You’re a witch living in the middle of a poisonous swamp, minding your own business making dubious potions. When a group of bandits raids your home and steals your most precious jewel, what do you do? If your answer is “jump on your broom and chase the bandits down, blasting anything that moves along the way”, you’ll find yourself right at home in Barrage Fantasia, a cute, pixel-art shoot ’em up from I3I and Hanaji Games.
Playing as the “self-proclaimed great witch” Herb, Barrage Fantasia sees dodging and shooting your way through five stages full of eclectic foes and trigger-happy bosses, doing your best to rack up those high scores (or just try to stay alive). It’s classic bullet hell stuff; a solid take on a familiar, timeless concept, rather than an effort to push the boundaries of the genre.
And it does a damn good job of that, too. Right from the get-go, enemies come out swinging with attack patterns and formations that are interesting and energetic—not too challenging (that’ll come later), but with a lot more variety than you’d usually expect from a Stage 1 crew. As you’d expect, bosses take things up another notch, with some wildly inventive visual designs and unusual attack patterns to match. When you play a lot of shmup, you get used to things being a little over-the-top, but fighting a ghost train while skeletons throw bombs at you from the windows and spectres try to haunt you from the shadows—among the usual bullet hell chaos—has a way of leaving its mark.
A range of unlockable familiars and special attacks ensure variety and different ways of approaching the game. At the simpler end, you have familiars like the bat, which shoots homing shots and can shield you from certain bullets, and special attacks that function like your standard screen-clearing bomb. At the other end of the scale, you have the likes of a dragon that you can set in place, but only while you’re slow-moving—tricky to use effectively, but extremely powerful in the right hands.
Where shmups usually treat bombs as a last-resort thing that you’d ideally want to never need to use, Barrage Fantasia‘s equivalent special attacks are there to be used liberally. Stock constantly regenerates (though how fast depends on which type you choose at the start of a game), and most of the different options have useful side effects like a temporary damage boost. This adds an interesting dynamic to the scoring system, too, because smart and efficient use of your specials can be the secret to some big bonuses: a well-placed bomb can net you a whole lot of medals from cancelled bullets, but you also don’t want to spend too long sitting on a full stock waiting for the perfect moment and letting all that potential regeneration go to waste.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Barrage Fantasia‘s systems is how it deals with lives. You start each game with either three or five hearts (depending on difficulty), and it’s game over once you run out of them—so far, so standard. But like special attacks, hearts slowly regenerate, and if you already have full health when a recovery cycle completes, you get some extra points. It’s a neat system that manages to be both beginner-friendly but also reward expert play, especially when you factor in the ability to speed up recovery with risky moves like grazing.
These pieces all come together to ensure Barrage Fantasia has a scoring system that’s sufficiently deep, even without the mechanical complexity of a lot of other bullet hells. It doesn’t take long to get a picture of what high-scoring play might look like, but finding the most effective way of doing that will take some practice and thought. Sadly, there are no online leaderboards to show off your best efforts and/or be humbled by what the best players are managing to achieve, though.
Nor is there much in the way of the extra game modes and features you often see in a shmup. Aside from the standard arcade mode, there’s a “Short” mode that lets you play individual stages one at a time, and a training mode so you can practice specific sections of any level you’ve unlocked. They’re nice touches, but nothing on the level of the arrange modes and story modes you often see. Other common conveniences, like button mapping and the option to continue when you get a game over, are also absent, but there is, at least, a tate mode—the best way to play a vertically-scrolling shooter.
Barrage Fantasia may be a bit no-frills as an overall package, but the core game is rock solid: a retro-styled bullet hell that knows what makes the genre work and leans into that. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but packs enough of its own ideas to feel unique, with stylish pixel art and cute, eccentric character designs to top it all off.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.