Game Reviews


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| DeathSmiles
| DeathSmiles

Cave's catalogue of bullet-hell apps has had a pretty common goal: dodge the bullets. In DoDonPachi and Espgaluda II, the floating enemies and scrolling backgrounds play second fiddle to the gaudy neon ordinance that floods every screen.

Baddies spew out waves and curtains and slithering tendrils of hot-pink bullets and cool-blue missiles, while your bullet-bursting hero calmly manoeuvres into cracks and slides between lines until a boss character rears its ugly, pixelated head.

DeathSmiles certainly has its fair share of bullet-dodging, and it still looks like someone's coughed up the contents of a glow-stick onto your iPhone, but this latest 'danmaku' game tweaks your priorities towards shooting and away from dodging.

Look around you

For one, the glitzy pandemonium comes from all angles, rather than methodically filing in from the top of the screen. The enemies in side-scrolling DeathSmiles will creep up behind you as often as they leap out in front, meaning you'll have to spin your hero around to stay on top, and alive.

Demonic creatures, feral dogs, pulsating spiders, and giant bats also hide above and scuttle below, making your forward-facing laser a little useless. You'll have to use lock-on, which lets you blast at enemies from all sides but only within a small radius of your character.

It means momentarily sacrificing the reach of your deadly lasers, and means having to hug up close to enemies when you'd rather be as far away as possible. These moment-to-moment decisions and risk-vs-reward judgement calls are at the heart of Cave's games. It's what makes them doubly satisfying when you pull through and beat the stage.

DeathSmiles also carries a scoring system, but it's not quite as devilishly smart as DoDonPachi's aggressive-and-defensive mix. You simply nuke as many enemies as possible, gobble up their dropped gems before they hit the ground and build up a combo.

Once it hits 1,000 you can unleash your super power weapon to maximise your power and point-earning abilities for the next few seconds.

Easy does it

If all of this sounds a little intimidating to you, don't worry. Cave has gone to great lengths to make DeathSmiles its most accessible and friendly shmup yet.

You lose a little health instead of instantly dying upon impact, iPhone mode starts on Novice by default, and in Arcade mode you can always pick the difficulty before starting a stage. You can also spend your collected gems on continues so you can keep playing after a Game Over.

Those are, unfortunately, the only two modes - the game is missing a lot of the amazing bonus content that came bundled in the Xbox 360 release. Both modes feature the same handful of levels, but arcade has different characters and variable difficulties, while iPhone mode introduces lots of new content.

There's a story, apparently. It's mostly gobbledygook, wrapped in a gothic horror world with awkward Lolitas for characters. There's also a handy shop where you can buy new items (represented as dress-up clothes for your prepubescent protagonist, if you weren't already too embarrassed to play in public) to level up your hero.

Touchscreen tactics

DeathSmiles, like its predecessors, works well on iPhone. While older systems will be left in the cold, it runs with a fluent frame-rate on newer iOS devices and never hitches or chokes, even when the screen is a mesmerising mess of colours and pixels.

The controls work, but not as well as previous games. That's entirely down to the fact that the game's enemies and activities move around the screen faster than your thumbs can keep up, and while your chunky finger might be inconspicuous one second it could be obscuring the view entirely the next.

As you ramp up the difficulty, this is not the game to be hiding pixels or having your hands off the controls.

Otherwise, DeathSmiles is every bit as confident and accomplished as Cave's previous titles, and proves the iPhone's might as a true games console and a technical powerhouse.

This shmup can be accessible to greenhorns, or a rock-hard mettle test for danmaku veterans, meaning fans and curious onlookers should both jump right in.

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DeathSmiles mixes up the formula to drag in bullet-hell fans and lowers the barrier to entry to encourage newbies. Everyone with a passing interest should try out this smart, compulsive, and thrilling blaster
Mark Brown
Mark Brown
Mark Brown spent several years slaving away at the Steel Media furnace, finally serving as editor at large of Pocket Gamer before moving on to doing some sort of youtube thing.