360 review: Ginga Force

GingaForceMini

Ginga Force* starts off a bit of a mess. Your ship feels underpowered. You can shoot two weapons at once, but doing so quickly drains their energy. Your main weapon loses energy automatically anyhow, exacerbating your helplessness. There’s a nifty shield, but rarely enough bullets onscreen to justify using it.

As you work through the first few stages, you can unlock and purchase new ship parts with money dropped by enemies. They change the look of your ship, but functionally they’re a little underwhelming. A different narrow shot here, a different wide shot there. It feels a little tedious. Keep playing.

You’ll soon unlock a weapon that’s awesome. It’s not necessarily stronger than anything else, but it’s definitely your weapon. My weapon is some sort of staggered burst laser shotgun, which takes its sweet time before unloading a quick shot of shrapnel into enemies. It’s really cool and completely satisfying.

Concentrating all your fire into one forward burst is a liability though, so I complemented my main weapon with four small helper pods. Their rapid fire arcs slightly when I turn, allowing me to bank toward and kill enemies that would otherwise crash into me. They complement my risky design choice, restoring balance to my ship.

The lists of ship parts are fairly long, and you can customize your weapon, subweapon, shield, engine, color, and extra item slots. Some ships end up looking pretty crazy, and the customization has a manic energy of its own. Gearing up for the next level makes Ginga Force feel like a classic mech combat game, but technicality is happily kept to a minimum. And though some combinations work great on specific levels, you’re never hampered by your favorites. For the most part these are trade-offs, not trade-ups.

Customize

As you learn the mechanics, things begin to fall into place. You stagger your subweapon usage. You hound smaller enemies for energy cubes. The levels get more manic, and you deploy your shield more often.

The shield becomes crucial for offensive and defensive play. Unlike your weapons, it charges automatically when not being used. It’s able to tackle even the worst enemy waves on a full charge, an ace in the hole when the enemies really start to spit flak. You can even use it to kill smaller enemies, bullying them about for a second before they explode.

The best thing about the shield is that it breaks. If you have it deployed and run sideways into a bullet, it’ll deplete its energy to save your ship. Shield-breaking is crucial for tight spots, and really works toward keeping the game fair. It’s a second chance and a light rebuke rolled into one, encouraging you to try again but try harder. It’s a simple mechanic that works on every level.

Shooting is the real star of the game, though. Many genre fans are nostalgic for an era when scrolling shooters were more focused on shooting than dodging, and for the most part I don’t really understand. For me, shooters have always been more focused on dodging bullets and earning high scores.

LevelGinga

But Ginga Force is a shooting gallery dream come true. After the first few levels, there are constant hordes of enemies onscreen to dismantle and destroy. There are satisfying explosions from every enemy, and the explosions after a particularly nasty wave can send you reeling.

Weapon conservation comes into its own after a while. It feels intentionally designed to make you pay attention to what you’re doing, instead of constantly autofiring between waves. Watching your energy meter grounds you in the game’s mechanics.

Still, a great shooter has intense bullet patterns to dodge, and Ginga Force pulls through here as well. There are slow waves, manic bursts, and concussion missiles. Enemy shots twirl end over end as they move toward players. Attack pods wind about and explode into balls of energy. Turrets laser-trace large sections of the screen before crackling with lightning.

They’re incredibly unique and incredibly fun to dodge. Though not as flashy as bullet hell patterns, they’re often more engaging. There’s a lot more variety, and the experimental bullet types make the enemies feel distinct in a way that masses of purple bullets sometimes don’t.

The entire game has forward-thinking momentum. The story mode initially gives players a few lives, but starts them with more and more if they’re struggling to beat a stage. Combined with the parts shop, this gives the game a light RPG quality and mitigates the genre’s frustrating difficulty. If you keep trying, you’ll succeed. Some people will just get there sooner than others.

It’s a great compromise that maintains the genre’s steep difficulty while making it accessible to players of any level. Developer Qute wants players to experience the whole game – they just don’t want to give it away.

