Deathsmiles is a side scrolling shooter developed by CAVE (Computer Art Visual Entertainment) who are the masters of making arcade style shoot-em-ups. The company, established by former employees of Toaplan, is known for their pedigree in creating quality blasters such as Akai Katana Shin and the Bug Princess series. Deathsmiles originally started life as an arcade game, before being ported to the Xbox and is now available on mobile devices such as the iPad, which is the version I am reviewing today.
Buyers of this app will be presented with two modes of play - arcade and smartphone. As you would expect, arcade mode recreates the original game experience, minus the need to pump endless quarters into a cabinet. Players pick one of four angels who have been teleported to a demonic world and are searching for a way to return home. The story spans across seven compulsory stages and one optional level (for those who are brave enough to tackle it.) As with most bullet-hell shooters the aim of the game is to blast anything that moves whilst avoiding enemy fire.
Controls are fairly straightforward and easy to pickup, whether you are a newbie to the genre or a shoot-em-up veteran. For the most part you just have to concentrate on movement as the character you control automatically fires a horizontal stream of projectiles. That's fair enough as having a trigger button in games like these always felt redundant to me. The screen is constantly infested with swarms of enemies so there's no good reason why you would ever find yourself in a situation were you would want to cease fire. No wonder then that back in the day players, lacking an auto fire gamepad, would end their gaming session with cramped thumbs from constantly pounding the attack button.
Unlike some other games of its ilk, in Deathsmiles enemies can come at you from both sides of the screen. Thankfully you can change the direction you are facing, to counter any foes sneaking up behind you, simply by tapping the relevant button found on the bottom right corner of the screen. Said corner also houses a button that allows you to change your projectile attack from a flurry of magical bolts to a laser like stream. There's also a "lock on" icon that can be held down to target the enemy closest to you, which comes in handy for hitting monsters that are positioned above or below you. Decimated nasties, who foolishly get in the way of your destructive spells, drop glowing skulls that can be collected to charge your power meter. When the meter is filled up you can activate your special move that increases the ferocity of your attacks for a brief period of time.
Although the main arcade mode is fun I have to say that I have spent most of my time playing the smartphone mode of the game. This version presents players with a slightly different storyline staring Princess Tiara who has to protect her kingdom from demons using the magical powers bestowed on her by a flying pig she befriended (gotta love the zany stuff Japanese programmers come up with.) Although the levels in the smartphone iteration are virtually identical to their arcade counterparts, the mode introduces some RPG mechanics that I am a sucker for. Whilst playing this mode you earn coins that can be spent at the store to outfit Tiara with equipment that improves anything from the damage of her attacks to how much pain she sustains before losing a life.
Prior to playing Deathsmiles, for the first time, I approached the control scheme with trepidation. I was concerned by how touch controls would work in a fast and furious shooter. After giving it a go I was however surprised by how responsive it all handles. By sliding my thumb around the screen I had no problems weaving past the hail of bullets plastering the sky, so much so that I doubt I could have performed any better had I been using a gamepad. In fact I probably would have fared worse playing on the Xbox version of the game. Holding the iPad close to my face makes spotting tiny projectiles much easier than squinting at a television monitor from a distance (it sucks to be short sighted.)
Aesthetically I was pleased with Deathsmiles' art style. When it comes to shooters the genre is dominated by titles featuring generic spaceships, but what we get here instead is a dark fantasy motif. In the place of alien UFOs the game sports ogres, flying reapers, sinister crows and a collection of impressive giant end of level bosses. Playing as a cute angel or Princess Tiara, who flies with the aid of a parasol, was a most unique experience. I cannot recall ever kicking ass in a game as a gothic Mary Poppins lookalike. One minor gripe I have with the graphics however is that the edges of the sprites look a little jagged, but that is to be expected when blowing up an older game's resolution onto a HD retina display. In terms of performance it all runs smoothly and I experienced no slow downs no matter how intense the action got on screen with multiple moving objects.
So as we reach the end of this review I suppose you are wondering if Deathsmiles is worth buying. In my opinion, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Paying £7.99 for a game that can be completed in one sitting may sound a little dear, but it's more than worth it when you consider its replay value. This is the type of game you will go back to constantly whether to better your high score, unlock more goodies in smartphone mode or watch the multiple endings on offer. Most shoot-em-ups are known for being notoriously difficult, for anyone not blessed with lightning reflexes and a desire to memorize level layouts, but don't let that put you off from trying this gem. Thanks to the various difficulty settings on offer Deathsmiles is accessible to players of all skill levels. In the end I enjoyed the game so much that I am certain it will only be a matter of time before I add more CAVE shooters to my iPad game collection.