As we’ve already seen with the three Strikers 1945 titles, Psikyo is a developer that is more than happy to make incremental improvements to a formula rather than radically inventing things with each new game.
There are exceptions, of course, but few can deny that the Strikers 1945 formula worked well and could most certainly support a few more games with a few tweaks here and there. Like, say, changing the aesthetic somewhat.
Strikers 1945 III already transplanted the weighty shooting action from post-World War II to the modern day. Dragon Blaze, also part of the Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha collection, zaps us into a fantasy world with neon pink bullets and challenges us to survive another stiff challenge.
Originally released in 2000, a year after Strikers 1945 III, Dragon Blaze casts you in the role of one of four distinct dragon riders. Each rider has their own distinct, elemental themed dragon… and some of the most “un-fantasy” names you’ll ever see. Will you save the world as Quaid, Ian, Sonia or Rob?
Like Sol Divide before it, Dragon Blaze makes a cursory attempt at telling a story as you progress through its levels, but this is limited to a couple of lines of dialogue before you enter each stage. The character designs are neat, but without any real context it’s hard to get too invested in their struggles. They tried, at least.
Instead, each character is distinguished in the same way as the different planes in the Strikers series: they each have a basic shot attack that increases in intensity as you collect power-ups, and increases in power level also activate some sort of subweapon such as homing missiles or laser beams. I don’t think we’re supposed to think too hard about how or why dragons are able to fire homing missiles; just call it “magic” and be done with it. Or they might be arrows. Exploding arrows.
Talking of magic, each dragon rider has their own magic spell that works in a similar fashion to the charged shot in Strikers 1945 II and III: a meter charges in the corner of the screen, and holding the regular (not rapid-fire) shot button causes you to unleash the spell for as long as you hold the button — or until the meter expires. Effects vary by character, ranging from a super-wide spread of shots to a localised lightning blast.
Dragon Blaze’s distinctive new mechanic comes in the form of the dragon you’re riding: at the tap of a button, you can launch it out in front of you in a piercing attack called a “Dragonstrike”. Once you’ve done this it will stay put where it ends up, continually firing as a stationary “turret” of sorts, until you tap the button again to call it back. There’s no limit to how much you can do this, allowing you the freedom to cover various areas of the screen as you see fit — though you need to remember the rider’s own firepower is relatively limited in comparison to what the dragon is capable of.
The Dragonstrike is particularly important for Dragon Blaze’s twist on Strikers 1945 III’s Technical Bonus mechanic. Here, the bosses once again perform a distinctive, unique animation at some point in their overall attack pattern, and at this point you can kill them instantly for a hefty score bonus if you hit a glowing orb with a well-aimed and well-timed Dragonstrike.
This mechanic is significantly easier to pull off here than it was in Strikers 1945 III because there’s no need for you to use a well-timed bomb to be able to wade into the thick of the action; instead, it’s all about understanding the range your Dragonstrike covers and timing it correctly. The visual cues are more distinct, too; as well as the unique animation, there’s also a vibrant “flash” emanating from the orb when it appears, making it much easier to learn at what point in the attack pattern it occurs.
Like the Strikers 1945 games, the first four stages of Dragon Blaze are in a randomised order, with the remainder of the game unfolding in linear fashion. This gives plenty of variety from playthrough to playthrough, and gives those taking aim for a one-credit clear a bit less monotony as they try and make improvements each time.
As with the other Psikyo shoot ’em ups on Nintendo Switch, there are plenty of options to customise your experience, including the ability to play in vertical “TATE” mode, the option to limit (or remove) continue credits, seven difficulty levels (a welcome return to broader accessibility after Strikers 1945 III) and various other tweaks.
Likewise, the Switch version of Dragon Blaze also lacks replays and online leaderboards, but once again your mileage may vary as to whether or not that’s something worth getting upset about.
Presentation-wise, Dragon Blaze looks and sounds lovely. There’s a touch of the “hand-crafted” look of Sol Divide about some of the enemies — particularly the bosses — and there’s a beautiful level of detail in each level, giving a sense of non-verbal narrative progression as you proceed, particularly in the later stages.
You’ll see green-skinned goblins running around on the ground and occasionally falling foul of their own schemes; deadly flora and fauna burst forth from the ground; strange, mystical objects float before you before inevitably unleashing a hail of bullets in your direction. If nothing else, the fantasy angle is a nice change from the concrete and machinery of the Strikers series — even if it’s arguably swapping one set of clichés for another.
On paper, Dragon Blaze might sound like it doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself from its spiritual predecessors, but it certainly has a distinctive look and feel all of its own. It’s another great Psikyo shoot ’em up with a broad appeal — and once again, the Nintendo Switch version represents the definitive way to play for modern shoot ’em up enthusiasts.
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