Espgaluda (PlayStation 2) review
"Cave's hyperactive shooter Espgaluda lets you soar through the Middle Eastern sky on wings of psychic light, weaving tapestries of carnage with threads of deadly energy. The quest for vengeance is both challenging and beautiful."
Two impressionable children, genetically engineered by the cruel lord Jakou to serve as living weapons, were rescued from a future of carnage and bloodshed by a hired hand named Hiodoshi. This kind-hearted man, who had no desire to serve as a knight in Satan's service, raised the two children in a land far, far away from Jakou's floating palace in the kingdom of "Shinra". The young espers loved their adoptive father. For several years, they were happy.
Upon starting a new round of Espgaluda, Jakou's murderous minions have already pinpointed Hiodoshi's whereabouts and slain the gentle caretaker. In a fit of rage, your chosen esper -- either silver-haired Ageha or sweet sylph Tateha -- electrocutes the killer. That is the first life they have taken. By adventure's end, they shall slay a thousand more. The living weapons have been awakened, and the quest for revenge has begun.
Cave's hyperactive shooter Espgaluda lets you soar through the Middle Eastern sky on wings of psychic light, weaving tapestries of carnage with threads of deadly energy. The quest for vengeance is both challenging and beautiful. Shimmering, pulsating clouds of bullets coat the screen, adding a sense of vitality to serene environments. Boats plow through placid waters; trains roar across the outskirts of an otherwise silent city. A brilliant techno soundtrack, mixing synthesizer and Indian sentimentality (is that chanting?!), helps the player slip into a deadly trance as he or she flies above a hundred Taj Majals.
The atmosphere is truly invigorating... but that is not the heart of Espgaluda.
Beneath that immaculate exterior, an intricate and imaginative scoring system thrives. By killing enemies, you build up a supply of psychic energy. With a simple, single button press, your chosen esper can release that power at any time. However, in keeping with the eastern Indian theme, this "power" is not a bomb or giant laser or large sword, as you might find in other shooters.
No, the childrens' special power is an "awakening" that casts the player into a sense of heightened awareness: all bullets on the screen, whether a stream of ten or a cloud of one hundred, slow down to half their speed. This lets you slip through even the tiniest gaps to escape death. Furthermore, any enemy killed while in this "awakened" state gives you gold ingots instead of additional psychic power, which is important if you want to earn the highest possible score.
Beware -- if you should run out of energy while in your awakened state, enemy bullets turn red and travel at twice their normal speed! However, even this "danger mode" has its benefit; the enemy bullets may be twice as fast, but your psychic attacks become twice as powerful.
This system trains players to focus and strive for that perfect balance: how long should the player remain in "normal" form, gathering power? At what points is it most advantageous -- or lucrative -- to slow down the action and gather gold ingots instead? Some players might even prefer to intentionally invoke "danger mode" so that they can kill tough enemies more quickly. Espgaluda rewards skill, but it also rewards persistence and experimentation.
It's something you can work at, and improve incrementally, and feel a sense of accomplishment when you increase your score by another million points. When you're dealing with a genre that's typically known for being short and simple, that's important -- that's what keeps bringing players back. Furthermore, since everyone will discover their own unique way to play, it's easy to spot differences in personality. Who's cautious? Who's daring? Who's greedy?
If you want to show off your exciting personality or study your own mistakes, Espgaluda actually comes with a recordable replay mode, so that you can save pixel-perfect re-enactments to a memory card. That's a fantastic and very unusual feature. Arcade purists will also be pleased at the inclusion of an unfiltered "tate" mode -- not only can you turn your TV or monitor on its side to lengthen the playfield, but the pixels are reproduced as originally intended. As a programming shortcut, many shooters use upscaling tricks to create their "tate" modes. Not so with Espgaluda -- loving care and attention was put into this port.
That kind of love and attention -- the thought put into atmosphere, scoring system, and overall presentation -- is what makes Espgaluda so endearing, so special.
That care is often very subtle. For example, a returning opponent wears an eyepatch the second time around. Sometimes, it's not subtle at all. After entering an enormous palace, you'll fly through an ornate hallway populated by dancing courtesans. With every pirouette, these women release a deadly spiral of projectiles; with every tap of the "shot" button, your psychic bullets pop them like blood-filled balloons. Even though I had heard about it beforehand, that was still one of the most shocking, most violent scenes in my shooter memory.
The transformation from innocent child to ruthless killer was complete.
That's how Espgaluda works. Aside from a few snippets of text between levels, the story is told through the action itself. While I breeze through other action games in mere hours, I still have yet to master Espgaluda... and every minute, every second, is spent perfecting my abilities, as opposed to passively watching uncontrollable characters perform uncontrollable actions. The bonus arranged mode, which features new characters, new scoring mechanics, and a new soundtrack, rounds out an already unforgettable experience.
I've played 2D shooters. I've played space shooters. I've played 3D shooters. I've played military shooters. In an era where lesser developers simply infuse otherwise mundane games with more enemies, more bullets, or more cinematic intermissions, Cave's inspired Espgaluda offers something both new and somehow... nostalgic. Espgaluda is unlike any shooter I've played before or since, and that feeling of wonder and surprise reminds me of my own impressionable youth.
Staff review by Zigfried (August 22, 2007)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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