You know the drill: squeeze through tiny gaps in screen-filling bullet patterns, unleash some bullet hell of your own with a powerful, wide-reaching cannon, hold the shot button to focus fire for an immensely powerful laser and slower, more careful movement. In a lot of ways, Z-Warp is a more conventional bullet hell from a developer with a track record for experimentation, but with one key twist: it wants you to bomb as much as humanly possible.
Where bombs are usually a scarce resource best used as a last resort (if they’re used at all), in Z-Warp, they’re the driving force of the game. With a short cooldown being the only limitation on an otherwise unlimited stock, they’re there to be used liberally—but “liberally” doesn’t mean mindlessly. At full charge, a bomb will clear a large circular area around your ship, turning bullets into score items and destroying any enemy caught in the blast. But while recharging, the blast area is smaller—starting from the immediate proximity of your ship, and gradually expanding—the point items from cancelled bullets are worth less, and enemies are left unscathed. Z-Warp wants you to bomb, but it still wants you to be smart and strategic about it.
That’s an intriguing concept in its own right, but what really makes it work is the way the design of the rest of the game, from level layouts to boss attacks, is built around bombs. Even though standard firepower will work just fine, just about every enemy wave can benefit from a well-placed killer bomb to rack up the points, and the way the blast passes through walls and other hazards that your ship can’t makes it a vital tool for safe navigation. One of the later levels is filled with densely-packed asteroids that release a wave of suicide bullets if destroyed with your cannon, but don’t when bombed, forcing you to weigh up the risks and rewards of each approach: bombing is safer, but you’ll have to keep charge time in mind; the chaos of overlapping suicide bullets is potentially deadly, but can also be lucrative if you manage to bomb a good chunk of them.
Boss encounters are a particular highlight. The densely-packed bullet patterns you’d expect from a danmaku game do their work here, forcing you to navigate fields of hellfire and slip through the tiniest gaps, but they’re interspersed with attacks that would be genuinely unavoidable if not for the bomb. Such attacks are easy enough to avoid in the first couple of stages, but when later bosses start throwing them out thick and fast, the pressure to manage your bomb timing, recharge time, and positioning ramps up—all while dodging the regular patterns, too.
The lack of any contact damage from bosses adds to that dynamic. Bullets are the only thing that can hurt you, so you can safely fly over the boss’ hitbox—and you’ll absolutely need to do so, with attacks coming from all sides that force you to make full use of the screen space available. Between bombs, use of space, and just the creativity of the attack patterns in general, Z-Warp achieves a refreshing take on that wonderful kind of manic dance that a good bullet hell conjures up.
The overall presentation helps ramp up that energy, too. If you’ve played any of Panda Indie Studio’s previous shmups (like Void Gore and Project Starship X), you’ll be familiar with their particular style: chunky pixel work in a sort of grungy neon hell, with an onslaught of effects and flashing lights that feels downright aggressive—pay heed to the seizure warning. It’s particularly true here, as Z-Warp sends through the internal organs of some terrible space monster that you never actually see. Fighting your way through a monstrous intestine before duelling with a boss called Acid Reflux certainly leaves an impression.
As chaotic as it can get, Z-Warp manages to strike a good balance, difficulty-wise. On its easiest setting, even a shmup beginner would likely be able to get a one-credit clear after a few goes; at its hardest, there’s a decent and satisfying challenge. Fluid movement and tight controls certainly help, and intuitive visual design goes a long way in ensuring even the most brutal levels never feel unfair. There’s enough depth in the scoring system to make chasing leaderboards a worthwhile endeavour, too, while the dynamic difficulty of the endlessly-looping Endless mode adds a bit of a competitive streak to playing for survival.
While the core game is rock solid, those looking for a bit more variety will find Z-Warp a little sparse, with just the two basic game modes—a five-stage arcade mode, and the aforementioned Endless mode—and no choice of different ships to experiment with. It also lacks a lot of the peripheral features that you often finds in console shmups: there’s no practice mode, no button config, and limited display options despite being a vertically-oriented game with a lot of unused screen space. There is a tate mode, at least, but even that lacks any option to reposition or scale the display. Most crucially, there’s no option to tone down the flashing effects, which are intense even by arcade game standards. As much as they contribute to the mood and tone of the game, there’s a genuine accessibility issue there that isn’t accounted for.
Z-Warp might be one of the more conventional shmups from a studio that usually leans into the experimental side, but I think it might be Panda Indie’s best yet. The mix of Cave-esque movement, creative bullet patterns, and the inventive twist on bombs makes for a satisfying bullet hell, drenched in the grimy atmosphere of its lo-fi pixel art and sci-fi horror theming. Forget what you know about clinging to your bomb stock—in Z-Warp, that button is your best friend.
Developer: Panda Indie Studio
Genre: Shoot ’em up, bullet hell
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
Release date: 6 April 2022
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.