HIGH Having a robot for a main character is always a perk.
LOW Everything else.
WTF The utter lack of a difficulty curve: it's all just this side of infuriating.
In certain circles, developers Treasure are still worshiped as near-mythic figures capable of performing flawless feats of 2D game design. The hardest of the core say the studio's name with reverence, and it's quite difficult to find anyone to speak ill of the work they've done. Though I do have respect for some of their titles like Ikaruga or the import-only Radiant Silvergun, I actually see Treasure as one of gaming's last sacred cows...from where I'm standing, they've failed to make the transition into the new generation, and the fact that they've largely disappeared from the public eye has granted them a sort of rock-star status by scoring few hits and then sort of "going out" at the top of their game.
Honestly, I think it's a little bit ridiculous how the studio remains virtually untouchable in critical discussion. I was never their biggest fan at the height of their popularity, and taking a look at their latest offering, Bangai-O Spirits, I still don't see anything to elevate their work above the hundreds of other studios engaged in the current scene besides their obvious adherence to 2D. Heresy, I know.
Bangai-O Spirits on Nintendo's DS is the sequel to Bangai-O on the Dreamcast. (Another reason the game gets insta-cred.) It's hard to properly sum the formula up, but the gist is that the player takes control of a small robot and basically tries to survive imminent death in approximately 160 different levels. The robot can change weaponry in order to improve its chances of survival depending on the situation, but it's almost more accurate to say that the game has puzzle-based gameplay than the traditional shooting one might expect based on the cover art and screenshots.
Rather than a traditional approach to design where developers understand the concept of level progression and take care to ensure that players have a chance to build skills and become familiar with idiosyncratic mechanics, what's actually here is more like a bunch of crazy ideas thrown together haphazardly, shaken until dizzy, and labeled a "game." But is it a game? If you ask me, it's more like pure chaos on a cartridge. Seriously, I think this game is a total wreck.
In most levels, death usually comes in seconds thanks to swarms of rockets or endless arrays of lasers. If a Game Over hits me before I'm even aware of what's going on, how can I be expected to invent a strategy for success? Going further, it's not entirely clear how each weapon the robot uses functions, or how they function when combined with each other, so apparently Treasure would like me to spend time trying things at random in the hopes of coming across a proper solution in between dying every five seconds. It's just common sense that a developer should make sure a player can swim before dropping them into the deep end, but that lesson seems to have slipped right by Bangai-O Spirits.
After the totally unsatisfactory tutorial, the player is given the choice between several groups of levels and everything is open from the start. This is noteworthy since it means that whenever a player gets stuck, they can simply skip whatever's giving them a headache and move on. However, rather than this feature being being a positive, this decision is more like an admission—I see it as Treasure's way of saying that they have no idea how to teach the player what to do, or how to build a proper difficulty curve. Going further, not only does the game offer a create-a-level feature, but every level in the entire game can be edited. Highly unusual, this addition only reinforces my impression that Bangai-O Spirits is more like half-baked shareware than a vetted, polished product from maverick pros. After all, there's no harm in letting players deconstruct the levels since they barely seem to work in the first place.
The lacking presentation doesn't help the sketchy gameplay. The visuals are totally cluttered, microscopically small, and bordering on nonfunctional. Quite literally, the robot the player controls is twenty pixels high (go grab your DS and count them to see how ridiculously small this is...I'll wait) and most of the environments are crammed full of enemy robots, objects to shoot, fruit to collect, and such massive concentrations of missiles and other projectiles that the DS chokes with slowdown. A small handful of the levels are even nigh-unplayable because the system struggles to display everything on screen. When a player gets killed between screen refreshes, that's a hint that things need to go back to the drawing board.
If Treasure's name wasn't attached to this product, I seriously doubt that it would have ever found a publisher, let alone the warm reception most other review sites have given it. I'd also say Treasure is quite fortunate to still be riding the wave of good feeling that was generated from their work in earlier years, but they'll get no such nostalgia from me. Messy, deficient, and distasteful, Bangai-O Spirits is currently in the lead for being the most abortive DS title I've played all year.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via the publisher and reviewed on the Nintendo DS. Approximately 6 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes. The game was not completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains mild fantasy violence. don't have anything to worry about. The game may be crammed with robots, fruit, and more missiles than a person can count, but there's nothing especially violent or graphic about any of it. Besides, the graphics are so small, you can hardly make anything out in the first place. There's no questionable language or sexual content.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There aren't any accessibility problems with this game. There is only a tiny amount of dialogue presented through text in the tutorial, with none to be seen in the rest of the game. There are no significant auditory cues, so audio won't be a problem here.