Release Date: 23/10/08
Like a lot of modern-day Japanese shooters, Ketsui is held in high regard by that particular gamer that sees bullet patterns every time they close their eyes. The discerning kind of gamer who prefers the panic-inducing delights of a bullet hell – with its twitch-inducing memory tests and increasingly fragile flirtations with collapse at every turn – to any lavish fantasy world or storytelling so many of today's development houses are keen to peddle.
Not that Ketsui isn't a labour of love, far from it – just in a very different and unforgiving way. Limited to Japanese arcades several years ago now, Ketsui: Death Label will be the first chance for many shooter devotees to get their hands on a home version of Cave's manic vertical shoot 'em up, in handheld form anyway.
Death Label is in fact a boss-rush amalgamation of the arcade game, although there are some stages which pleasingly mix things up a bit, featuring paths of enemies in the more traditional shoot ‘em up sense. Two types of ships are available to control (both are pretty indistinguishable from one another) and each has two kinds of shooting modes. In most instances, you'll want to make use of the charge shot, which, although it slows movement down more than in the default firing-mode, actually helps when negotiating some of the more perilous onslaughts of bullets. Crucially though, it's this mode that generates greater bonus points and downs enemy ships much quicker, meaning there is always a greater chance of collecting extra lives and bombs as a result. The more you stay in this frame of mind, the better.
Stages (if you can call them that) are unlocked in sequence, starting out with shorter, less-fiendish bosses. Each is labelled according to its difficulty, ranging from "Normal" to "Very Hard" to "Death" and even one called "DOOM". Scary stuff. With each progression, stages become longer, and boss battles more unforgiving, until eventually your lives are depleted, and there's nowhere else on the screen to manoeuvre. Failure becomes imminent, and this, it soon becomes evident, is the defining experience of Death Label. It revels in failure, and wants you as the player to get better from it. As many will already know, bullet hell requires concentration, quick but calculated reflexes, a pinch of luck and above all, practice. The very nature of the game requires this honed, perfected attitude, because without it everything comes to a stuttering halt. Smart bombs which clear the area and grant your ship a few moments reprise are a necessity and are actively encouraged here, and plentiful in supply as a result. Access to other levels are prohibited, and only once one is completed does the next appear – longer, more difficult and with more bullets.
With each failure though, relief comes in the form of extra lives and bombs, which are stockpiled for the next go. It's an enticing premise, meaning that your confidence actually increases with each attempt, but it undeniably takes something away from the challenge, no matter how impossible the level may have initially seemed. It does allow the player to experience the dazzling array of bullets once more, so perhaps that's a good thing, as the experience is one to be savoured. Emerging from an impossible situation feels pleasing, miraculous sometimes, and there's a tangible buzz when tackling a sequence of attacks in just the way your mind had planned. This is zonal gaming, one which rewards positioning and reflex and the thrill of destroying enemies against all odds.
The problem with Death Label however, is not the mechanics, but its brevity. Although the latter stages present a more prolonged challenge, repetition plays its part in artificially extending the game's lifespan. So stages are revisited (just with more bullets to dodge) and an increasingly ludicrous shipment of bosses are replayed. Although the aforementioned life reward system makes progression easier, the challenge is eventually diluted enough to make gaining access to the next stage something of a formality. Many of the latter stages in fact, are simply medleys of previous ones, and before long, players will have seen all the game has to offer.
There are the usual extras, in the form of game artwork unlocked by completing challenges in the main game, and some fairly bizarre animation strips entitled "Tell me, IKD-san!" in which the creator discloses secret tactics and information. In addition, bundled into Death Label's packaging is a DVD superplay video, which demos the world's best players owning the arcade hi-score tables, and is another intriguing watch for those wanting to perfect their tactics. A simultaneous multiplayer mode is also a welcome addition, which allows two players to compete for high-scores in a mad hot-potato style contest.
Although not quite in the same genre, ultimately there are better, more comprehensive shooters for the DS out there, in the likes of Geometry Wars and Bangai-O Spirits, all of which offer a more lasting and satisfying diversion. Shooters for the DS aren't exactly ten-a-penny as they are for Sony's PSP, so for this reason alone there is certainly reason enough to recommend Death Label, particularly for fans of this cherished series who have waited for its arrival. As a single player, practice-style shoot ‘em up, this will engage and mesmerise, but questions do remain over its lasting appeal – it does feel like a curiously bare return, when all is said and done.