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Castle Shikigami 2 (PlayStation 2) artwork

Castle Shikigami 2 (PlayStation 2) review

"It takes only a few seconds to power up, and then you can release much greater devastation. Some enemies won’t even fall unless you know how to take advantage of the technique. Best of all, you get point multipliers through constructive use of your magical arsenal. There’s little more satisfying than nearly ramming a machine just as it bursts into flames, then noticing the ‘x8’ multiplier flashing on the screen."

No matter how hard I try, I will never excel at shooters. I can practice for hours and gradually make it further into a game, but at that point the process turns from pastime to chore. So why do I play games in the genre, then? It’s simple: I love the explosions. Castle Shikigami 2, a vertical shooter published by XS Games but developed by Taito, is the sort of thing that satisfies that need perfectly. There’s lots of stuff to blow up, and at $10 the game is an absolute steal. But is it truly good?

From the fact that there’s a ‘2’ after its title, and from the storyline hastily told through in-game cinemas (the voice acting and subtitles here are the definition of ‘atrocious’), I get the sense that I’m missing something. Some time ago, heroes rose to fight off a demonic floating castle. They were successful, but now it has returned, as evil castles tend to do when a developer realizes that a sequel might meet with some commercial success. Now, seven hardened warriors are flying through the skies of that famous Japanese city, blasting things with all the magic they can and working to save us all from evil demons.

Rather than piloting stealth bombers or spaceships, then, you just sort of fly through the air in a fashion similar to that of the protagonists in Gunbird 2. That other game surely was an inspiration for this title (or perhaps the other way around). Because you’re a magical sort of person, you will find that your arsenal is quite up to the task of making demons miserable. You don’t need metal or rockets or anything like that when you’re a wizard, but what you will need are some decent weaving skills.

A few short stages in, the game begins to adopt the ever-popular ‘pepper the screen with so many shots that you can’t even make out the background’ ploy. Though your chosen character has some defensive measures (for example, shots become much more powerful in the face of ammunition, and some can rotate shields that deflect weaker firepower), you’ll soon find the best defense is a rapid offensive strike. As smaller vessels spiral onto the screen, whirling madly and dropping volatile orbs, other foes glide through the confusion and send lethal spread shots your way. Three cheers for variety! There are two options at this point. You can either dodge like crazy (which in later stages becomes a nightmare), or you can unleash one of the bombs in your reserve.

I call them ‘bombs,’ but they aren’t really, just this game’s equivalent. During the few seconds that follow their deployment, special skills grant you invulnerability while assaulting the enemy with severe damage. You can almost always count on some much-needed help from this technique, provided you use it in time and don’t waste it just as your assailants turn fickle and leave the screen. You get three of these munitions mother lodes per credit, and can earn more only by rapidly gaining points. The limited number available can have a tendency to make a player stingy to an almost suicidal degree. Because you can’t just ‘bomb out’ every time the screen fills with shrapnel, you have to prioritize. As a result, I often find myself pressing the ‘X’ button just a split-second too late as I lose one of my slots on my life meter.

Yes, your life meter has slots. Take a hit head-on without the proper defense and you’re going to lose one of the three. Your character drops briefly in the air, then returns to action with a protective shield that melts away within a few seconds. Such moments are seldom frustrating. Instead, because generally a well-timed special attack would have averted the damage, they’re often just disappointing.

This is especially true of boss battles, those instances where I find my stock of special attacks dropping most rapidly. Though the stages between these encounters are hectic, quick reflexes are generally enough to avoid enemy firepower. Not so with the behemoths standing between you and that next area. Though the first few monsters drop after taking relatively minimal damage (especially if you move in with your charge shots), later fiends have all sorts of tricks that mean you only have a tiny area where you’re safe at any given moment.

What’s that? Charge attacks? Yes, you can definitely go that route. As a matter of fact, I find myself using the heavier firepower most of the time I play. Each of the seven characters has a distinct charge. Some send out explosive spheres, others erect shields, and others dangle balls of electricity in front of them. There’s definitely variety, and there’s also plenty of incentive to get familiar with how the process works. It takes only a few seconds to power up, and then you can release much greater devastation. Some enemies won’t even fall unless you know how to take advantage of the technique. Best of all, you get point multipliers through constructive use of your magical arsenal. There’s little more satisfying than nearly ramming a machine just as it bursts into flames, then noticing the ‘x8’ multiplier flashing on the screen. The closest comparison I’ve experienced is Mars Matrix. I like it here as much as I did there.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the graphics. It’s not that Castle Shikigami 2 is ugly. It most certainly isn’t. Three-dimensional artwork loops beneath you, so that what is a vertical shooter feels more like a shooter on rails. Soar over the skyscrapers in the first area, swoop down to take out a few more monsters, then scale one building’s heights to the first boss encounter. Later, you’ll fly along a canyon before rising up a mountainside to a roaring quartet of waterfalls. And so it goes. Each stage feels unique and generally everything is presented competently, but there’s a rather washed out look to it all that dims the visual flair the game may otherwise have possessed. Later on, when foes and projectiles have turned the screen into a writhing jungle of green and pink, you’ll also experience a generous helping of slowdown. In the game’s defense, I believe it was originally programmed some time ago. And at least you have the option to view things from several sizes (or even vertically, if you feel like tilting your television on its side).

So like I said, visuals are competent but not so good as other games we’ve seen within the rather limited genre. And sound? Even if you ignore the lifeless voice acting, it still has problems. It’s definitely nothing you’ll want to listen to at length. Music is rather understated, some sort of strange mutation that sounds like rock music played on saxophone or… something. I’m not sure what to make of it, except that I don’t particularly care for it. Adding to the problem is the faint ringing noise as you blast monsters out of the sky. In the case of stage three, I spend most of my time wondering if my cell-phone is ringing unless I turn off the sound. Very irritating.

Luckily, the game as a whole rises above these easily surmountable issues. And despite the $10 tag, it’ll even last you quite a while. There’s a ‘boss rush’ mode that can be quite enjoyable, and you can also practice favorite stages once you clear them on a single credit. Difficulty is adjustable (though the only thing that really seems to change is the number of bullets) to several degrees, and there are seven rather unique characters to experience. The end result is a game that feels worth every penny you’ll likely pay for it. What more can you ask for?

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Staff review by Jason Venter (November 24, 2004)

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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