Shikhondo: Soul Eater Review

It’s becoming increasingly rare to run into a game with absolutely no story whatsoever. I mean, sure, there are plenty of puzzle based mobile games that technically have no story, but there’s still a narrative of sorts built up, even if it’s just “you are an addict and you need to put down your phone.” People like to mistakenly malign NES era games as having no story except for what the developers revealed years later, but this simply isn’t true: most of the stories were told in the instruction manuals that no one bothered to read or look into until they hit a wall in terms of gameplay. So when you run into something with its entire story summed up in two lines, it both raises and lowers the bar in the same swing. On the one hand, you don’t need to worry about fully understanding the meaning or drive of some characters. On the other hand, now the game needs to stand on its own: no pretending the intense and intricate storyline is what keeps you playing. And Shikhondo: Soul Eater is pretty determined to make you love it without needing to tell a tale.

The game is literally about picking one of two characters: the Grim Reaper, or The Girl. To be fair, both of these characters are female, of an indeterminable age, and wear clothing that tells nothing about their past or their history. Your job is to shoot yokai, which have grown in startling popularity for gaming in the last few years. Probably because yokai are exceedingly dope and it stands to reason to want to interact with them more, both because every monster has a backstory and every creature has a unique design that is also attributed, somewhat, to that creatures geographical background. Anyways, from horned skulls of fallen shogun to the creepy visages of possessed demons, you shoot them all with an abundance of energy and firepower. Why can you do this? Please don’t ask questions, we’ve already gotten as much story out of the game as you can hope for.

Gameplay wise, Shikhondo is a bullet hell in a vertical sense with no option to swing the Switch into vertical mode, already a bit of a heartbreaker but still forgivable. With multiple modes of difficulty, this game definitely ranks in the danmaku category, asking you to weave through increasingly dense curtains of bullets to get to some truly horrifying and magnificent, multi-staged bosses. As you shoot the hell out of them, you build up a spirit gauge by working your graze, or barely not getting shot by the bullets. Max out your meter to unleash a spiritual fury, in which the number of bullets you pump out amplifies tenfold for a limited amount of time and you basically wipe the floor with anything in front of you. However, be careful: the bosses aren’t easily knocked out, and you can quickly get lost in the presentation and the aesthetic, which is both Shikhondo’s strength and weakness.

Something that comes with no caveats whatsoever is the soundtrack. Crafting the appropriate level of mystical creepiness and ancient foreboding, Shikhondo has a haunting, gripping soundscape to back up the presentation, and will keep the player entranced and focused on the task at hand from the first wave of yurei to the final big boss, which is truly a sight to behold. In general, bullet hell shooters tend to deliver some exceptional music, and Shikhondo is no exception. There’s even a couple of more melancholy, sad tunes that give a certain hint at what could be going on behind the scenes. Just because the girl doesn’t have a name doesn’t mean she has no story, and the developers leave it up to you to create the narrative of why she and the embodiment of Death are both hunting Japanese demons. Man, I really hope we find out someday.

Anyways, controls. Shikhondo is a pretty tight ship, and I’m pleased to say there wasn’t a time where I experienced crashes, glitches or slowdowns. Even when I exploded with spiritual energy on hard mode and the screen became a sparkling shower of mayhem, my Switch continued to push forward without tripping, headstrong and resilient in the face of so many draws at once. Can I just say that the creators of shmups on the Switch have sincerely done a fantastic job of maintaining some phenomenal bullet density? There was and is so much talk about how underpowered the Switch is, and people bemoan the fact that the PS4 has more teraflops or whatever, but the Switch does what it does exceptionally well, and that is playing the games created for it. I have yet to run into a game where I point a finger at the system and blame it before I blame the code and the creation.

The beauty of Shikhondo is both the high and the low of the game. Right from the very menus and down to the borders around the play field, Shikhondo has this air of imitating ancient Japanese theater in it’s presentation, even as far as the beautifully drawn kanji that appear with each big yokai boss. Every minor mob that gets shot down still has this great, hand-drawn quality to it, and when you finally get to the major players it’s astonishing how detailed they are and the successful capture of what the monsters look like if they were drawn out of those wood-block prints from the long long ago.This is one of those games where I can’t get over the quality that went into a title that many people haven’t even heard of, despite having a decent run on both Steam and the PS4. My children, who are great yokai fans in their own right, keep hoping that we’re going to run into a nekomata as an unlockable character. I’m not going to break their hearts just yet, so we’ll keep checking.

But, in an effort to keep the mystical energy flowing, the heroines of Shikhondo are also surrounded by these luminous, almost gaseous clouds on either side of their personage, and the strike zone on their bodies is this tiny, blandly-colored sphere that sits on their chest. Similar to Azure Reflections, the spot where you can be damaged is most visible when you use controls to slow down your movements, but the heart that Azure uses stands out, even in the middle of a firefight frenzy. In Shikhondo, your danger zone blends into everything else, and following it along with the tracers created by your magical light show, combined with some bullets looking VERY similar to your own chest piece, means that you might weave left when you should have gone right, literally jumping away from your own shadow and straight into the wood chipper. It’s not an excuse, I know I’m not very good at bullet hell games, but it’s something that I noticed and it seriously bothered me. When the game is so damn pretty to look at, being distracted in a bad way taints a bit of the overall experience.

However, there’s a good chance that a player with better eyesight or, God forbid, a better TV will have zero problems tracking themselves around the screen, and bully for them. In that case, Shikhondo: Soul Eater becomes this marvelous adventure of medium to medium hard difficulty, appropriately paced with longer levels than Azure Reflections (but shorter than Ikaruga), some fantastic music and, I must stress, some truly gorgeous character and set design. Being able to take along another player in Co-Op mode is surprisingly fun (if more chaotic), and the Boss Rush creates a chance to marvel at what massive beasts exist in the halls of Japanese mythology. Simply to watch the game is a delight, and playing it is still damn fun. The bullet hell games are coming faster and faster, and I, for one, welcome them with open arms. Here’s to hoping DeerFarm can bake in some rotation in the near future, however: the vertical grip for the Switch is coming out soon, and fans will want to enjoy this game in the properly oriented way.

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@bonusstage.co.uk.

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