A few years ago, I tried a demo of Ikaruga. I liked the concept of the game, and I had fond childhood memories of other shoot ‘em ups like Raptor: Call of the Shadows and TwinBee, so I thought for sure that Ikaruga would be a game I would like.
I didn’t. Not because it’s a bad game – even then, I could recognise its brilliance – but because it destroyed me so completely and utterly that I could never see fit to even revisit the demo, let alone buy the full game. Since then, I’ve had a weird relationship with shoot ‘em ups, the bullet hell variety in particular, in that I find them fascinating but the prospect of actually playing them is a daunting one.
Enter Blue Revolver, a game that takes that doesn’t just take this infamously difficult genre around and make it approachable for newcomers, but does so without losing any of the things that make bullet hell shooters special. It invited me and welcomed me into the fold of one of gaming’s most intriguing niches.
The basic idea in Blue Revolver is the same as any other shoot ‘em up: fly a spaceship along a scrolling path, shooting wave after wave of enemies and dodging the hundreds of bullets that they should at you. Enemy formations and bullet patterns are complex and intricate, demanding sharp reflexes, precise movement, and quick tactical thinking.
What sets this game apart, however, is the handful of different systems overlaid across that core gameplay to make the difficulty very customisable and adaptable. For starters, you have three broad difficulty settings to choose from: Hyper is the standard difficulty, designed for bullet hell vets; Normal is a bit on the easier side with simpler bullet patterns and a few safety nets to keep you alive; and Parallel, which is designed to be a challenge to even the most hardcore pilots.
On top of that, Blue Revolver adapts on the fly to increase or decrease the challenge based on how well you’re playing. Perform well and the game will gradually get harder, as shots speed up and patterns get more complex; play poorly, and you’ll get a bit of breathing space. This works in tandem with the set difficulty to create a game with a huge range of challenge – on Normal with the dynamic difficulty at its lowest, the game is fairly approachable even to a newbie like me; on Parallel, which locks that adaptive system to its highest setting, it’s an absolute nightmare.
If that’s not enough, you can unlock a Free Play mode that gives you unlimited continues, and given that you respawn from right where you died, that basically renders the game’s difficulty moot. That may seem like it defeats the purpose of playing a game, and I guess to some extent it does, but there’s something to be said for being able to just play a game without having to worry about the punishment of failure. It seems counter-intuitive, but playing with Free Play somehow motivated me to play better and try harder to master the game.
When you’re ready to go to the next level, Blue Revolver has few great tools for getting better acquainted with the complexities of the game. There’s an option to turn on hitboxes, giving you a visual indicator of just how close you can safely get to the bullets you’re weaving your way between. Given how many shots there are on the screen at any given time and how quickly they move, the hitboxes can be difficult to track at times, but they’re still a great help for figuring out just what you can get away with.
Then there’s Mission Mode, which offers up a series of small, focused challenges, like finishing a level without dying or trying to reach a certain score threshold. They’re difficult – far more than just playing the game on Normal – but their narrow focus works wonders for getting you better acquainted with the intricacies of the game.
With all these different tools at play, Blue Revolver manages to cater to a huge range of skill levels, which is not something I ever imagined I’d write about a shoot ‘em up. It’s also just a fantastic game across the board – smooth controls, creative enemy designs, gorgeous pixel art, a pumping electronic soundtrack – and I know it’s one I’ll be coming back to time and again, even when I’ve graduated to the Ikarugas and DoDonPachis of this world.
Blue Revolver is developed and published by Stellar Circle. It’s available now for PC.
A press copy was supplied by Stellar Circle for this review.