Any self-respecting gamer knows that if you really want to impress someone with your dexterity and prowess, you don’t fire up a Souls game, you fire up a bullet hell shmup.
Notorious for their screen-filling bullet patterns that seemingly demand superhuman reflexes to navigate, bullet hell (or, to give them their more “proper” name, danmaku) shoot ’em ups are a frightening prospect to get involved with. But you might be surprised at quite how approachable some of them are.
One such example of a danmaku shmup that is both accepting to genre newcomers and monstrously challenging to veterans is Gundemonium Recollection from Japanese doujin circle Platine Dispositif, originally localised for PS3 and PC by Rockin’ Android. It’s a game that isn’t afraid to slap you about a bit, but also a good place to familiarise yourself with some conventions of the genre.
And, well, it’s just a really good game to boot, too.
As is obligatory for shoot ’em ups — as it has been since the dawn of gaming — Gundemonium Recollection has a largely indecipherable plot that doesn’t matter in the slightest to the action, though it does give the whole experience a rather wonderful sense of style.
Based on an alternate-universe version of the late 18th century, the world of Gundemonium is one where alchemy is commonplace and mankind succeeded in locating the elusive Philosopher’s Stones, also known as Matrices. These powerful items helped humanity develop their technology considerably faster than they could have done under normal circumstances, but unfortunately those who retrieved them in the first place didn’t count on them having some previous owners. Previous owners who, as you might expect, aren’t all that happy.
To cut a much longer story short, it’s up to you, playing as either elite Rosenkreuz Foundation agent Eryth Millfall or one of the customisable Earl-type artificial humans, to battle against the forces of the Demonium and recover Elixirel, an artificial being originally intended to turn the tables on the invading forces but since corrupted and forced to fight against her creators.
To cut the story even shorter, you play an Old West-inspired flying magical girl armed with a selection of heavy weaponry and magical abilities, and have to blast your way through everything from demonic creatures to bunnygirls who have forgotten to put any underpants on riding cannons in an attempt to survive as long as possible.
As with most danmaku titles, Gundemonium Recollection places less of an emphasis on destroying enemies and instead forces the player to focus on dexterous dodging of enemy bullet patterns. For those less familiar with this particular offshoot of the shoot ’em up, the key thing to understand is that, unlike more traditional takes on the genre (such as the Raiden series) where clipping an enemy or bullet with your ship will cause instant death, danmaku titles instead allow you a certain amount of leeway in terms of collisions.
Specifically, only a very small area of your overall player sprite — in Gundemonium’s case conveniently marked with a pulsing heart symbol — will register hits from bullets and enemies, and so long as you can avoid this taking damage, you can “graze” as many potentially lethal things as you like. In fact, such behaviour is encouraged with a bonus at the end of each stage.
Learning to play Gundemonium Recollection, then, is primarily about learning preset, choreographed attack patterns of each stage and how best to navigate them. Sometimes you can take some pressure off yourself by destroying enemies that are producing bullets; at other times, it’s entirely up to your dodging skills to keep yourself safe. It’s a difficult challenge, and initially very daunting, but Gundemonium Recollection’s lower difficulty levels prevent things from getting too outrageous and provide a good arena in which to practice your skills; conversely, the higher settings feature a dynamic difficulty level that continually increases the better you do, the upper end of which will get even the most jaded genre veterans gnashing their teeth.
One of the best things about Gundemonium Recollection is its strong sense of rhythm and pace. Rather than each level being one long challenge without any respite, you’ll instead find the game splits its overall challenge up into smaller encounters, often with brief moments of mid-level downtime to award bonuses and let you catch your breath. Individual encounters might feature swarms of enemies, complex bullet patterns or minibosses in a variety of arrangements, and the game keeps things interesting throughout by not sticking to a set “formula” for long, making your first few playthroughs very exciting as you’ll never quite know what’s coming next.
Despite the fact the game does allow you occasional moments to rest and regroup, it’s worth noting that this is a particularly frantic, energetic example of the danmaku genre. Backdrops scroll by at an incredible pace and often take you on a rollercoaster ride through beautifully depicted pixel-art environments. Swarms of enemies fly at you like someone off-screen is grabbing them by the handful and flinging them at you. And even the music is designed to get your pulse racing, consisting entirely of high-tempo, cheerful but dramatic tracks that complement the on-screen action absolutely perfectly.
There’s plenty of variety in the ways you can play, too. Preset character Eryth handles in a very distinctive way to the various combinations of weapons, bombs and magic you can put together to produce an Earl-type player, and the wide selection of difficulty levels mean you can challenge yourself as far as your confidence goes. (Like most modern shoot ’em ups, this is not a game you should ever feel ashamed to play on the lowest difficulty level, particularly while you’re learning how it works.)
If you bite the dust before you reach the end of the game, you can continue from the start of the level you got to, or purists can try their hardest for the elusive “1CC” — a one-credit clear — and an attack on the score leaderboards, including the option to save replays of your best performances.
If you don’t want to attempt a complete playthrough, meanwhile, a Practice mode allows you to focus on learning specific levels and encounters, while a Mission mode tasks you with clearing short challenges with specific (and often brutal) conditions attached. There’s certainly a lot to do, though even without this additional content the main game is challenging enough to keep you busy for a very long time indeed.
Gundemonium Recollection is a delightful game. It’s beautifully presented, enormously playable, surprisingly accessible and has charm coming out of its big floppy bunny ears.
And, for those concerned they might not get on with the joys of danmaku, it’s cheap, too, making it a much less risky prospect to jump in on than the relatively premium prices that Cave’s more well-known danmaku titles often command.
So come on! Jump in, have fun… and show those Souls fans what a really hard game is like.
Gundemonium Recollection is available for Windows PC; the PlayStation 3 version was, unfortunately, delisted from PSN in 2015 following Sony’s sale of its Sony Online Entertainment label, which originally published the game.
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