You have to admire a game like Graceful Explosion Machine right from the title alone. There’s something to be said for ambition and artistry, and the name evokes a lot of ideas regarding a combination in incendiary beauty and what I imagine ballet is like if you mix it with MMA. I was certainly strapped and ready for a game that was going to be over the top. I was infinitely not prepared for how much fun I was going to have.
Graceful Explosion Machine is the simple yet effective tale of an escape pod from a much larger, shinier space ship that was beset by aliens and blown to hell. Your original mothership had some beautiful gems all around it, and the aliens, being thieves as well as dicks, decided to abscond with as many of them as they could carry. For reasons that I can only imagine are “awesome,” your escape pod is outfitted with the ability to utilize weapons, so you’re going to get those gems back in order to get back home, because space is a terrible place to live. Despite this being a clean cut tale of revenge and salvation, there is nothing dark or gritty about the game: far from it, as we’ll see in just a moment.
Your ship has four primary weapons that you slowly unlock over the course of the tutorial. Your primary weapon, a short range blaster, will slowly overheat over use, so you need to get into the habit of firing in spurts. The other three weapons rely on an energy tank that can slowly or quickly deplete and needs to be refilled with gems that the enemies drop. Of the three, the missiles are the most hilarious and enjoyable weapon to constantly overuse and end up in trouble with, as it does eat up the energy the fastest. Your sniper rifle is key to big boss enemies, but you do leave yourself quite vulnerable trying to focus on just one dude at a time. Lastly, the “energy sword” is a spinning arc near your ship that does a pretty spiffy job of cleaning out the immediate vicinity when you feel a bit cramped. These You do also gain the ability to dash out of the way, and dashing makes you invulnerable to collision damage, but not bullets. This is theoretically a great way to stay alive, but I never seemed to time my “dash in/dash out” right, and often stopped my speed just in time to crash into whatever alien was ready to wreck me.
The approach to the aliens and the shooting is pretty grand. They spawn in clusters in multiple waves, very reminiscent of Vertex Pop’s other title, WE ARE DOOMED. The enemies come in various strengths and shapes, from your standard green space larvae that go down pretty easily to any number of dashers, shooters, spinners and generally more difficult monstrosities that solely exist to try and eat your face. You have a limited number of times you can get hit/shot, with a couple of seconds invincibility in between, before it’s game over and you have to restart the stage again. The stages wrap around, like a Pac Man level, causing you to need to keep an eye on both sides at the same time. Your ship can flip around on a dime, but you can’t face up or down, so keeping a clear ceiling and basement is key to survival. Traditionally, surviving three waves of spawn is enough to finish a level, and you have nine stages per planet, with four colorful planets, to blast the ever loving hell out of things and create the pathway to Earth.
When I say colorful, I mean COLORFUL. Graceful Explosion Machine is many things, but “drab” or “monotonous” don’t even come close to the visual feast of this Technicolor soirée. Everything is incredibly bright and candy-like, again, like WE ARE DOOMED, but Graceful Explosion Machine uses a much softer approach to angles and designs. Things look more like aliens and the space bugs that you would imagine inhabit the cosmos, and even your ship looks more like a certain yellow submarine than the gritty, sharp ships that have come to pass recently. Foes explode in a radius of light and sound, and you can easily get distracted by the majesty of how it all comes together when the reactions start to catch up. Keep in mind, I don’t mean chain reactions, as dead enemies don’t do residual damage. I mean the reactions that come from the “Graceful” part of this game.
You see, due to the limited resources you have (your array of weapons never upgrade past their initial forms), you have to become adept at treating each stage like a dance. You get into patterns and fluid movements, like you’re in a stage production, and you deftly dart in and out, around and back, swapping between weapons as fast as you can while being careful not to over exert any single tool. The energy sword feels like a dramatic flourish, the sniper rifle a grand leap, and the missiles are the crowd-pleasing combination that’s sure to wow critics and judges alike. But all you have to do is miss once – turn left instead of right, or hit the sniper button instead of the blaster – and you falter, take damage, and lose the momentum. You have three lives, but, in my opinion, you might as well just have one. As soon as you make a single misstep, especially on the later planets, you’re done, and it’s very difficult to recover. I think it might have been different had I been better with the dash, but I’ve always been an offensive person, both in play style and speaking to new people.
And no good dance would be complete without a gorgeous soundtrack. Graceful Explosion Machine is driven by a complete experience of synths and electronic majesty that carries you, from start to finish, with plenty of original and engaging pieces. In fact, I would argue that this is one of the places where the PC version of GEM is superior to the Switch, if only because I had the opportunity to get the DLC OST separate and then bring it on the go to listen wherever I am. It’s task music, pure and simple. When you need to get something done that’s either technical or otherwise complex, the compositions of Robby Duguay is prime material for your background.
My only serious criticism of Graceful Explosion Machine is how short it is. With only 36 collective levels, you can burn through the game pretty quickly, and mastering the way the game moves and thinks will cause you to finish it even quicker. I personally find a LOT of replay value therein, but I also love these types of games where you get into a groove and just let your muscle memory go to town. For fans of dramatic length titles, or even people who enjoy a bit of an evolution to their gameplay, you’re not going to find it here. But if you enjoy a solid, fun and frantic shooter, if you love sensory overload during space mayhem, if you NEED to blow the ever loving hell out of some things, then Graceful Explosion Machine should be next on your list. I feel like I have a quarter waiting on the cabinet, and I can’t wait till it’s my turn.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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