Deathsmiles is the latest in a series of fantastic shoot-em-ups (“shmups” for short) that have trickled out onto PC. These additions are gems, especially for fans of the genre, because they have typically been rare, expensive, and in some cases limited to the Japanese market. Making the move to PC allows the beef and performance to make up wherever the console ports of the past (Dreamcast, Xbox 360, etc.) were lacking and gives them a legacy home that doesn’t need to conform to console cycles. Deathsmiles also comes from the developer Cave, pioneers in the arcade shmup, and a new take for the company as it’s a horizontal shooter, sidekicks known as familiars, and takes on a heavy Halloween gothic theme. Whenever I get into a discussion about Deathsmiles I feel it’s often attacked by genre fans for being a so-called “cute-em-up” and the relatively low initial difficulty. I couldn’t disagree more. Deathsmiles is a fantastic shooter. Despite the normal difficulty swaying easier for fans of danmaku or “bullet hell” shmups and the teenage anime girl theme, this game is as heart pounding and hardcore as it comes. Not only that, but there is so much content packed into here that you’ll hardly be without something to do.
Originally released in fall 2007 to Japanese arcades – most of the US arcades had already gone the way of the dodo – Deathsmiles was a change of pace for Cave and gave a lighthearted festive spin to the the company’s next title. Aside from the horizontal perspective, the game was notable for having familiars, a partner that assisted in absorbing damage, shooting enemies, and rotating the character sprite. In addition the hit boxes – collision detection for a playable sprite and other enemies or bullets – were only in the core of the girl so her head, arms, and legs could graze enemies and bullets without suffering a hit. To balance this, enemies come at you from both directions, forcing you to learn how to repeat a mirrored version of a dodge pattern and readjust on the fly. You also don’t have lives but rather a life bar that is constantly in a tug-of-war mechanic between damage and restoration. It all comes together in a tense but enticing shmup that allows you to be as handicapped or hardcore as you wish, which to me makes it ideal for both shmup fans and non-fans alike. In 2009 the game saw worldwide release on the Xbox 360 and I don’t think it sold well. Back when I picked it up I had been warned by shmup fans that I wouldn’t be that impressed and when compared to other titles it didn’t quite hold up, but they always mentioned that it was a great package for the price. Deathsmiles would frequently become my method of catharsis after a long stressful day at work or solace when I was worried about life affairs. I even had to laugh when hunting for my 360 copy to compare to this version only to find the disc in my system, seemingly from some one-off a few months ago. I think the struggle Deathsmiles faces is that there’s something that makes shmup fans avoid it – and as a self-proclaimed shmup fan I can’t figure it out – and gamers may write it off as another heavy Japanese title without even looking at the gameplay.
Now we come full circle to this 2016 release on PC. Upon booting it up I was surprised at how closely it resembles the Xbox 360 version, down to the prompts being 360 controller inputs even though I was on a keyboard. Once you get to the main screen you can look up the button mapping on keyboard, but it was jarring at first, and I should add that I played this title almost exclusively with a gamepad. The same goes for the fact that the game launches in a smaller window and initially crashed when I set it to full screen, but simply restarting the game fixed all of that. Aside from those initial hiccups, Deathsmiles ran like a dream and I was instantly taken back to my days of when I used to play it on the regular. Everything found in the 360 version seems to be ported over here in full, even the special “360 mode” from that version is intact and simply renamed, but you may get overwhelmed with the six campaign types present. Don’t be, you can read up on those differences or you can take solace in the fact that all modes feature the same game but with subtle updated differences to play. The graphics in arcade mode (and any mode that bases itself off that version) is quite pixelated, which leads you to discover how few visual options exist aside from a zoom feature that scales the image. If you play the newer enhanced versions you will see the more crisp visuals from the 360, but before you think any version’s visuals are a negative remember that these are lower resolution games being blown up to the massive 1080p resolution. It’s almost as if treating this title as a console game that happens to be on PC is a better viewpoint that expecting all the tweaking of a typical PC title, which is probably the best option for publisher Degica because I don’t care half as much about how it looks than how it plays. It’s in this smooth, never hiccuping, constant 60 frames per second that we start to see the PC game come out ahead of its 360 counterpart and flex its muscles. The 360 version was fine, but at times it would hitch and that was usually at the worst moment of an onslaught of enemies and bullet fire. I also found myself caring way too much about how the game initially looked and less than 15 minutes later not noticing at all. It’s an older game, but it plays like a dream.
Deathsmiles is a great addition to the PC gamer’s library and I’m finding myself amassing an impressive collection of classic shmups I have been without for years. It’s a fast-paced unique experience with multiple characters (four normally, five if you play Mega Black Label where Sakura is added) and branching campaign paths. Those that are not long term shmup fans or have always wanted to give a mild bullet hell game a go without the frustration of never seeing level two should really check this one out. I will admit that it’s unfortunate that of all the features brought over from the 360 version, online co-operative play is not one of them, but in full disclosure I never played online co-op with anyone on the 360 in the first place. Aside from that Deathsmiles packs a ton of content with silky smooth performance and all at a great price tag. Don’t overlook this title, there’s a lot to appreciate if you ever loved games like Gradius and you can see past the stereotypical Japanese presentation.
Final Score: 4 out of 5
A review copy was provided by the publisher. Deathsmiles is available on Windows platforms for an initial price of $19.99 and at time of writing had an initial discount and the equally impressive soundtrack included with the purchase. It was played a total of six hours for the purposes of this review, but keep in mind that the reviewer had played this game for more than 30 hours on the Xbox 360 and this is an extremely similar release. Your mileage will vary.