms: Xbox Live Indie Game Marketplace

More than any other genre, this generation of games has seen a huge resurgence of platformers. Games like Braid, N+, Super Meat Boy, and countless others have done a phenomenal job of not only keeping the genre alive, but of also keeping it relevant. This generation of platformers is home to some of the most brutally difficult, challenging, and rewarding games of the last decade. For gamers who have long yearned for a return to the days where completing a game could be considered a real, honest to goodness accomplishment, this is outstanding news. That being said, the platformer isn’t the only genre of old that has seen a resurgence in this generation. The shmup (short for shoot’em up) has had a less celebrated comeback, but make no mistake, this new generation of shmups is just as creative, demanding, and satisfying as this new generation of platformers.

Although platformers have had a history of housing some pretty difficult games, seasoned gamers will tell you that traditionally, the shmup has held the title of most insane average difficulty. The genre as a whole is known for not exactly being a stroll in the park, and one subgenre in particular could be considered unquestionably the most ridiculous and over-the-top difficult of them all. I speak of course, of the bullet hell shooter. Games like Ikaruga, Triggerheart Exelica, or really anything from developer Cave, who specializes in the creation of the most sadistic bullet hell shooters around. These games, these tests of skill and willpower, will throw innumerable waves of bullets at you, in all shapes, all sizes, from all directions. Typically they’ll come in a variety of patterns that you must navigate, sometimes having barely a hairs breadth to squeeze through. The miniscule movements and insanely fast swarms of bullets can make these games almost mesmerizing when observed being played by someone who really knows what they’re doing.

Vorpal, is one such bullet hell game, though it is unique in that it is also a boss-rush game. Instead of having entire levels to traverse, Vorpal pits you against various bosses whose onslaughts you must navigate. Each boss character has specific patterns and “moves” that you must learn to combat. The screen will fill almost completely with bullets, requiring you to move ever so carefully through the dangerous webs sewn by your opponent. The movements required to navigate between these “bullet webs” can be so finite, that the developers have even added in the ability to hold down a trigger to slow the movements of your ship, allowing you to maneuver more precisely between tightly knit enemy bullets.

If you hadn’t gleaned as much by now, let me just make it a point to say that this game is difficult. In the realm of the bullet hell shooter, it’s nowhere near the top of the food chain, but don’t fool yourself, this game is not for the feint of heart. If you don’t enjoy being challenged by your games, or if you’ve never had much heart for the Radiant Silverguns or Gradius’ of the world, then Vorpal is unlikely to change your mind. It’s got an entirely unique style and does a lot to set itself apart from it’s brothers in the genre, but you’re still primarily just dodging hellish waves of bullets in an attempt to gauge just how far you can push your suppressed masochistic urges.

That said, if you are a fan of shmups and enjoy a good challenge, Vorpal is an outstanding experience. It’s not quite as overwhelmingly hard as it’s siblings, but that could be considered a good thing as the level of challenge present in Vorpal seems to strike a pitch perfect balance of being exceptionally difficult, but not so difficult that you want to chuck your controller through a window and curse the day you ever heard it’s name. The striking red, white, and black color palette of the game makes the on screen action easy to follow. Many times in games like these there will be so much going on that it can occasionally become overwhelming and you’ll end up losing track of the various bullet patterns you’re supposed to be navigating. In Vorpal, thanks to the distinctive color choices, bullet patterns are still complex, but they’re not muddled and mixed in with the backgrounds. You can see the perfect dance of bullets orchestrating itself back and forth, round and round, challenging you to survive. If you fall prey to their dance, you have no one to blame but yourself, as the display was perfectly clear in front of you. When you die, it is almost always a fair death, and all that is required to progress is a bit of practice and a positive outlook.

The meat and potatoes of Vorpal is it’s Story Mode. Essentially you choose whichever character you’d like to play as, and then you commence your journey of shooting it out against a variety of other colorful characters. That’s it. You dance around storms of bullets, get lost in the mesmerizing patterns, and return fire. Different characters have different ships, and as a result will shoot different styles of bullets. A result of this is that some characters make the game a bit easier depending on your playstyle, whether you prefer a wider spread or a more focused stream on your bullets. After you burn through all of your opponent’s shields you will claim victory and move on to the next boss. Alternatively there’s a Versus Mode where you can just choose one boss to play against, instead of having to go through an entire gauntlet of bosses.