The story sometimes gets in the way of the action, which might not be a problem if I could understand what’s being said. Regardless, Ginga Force really seems to be addressing some root problems that many gamers have with scrolling shooters. There’s a sense of rewarding progression outside your high score. You’re advancing even if you’re stuck on a level.

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Progression-based gameplay can be problematic when playing for score, but Qute thankfully included a separate score attack mode. You’re not allowed to customize your ship, and instead play through the stages with one of three different pre-built ships.

That’s potentially a deal-breaker when your game focuses so heavily on customization, but each ship is cool enough to star in its own game. The blue ship plays things safe with a needle shot, wide shot, and normal shield. It’s balanced to be an everyman’s ship, and plays like the ship from Eschatos.

The orange ship is rad. It has my laser shotgun and helper drones, but also features a charge shield that’s amazing for destroying bosses and large waves of enemies. The longer you charge it the larger it is, and a fully-charged shield bomb takes up massive screen space, growing even larger as it kills enemies and cancels bullets.

The green ship is equally cool. Its piercing laser decimates bosses, supported by a quick homing shot that helps against smaller foes. Instead of deploying a shield, it slows down time so you can better weave between bullets. Unlike the normal and charge shields, you can fire both weapons while slowing things down. It makes the ship an offensive powerhouse, at a small cost to personal safety.

Score attack has more scoring depth than story mode, though you’re still basically blowing up as much stuff as you can. It’s a very pure system, but it works in much the same way as a caravan shooter does. There’s a ton onscreen to shoot, so you shoot it.

You earn a multiplier whenever you collect a thousand space bucks, and enemies seem to drop more cash if you kill large swarms quickly. You earn extra points at the end of the level for staying alive, finishing quickly, and dismantling bosses before destroying them. The scoring is clean and plays to the game’s strengths.

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It works so well because the game is so damned fun to play. The ships are brilliant, the enemies are legion, and the design is completely fresh. There’s a lot more screen space than is typical for vertical scrollers, and there’s an energetic soundtrack with a ton of knockout synth tracks. Really, they’re fantastic.

If Qute could work together a translation, Ginga Force would be a great candidate for a Games on Demand release. There’s a ton of forward-thinking design here, and it’s the sort of game that could really win people over, whether they like scrolling shooters or not.

I love them to death, but there’s a lot of room for innovation within the genre. With Ginga Force, Qute proves again that they’ve got the nerve and ability to push the genre forward while retaining its fundamental strengths. Ginga Force is a stunning accomplishment.

*Ginga Force is an import title, but will play on any region 360. There’s a lot of Japanese dialogue, but most menus are in English or have helpful iconography. Images are from a pre-release build of the game, but are generally representative of the look of the game.
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4 Responses to “360 review: Ginga Force”

  1. denpanosekai Says:

    I know this is a review (great job) but right now it’s also the most complete gameplay guide out there too! Good job 😉

  2. Squire Grooktook Says:

    Sounds fantastic, I definitely can’t wait to play this game.

    One thing I might ask: Do you think that the “messy” beginning in which one feels underpowered is a natural consequence of the rpg style design? Or do you that this could have been avoided? Not dissing the game or anything, I’m just curious about what you might think about it from a game design perspective.

  3. catstronaut Says:

    I think the messy beginning actually has more to do with players not being used to the ammo conservation mechanic. The first time I played, I ran dry a couple of times during the level, and it made the ship feel really junky. But for the review, I made sure to go back and play the first level with the starter ship, and I didn’t have any problems.

    The initial ship isn’t anything particularly cool, but it isn’t like you start out significantly weaker, unless you’re comparing it to the high-damage narrow laser or something. There’s no levelling or anything like that. So I think the sloppy beginning could have been avoided here, but it would have been at the cost of a smart new mechanic that makes the game feel unique. If we were to abstract into games that actually feature RPG levelling, I think you’d have a lot more problems trying to balance the game with tight design choices.

  4. Gems of this generation: part 2 | Catstronaut Loves Games Says:

    […] And developer Qute proved that they could strike lightning twice with their fantastic follow-up, Ginga Force. Both games display such stellar, forward-thinking design that I can’t praise either […]

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