The shoot ’em up genre, having been around pretty much as long as the concept of “video games”, is relatively set in its ways.
When you think about it, this isn’t all that surprising. When the core concept of your game is as simple as “shoot everything, don’t get shot and don’t crash into anything”, there’s only so much you can do to iterate on that concept. And so most modern shmups distinguish themselves primarily through carefully choreographed enemy and bullet patterns, unique audio-visual design and a sense of “spectacle”. In other words, it’s relatively rare to find a modern shmup that does things a little differently in mechanical terms.
Japanese doujin circle Astro Port is one of a few developers that likes to regularly mix things up in the genre. And its latest release Zangeki Warp is just one such example.
Zangeki Warp initially very much resembles Astro Port’s earlier game Satazius right down to its relatively “muted” visual style, with backgrounds being depicted in relatively drab tones contrasting nicely with colourful enemies and explosions in the foreground.
Satazius, for those unfamiliar, was a horizontally scrolling shmup heavily inspired by Konami’s Gradius series. This is no bad thing, as Satazius quickly proved itself to be an incredibly competent game in its own right that eschewed the popular danmaku (“bullet hell”) approach favoured by many modern Japanese shmup developers and instead concentrated on a relatively slow, methodical pace with learnable enemy formations and challenging level design.
Zangeki Warp’s big twist on Satazius’ formula, however, is the addition of the titular “warp” mechanic, which allows you to temporarily freeze time, draw a line across the screen and then immediately teleport to its endpoint. Any enemies or destructible objects that the line passes through get “slashed” and damaged or destroyed in the process, and the game’s upgrade system also allows you to modify your ship and produce a shockwave at your warp’s endpoint if you so desire, too.
If this sounds a little like UK-based developer FuturLab’s excellent Velocity series for PlayStation platforms, you’d be partially right. But the focus is very different. Whereas Velocity gradually morphed almost into a 2D Portal-style action puzzle game by its conclusion — particularly in its sequel, which incorporated platforming segments alongside the top-down shooting — Zangeki Warp’s use of its core teleportation mechanic is very much “in the moment”.
You’ll need to use the warp to quickly dodge out of the way of sticky situations such as screen-filling bosses charging right at you, or to deftly escape seemingly unavoidable bullet and laser patterns. You’ll also need to use it to pass through solid walls that frequently get in your way, and the “slash” attack that the warp feature comes equipped with becomes increasingly important to clear a path through the enemies as you progress through the game.
This is a game you’ll need to “learn” in order to make it through safely, too. In many ways, some of the level design resembles that of a “masocore” platformer such as Eryi’s Action. If you’re unfamiliar with this concept, it’s fairly simple: the game is out to kill you, usually via means that initially seem completely unfair. Obstacles will appear from nowhere without warning, obliterating you before you have time to react. Elements of the level will behave in ways that you don’t expect: ceilings will fall on you, spikes will pop out of the ground, walls will crush you.
You will die. A lot. But with every death, you will learn something. You will learn not to fly near that patch of ground because there’s a big, rusty, phallic blade waiting to impale you hiding just beneath the surface. You will learn not to spend too long in that seemingly “safe” area because the ceiling will collapse on you. You will learn how to exercise a bit of restraint when going for the collectible “hearts” in each level, because although they’re worth an astronomical amount of points, you lose them all if you die.
Zangeki Warp embraces the fact that it is out to kill its players with a pleasingly brutal selection of achievements, most of which reward you for finding new and unusual ways to off yourself. Whether it’s accidentally teleporting into a wall, getting caught on the aforementioned spiky things, chopped up by blades or devoured by enemy creatures, the game acknowledges that yes, it’s not playing fair — at least not when you first encounter a new obstacle — but no, you shouldn’t let that stop you from persevering and trying to survive its challenges. There are even achievements for using two or three continues in a single play session — though naturally, there is also one for successfully pulling off a “one credit clear” or “1CC” for the purists among us.
Zangeki Warp provides a pleasingly varied experience through a combination of its interesting level design, multiple difficulty settings and upgrade system. The latter in particular can make each playthrough of the game feel markedly different as you focus on different aspects of your ship’s capabilities. Powering up your shots, for example, allows you to fire a wider spread of strong projectiles, but in doing so you will probably be sacrificing things like the speed at which your warp capability recharges, or the shield that protects you against a single hit. Conversely, powering up your other options means that you’ll have to find alternative means of destroying hard-to-reach enemy installations using methods such as the warp-slash attack or the optional shockwave.
Don’t go into Zangeki Warp expecting a game that is going to hold your hand and gently introduce you to its idiosyncrasies. This is a game that believes the path to true enlightenment is through hardship, repeatedly abusing its players until they either learn something from their continued suffering, or give up in abject frustration. This is nothing new for the shmup genre as a whole, but it feels especially pronounced in Zangeki Warp, particularly with how keen it is to trickle out occasional rewards for finding new and exciting ways to go down in flames.
As abusive as it is, though, it knows you’ll be back time after time. Because beneath that sadistic exterior is a game that has been designed with great care and love, and even as you spend your first couple of attempts accidentally teleporting into walls and getting crushed by things you don’t typically expect to crush you in a shmup, you’ll quickly come to understand how the game does things.
And you’ll be back. Oh yes, you’ll be back.
Zangeki Warp is available now on Steam.
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