As with any good shmup, Vorpal also possesses a score system. At the end of each match, you will be given a rank, in addition to your score. Your rank is completely dependant on your survive bonuses (how quickly you can defeat each boss), and whether or not you entered Danger State (essentially the last leg of your life). Keep in mind, the only way to obtain the highest rank, is to achieve a Perfect Bonus, which means not letting a single bullet scratch your core. No simple task, but certainly a good deal easier in Vorpal than in many other games of its ilk. Also interesting to note is that it is possible to defeat your enemies by simply surviving their attack phases, but the resulting score and rank won’t exactly be something to write home about. And lets get real here, this is a shmup. Anybody who knows what’s what in the world of shoot’em ups knows that putting up impressive scores is sortof a big deal. So no beating around the bush!

The visuals and sounds of Vorpal are worthy of great praise. The stylish menu designs are slick and easy to navigate. I also enjoyed the robotic computer voice that echoes whatever option you select in the menu, though isn’t a huge deal, it is a nice effect that lends itself to the overall quality feel of the title. The music here is fantastic as well. Lots of trippy hardstyle/trance, which is especially great if you’re a giant electronica nerd such as myself. The music does a great job of setting the mood of the game even if you’re not particularly interested in electronica itself, so if you’ve got any hangups about the genre, don’t worry, it fits. The character select screen is a great example of the obvious care that developer Red Wolf put in to the design of this game. Each character has his or her own theme music that you’ll hear when you battle against them, which is a fantastic touch in a smaller indie title like this one. The game obviously had a lot of love put in to its development and it definitely shows.

Speaking of extra special touches, Red Wolf really went the extra mile to try and flesh out this experience as best they could, going so far as to add a Gallery for the art and music and a Story menu where you can read the story for Vorpal to see what events led up to this game. The Gallery contains portraits for the ships as well as portraits for each of the characters, their names, backstories, and of course each of their individual theme songs. The art style of this game is truly fantastic, so while the gallery is small, it’s commendable that they added it in there at all. And that’s to say nothing of letting us listen to the songs for each of the characters! The music in this game is energetic and very well done, so kudos to Red Wolf for going the extra mile to add these bonuses. As far as the Story menu is concerned, as with the gallery, it’s a nice touch, and I’m certainly not against additional content, but I really must admit, I didn’t care terribly much for this option. For all of it’s accomplishments, this game does have one horribly glaring fault, which is the writing. It’s painfully hard to stomach, even by the lowly standards already set by the rest of the shmup genre. Thankfully I don’t play shmups for the story, so it did very little to detract from my overall experience. Still, while I commend Red Wolf for packin on the extras, I’d say this particular option will go mostly un-noticed.

Behind the rise of the platformers is the resurgence of an oft-less appreciated genre known as the bullet hell shooter, and among the ranks of this resurgence is Vorpal. A game that is the very definition of a hidden gem. The Xbox Live Indie Game Marketplace is a dangerous market to reside in. Advertising for games in this market is almost nonexistent, and the prospect of wading through the oceans of turds is universally unappealing to most sane gamers. It takes a good deal of digging to find those games on the XBLIG Market that are truly worth your attention, and if you’ve ever had even a passing interest in the realm of the shoot’em up, Vorpal is exactly the kind of treasure that makes all that digging finally worth it. With a wildly unique art style, exciting electronic soundtrack, and a unique boss-rush style take on the genre, Vorpal has turned out to be one of my favorite indie games of all time. Sometimes games come along that just hit all the right notes. For the platformers, I can say that Super Meat Boy and Splosion Man both did that for me, and now, with the exception of the abysmal writing, I can say that Vorpal has done for shmups what those games did for the platformers. Vorpal may not be the only stand out shmup of this generation, but it damn well left the biggest impression.

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