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Castle of Shikigami (PC) artwork

Castle of Shikigami (PC) review

"Castle of Shikigami doesn't hold up as well as one might hope, but that doesn't seem to be this port's fault."

There are different sorts of horrifying. If I tell you the world is about to be taken over by aliens, and that mankind will be obliterated in the process, I'm the bearer of bad news. If I say that 32 young women have recently been tortured and killed, with their eyes gouged out, that's also uncool. It's horrifying, even. Somehow, that second scenario seems even worse to me than the theoretical annihilation of mankind, despite the considerably lower body count.

Concerned for my sanity, you may well ask: why am I even thinking such dark thoughts? The answer is that I've played Castle of Shikigami, the first in a classic series of vertical shooters from Alfa System. The games have appeared on a variety of platforms, starting with the arcade original, Shikigami no Shiro. That's the Japanese name for the franchise, which at various points has reached North America as both Castle Shikigami and Castle of Shikigami, depending on who was doing the localizing. Whatever you want to call it, the game opens by briefly telling the tale of those ill-fated women, victims of an apparent serial killer who is making the rounds in Japan.

Castle of Shikigami (PC) image

I didn't expect such a grim premise from a vertical shooter. And frankly, I'm not sure how the grisly details add anything valuable to the overall experience. The way the story plays out, a series of mail box bombings would have worked just as well. Or a few stabbings on passenger trains. The only thing that was important, as far as I can tell after playing through the campaign as each of the available characters, was distracting citizens and authorities from noticing the revival of Castle Shikigami through some sort of dark ritual. That event seems to be about as welcome as the reappearance of Dracula's abode is in a typical Castlevania game.

But whatever. At least you have a reason to fly through the air and shoot everything that moves. And I guess the plot mostly also explains the villains, who range from an out-of-work actor to a love-struck woman who misses her one-time lover. Those fiends all respond to your approach by morphing into terrible monsters that try to keep you out of the not-so-friendly skies, even though gravity somehow already failed to take care of that job. I'm really not sure how any of the six available heroes are able to soar like Superman. Or how they can blast bullets and magical spells and missiles that demolish the many monsters that fill the Japanese sky. Or why the job wasn't assigned to fighter jet pilots, instead of a special group consisting of brash teenagers and middle-aged teachers and such.

Let's forget about the plot, then, and take a look at the actual gameplay mechanics.

As noted above, there are six available protagonists. You choose one of them and then guide him or her through five stages, which are each broken into rather brief segments. Three times along the way through a stage, you must fight off a fierce boss. Some of those battles can wage on for quite some time, if you're playing on a higher difficulty setting and aren't spamming bombs, to the extent that Castle of Shikigami feels more like an extended boss rush than it does a standard shooter. Yes, you do fight two groups of mobs per stage, but mostly they don't do anything particularly interesting.

Castle of Shikigami (PC) image

Character performance differs rather significantly. Each character has a standard shot that you can unleash with quick taps. If you hold the fire button, you will charge up and unleash a secondary weapon that also might help to clear away the closest enemy projectiles. And you can also detonate bombs that fill and then clear most of the screen. Such explosions work great against bosses. On the easiest setting, a bomb's blast is often enough to destroy a slightly weakened boss, without any additional effort. However, characters are balanced so that you make sacrifices no matter who you choose. One of them comes with only a single bomb, for instance, instead of the standard three. Another has a charge attack that deals rather severe damage as you get up close and personal, but leaves your character highly vulnerable from the flanks. Some heroes fire shots in a narrow stream, while others fire a less focused wave or even send projectiles to their sides. It's worth spending a little time with each vanquisher of evil at first, to see which ones best suit your particular style.

Naturally, the game also features scoring mechanics that reward you for riskier play. If you're close to your foe, you gain multipliers that give you a better chance of dominating the online leaderboards. However, taking damage immediately scatters the loot you've gathered, which both limits your score and prevents you from easily powering up your shots. Later levels are so busy that it's also difficult to stay in the thick of things long at all without taking damage. You're lost in a bullet hell.

When I started playing Castle of Shikigami, I made sure I had an Xbox 360 controller handy. That optional peripheral is a great match for the game. There's also not a convenient pause function, so I had to keep playing once I started. You can at least configure keyboard and controller settings for one or both players, though the interface for doing so felt a bit awkward to me. Visually, you also have options. You can play in a windowed mode, or set the visuals to display at resolutions as high as 1920x1080. I didn't encounter any obvious slowdown with everything maxed out, but I have to admit I'm also not nearly as sensitive to that sort of thing as some people are.

Castle of Shikigami (PC) image

Visually, Castle of Shikigami is disappointing no matter how high you set the resolution, because it just feels so bland. Too much energy went into tackling new technology in the late 90s, and not enough was left over to add much personality. While I like the idea of seeing 2005-era Japan from the air, the settings don't feature enough variety or detail. Portions of the environments were rendered in 3D, which is evident as you weave back and forth and the buildings sway beneath you, or when you're zooming along a canyon and beams cross at different heights. That sense of depth is welcome, but the low-polygon enemies tend to look ugly for the wrong reasons. The bosses do fare better, at least. When the game looks its best, that generally means you're battling a foe who fills most of the screen.

If you're into vertical shooters and you've always wanted to see how Castle of Shikigami got its start, this convenient new release is a welcome ally. The game plays well enough to entertain for a while, even if its original design doesn't seem to have aged particularly well. The translation and localization are as coherent as is likely possible, given the original source material, and the action is sufficiently intense to keep most twitch enthusiasts amused for hours. There are trading cards, too, and achievements. Even so, I think I'll stick to one of the sequels in the future...


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Staff review by Jason Venter (June 08, 2017)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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