Shmup Essentials: Astebreed

There’s an assumption among certain parts of the gaming community that you need a big budget and a massive team to make something that looks amazing.

This is nonsense, of course, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the output of Japanese doujin circle Edelweiss, who have, to date, put out three exceptional (and exceptionally beautiful) games, each of which demonstrates a clear understanding of how to produce something that both looks spectacular and plays incredibly fluidly, in the grand tradition of arcade games.

Edelweiss’ most recent release is Astebreed, a shoot ’em up that began its life on PC but was subsequently ported to (and enhanced for) PlayStation 4. And it’s one hell of a game that any shmup fan should be proud to have in their library.

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Astebreed is a game that, like Edelweiss’ previous shmup Ether Vapor Remaster, unfolds from a variety of perspectives as the game progresses. Sometimes you’ll be playing a side-scrolling shooter, others you’ll be playing from a top-down or three-dimensional Star Fox-style perspective. The game rather sensibly times these changes in perspective to coincide with moments of downtime in the action, so they never become distracting to the core gameplay; they simply give it a sense of cinematic spectacle.

Your weapon of choice throughout Astebreed is Xbreed, a flying giant robot that has the ability to fire shots, lock on to enemies in either a cone-shaped area or a circular region around itself, and a sword for melee attacks. Picking the right attack for the right enemy is crucial not only for survival, but also for chasing high scores. So long as you have shields, you’ll build up your multiplier by using shot attacks, but you can’t “cash in” this multiplier unless you use the sword, which is obviously much more dangerous than pelting enemies from a distance.

Astebreed’s controls and mechanics initially seem complicated and confusing — especially in the original PC version, since they were refined considerably for the PS4 version without dumbing down or oversimplifying the game — but after a run or two it becomes natural enough, and the game also comes with both a training mode to practice your skills and an interactive tutorial of sorts to kick off the overall narrative.

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Speaking of narrative, Astebreed is an ambitious game in that it attempts to tell a deep and meaningful story in a genre that is not traditionally known for its narrative focus. Not only that, but given your average’s shmup’s relatively short runtime, Astebreed is also trying to do all this against tight time constraints. It’s impressive that it actually manages to succeed in making the action interesting and relevant without bogging down the overall structure with excessive exposition.

Astebreed’s story concerns an invasion by a mysterious force known as the Filune, and protagonist Roy’s attempts to fight back using a revolutionary new weapon: the aforementioned Xbreed. Interesting ethical questions are raised through the fact that Xbreed’s weapons system is largely dependent on a heavily modified young girl named Fiona as much as it is on Roy’s piloting skills, and things quickly get more interesting as we discover that Fiona has a sister who appears to have sided with the enemy for some reason.

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It’s actually quite a complex tale by its conclusion — and in typical giant robot anime tradition, things get rather metaphysical by the end of it. It may actually take a run or two through the game for you to be able to fully parse it in full, particularly as it’s quite hard to read the subtitles in the heat of combat if you’re not able to understand spoken Japanese, but it’s a rewarding and enjoyable story that provides a good sense of narrative impetus to the action and an unusual but satisfying conclusion once it’s all over.

However, if you do find that you really don’t get along with the story — or simply want to focus on attacking high scores — then it’s also possible to completely turn off all dialogue and play the game as a straight arcade shooter. This is a really nice addition for those who are primarily playing the game for its mechanics, and allows you to customise the experience as you see fit. That said, the game is worth playing through at least once purely for the sake of the narrative, since it’s inventive, dramatic and beautifully presented throughout.

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And for those who find themselves somewhat tumescent at the prospect of giant robot sci-fi, you’re well catered for with the game’s substantial supporting material that unlocks as you play, allowing you to delve more deeply into the narrative context of the game’s main events, admire the excellent 2D artwork that punctuates the midpoint of the story and even indulge your desires to your heart’s content in the 3D model viewer. Of particular note in this latter aspect is the ability to play with the models by opening and closing their various flappy and flamey bits; it really emphasises how much care and attention Edelweiss has thrown in to every aspect of this whole production.

Astebreed is an absolutely stunning game that deserves to be considered alongside the all-time greats of the shoot ’em up genre. It’s beautifully presented, accessible but challenging, and exudes a wonderful air of professionalism throughout the entire production. It’s a game clearly put together by a team that cares deeply about what it has created — from aesthetic, narrative and mechanical perspectives — and is enormously rewarding to engage with, whether you play it once for the story and never pick it up again, or if you keep coming back to it — as I do — to either try and beat your high scores, or simply to enjoy the majestic spectacle of the whole experience once again.

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If you have the choice, go with the more recent PS4 version as the refined control scheme and enhancements to the overall presentation — including some new music in a few places — really polish this wonderful game to a fine sheen. But if you don’t have access to a console, the original PC version is no slouch, either — grab it from localiser-publisher Playism, Steam or GOG.com.


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