Sometimes a game doesn’t need to do anything especially new to be a great experience. Sometimes it just has to do what it does really, really well.
Qute’s Eschatos, originally released only in Japan for Xbox 360, then subsequently ported to PC by Degica, very much falls into this category. On paper, it’s an incredibly conventional vertically scrolling shoot ’em up.
When you play it, however, you’ll realise that it’s something really rather special: a shoot ’em up that is both accessible to newcomers and challenging to veterans, and a game that manages to impart a strong sense of “narrative” and progression to its overall experience despite not really having a plot to speak of.
That’s not technically true: Eschatos does have a plot, but it’s the old-school variety of game plot that was probably scribbled on the back of a napkin during a lunchtime meeting. All you really need to know is that aliens have taken over the moon and they’re now attacking Earth. Naturally you are the only one that can stop them using what is apparently the only functional spacecraft in all of existence, because that is how these things work.
This is all you need, however, since it provides the incentive for Eschatos’ gameplay to take you on a great journey, beginning with flying over an Earth city, swooping into the countryside (taking in the unexpected sight of some sort of Mayan temple along the way), blasting off into space and finally taking the fight directly to the aliens on (and in) the moon itself. Although unfolding almost exclusively from a top-down perspective in the vertical screen orientation typical of the genre, the sweeping polygonal backdrops to the action provide the whole experience with a distinct sense of cinematic thrills, particularly when combined with the stirring, synth-heavy soundtrack.
You can enjoy Eschatos’ gameplay in three different ways. The first, simplest and arguably most enjoyable method is Original mode, which sees your ship at a static power level throughout the entire game, and provides you with the facility to fire either a wide-angle shot with a short range, or a tightly focused, more powerful stream of shots in a narrow straight line up the entire length of the screen. There are no stockable bombs in Eschatos; instead, collecting a bomb item (amusingly called an F-Bomb) immediately blasts everything on the screen. Your ship is also equipped with a manually triggered shield that can absorb impacts from both bullets and enemies; unusually, however, this shield doesn’t cover your whole ship, instead only protecting the front of its nosecone, so you still need to be aware of your position lest you take a stray rocket up the arse.
Advanced mode, meanwhile, provides you with the ability to gradually upgrade your ship over time by collecting items. These increase the power and range of both of your shot types, with the default power from Original mode representing the upper-mid range of potential power levels. The trade-off for increased shot power is that the manual shield carries less maximum power, allowing it to be used for less time the more powerful your shots are. Although mechanically pretty similar to Original mode, the added consideration of your ship’s power and shield levels makes Advanced mode feel a little more complex and, for my money, dilutes the purity of the experience a little. Those who enjoy layered mechanics will doubtless get something out of it, though; it’s by no means a bad addition to the formula and it’s nice that you have the option.
The final way to play the game is in Time Attack mode. This is essentially the same as Original mode, with the addition of a constantly ticking time limit that is extended by completing the various areas in the game and reduced significantly every time your ship is destroyed. It’s a stiff challenge to get through the game in this mode, but a rewarding one to succeed in — though some may find the added pressure of the time limit to be a step too far amid the already chaotic on-screen action!
Eschatos isn’t a danmaku (bullet hell) game, and so its emphasis is on efficient destruction rather than survival. Its scoring system reflects this: each wave of enemies rewards you with more points the quicker you eliminate them, and successfully clearing a wave without missing any enemies whatsoever gradually builds up your score multiplier. Said multiplier is a lot easier to lose than it is to gain, however; letting just a single enemy slip by you will see it dropping down by a level, so it’s in your interests to take a few risks and try your best to eliminate everything on screen.
The scoring system also rewards those who tackle the game’s higher difficulty levels by increasing the multiplier more rapidly and also increasing its maximum possible level. In this way, there’s a theoretical “cap” to the score you can achieve in each difficulty level, though the addition of the time bonuses to each area makes it very unlikely you’ll ever reach it or obtain exactly the same score as another player.
What it does mean, however, is that those who are more skilled at the game — in other words, those who can survive the significantly more challenging onslaught of bullets in Normal mode upwards, compared to the still-quite-difficult Easy — will be able to achieve noticeably higher scores, though since the leaderboards are segregated by difficulty level anyway this is perhaps fairer than it might initially sound. In other words, it’s still possible for those who find the harder difficulty levels a bit much to enjoy some friendly competition with one another on the leaderboards!
Eschatos is a great game precisely because it doesn’t do any more than it needs to. It sets out to provide a thrilling, enjoyable and spectacular shoot ’em up experience, and it very much succeeds in that. It offers a varied progression of levels, each of which is split into a series of interesting enemy encounters in their own right, and it has a keen awareness of how memorable a sense of audio-visual spectacle can make a game. The “ascent into space” sequence in the second stage in particular remains one of the most striking moments I’ve experienced in a game like this to date, despite being a relatively short part of the overall experience, and the final attack on the moon is an absolutely thrilling conclusion to the short, wordless story that the game tells as you progress.
Eschatos is one of my favourite shoot ’em ups of all time, and its release on PC means that a whole new audience of shmup fans — and potential newcomers to the genre — get to enjoy it without having to import a Japanese Xbox 360 copy. Check it out on Steam, and do also consider its Wonder Pack, which comes bundled with its Wonderswan predecessors Judgement Silversword and Cardinal Sins, both excellent (albeit older) shmups in their own right.
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