Graceful Explosion Machine is a brand new pixel-shmup that shows some definite roots in games like Geometry Wars and Resogun but ultimately paints it'own unique vision within the genre. Vertex Pop has developed what looks like a very simple shooter on the exterior, but surviving the hordes of aliens in crowded passageways requires fast action and the ability to switch between weapons to demolish certain enemy types as well as massive waves of foes.
It's a 2D side-scrolling shmup with some explosive visuals, and the game is highly accessible–that doesn't mean easy. Both rookies and veterans will find a lot to love here, and there is a fair amount of content for the price.
Graceful Explosion Machine can be purchased on the PSN store for $12.99.
Like any good space shooter, there isn't a whole lot to comment on when it comes to the story. There is a brief cutscene (with some cute animations) where we see our ship surrounded by droves of enemies in mid-space. Taking some incoming fire, our ship heads for a series of plants where it will presumably need to fight to survive in order to return home.
This game is quick to toss you right into the fray, which players will love because the gameplay is both solid and addicting–no story needed.
The gameplay in Graceful Explosion Machine is played out over the course of four different planets containing eight different levels each. Levels are broken into three phrases, and it takes roughly five to ten minutes to complete a whole level. The game starts relatively easy, and you are given three tries to complete a level before getting a game over, but the difficulty does drastically increase as larger volumes of enemies crowd the corridors and stronger foes begin to appear about midway through the game.
Where Graceful Explosion Machine truly shines is its weapon system. Each of the attack buttons utilizes a different weapon. The basic weapon is a standard blaster, but you also have a sniper attack for far off enemies or enemies with a hard exterior. Then you have–my personal favorite–the energy sword that has a shorter radius but slices through enemies in a 360-degree periphery. The final weapon is the missiles which can be used to mow down hordes of enemies that are too large and or too close for other weaponry.
It doesn't end there though. There is also a unique energy system. Fire too much and your ship needs to recharge. This is where the strategy seriously kicks in, because sometimes it's smarter to pick off a few strong foes while, at other times, it does make more sense to unload your entire arsenal on a massive cluster of opponents. If your ship runs out of energy, it takes a short period of time to recharge. During this time you can only shoot the basic blaster; all other weapons are disabled.
Luckily, there are ways to refill your energy gauge outside of simply waiting. Destroyed foes often turn into yellow bits that can be used to recharge your energy bar. It's not always easy to grab them since there may be enemy crafts surrounding them and they disappear after a few seconds if not picked up. I loved obliterating mobs of foes with my missiles (which drains your energy bar quickly) and swooping in to grab the plethora of energy while immediately continuing my assault. This came with risks, and I definitely took some hits doing so since you occasionally miss an enemy, and some enemies may shoot a final projectile as they are killed.
Much like some other modern shmups, there is a boost feature. Pressing the right trigger will launch your ship safely away from where you were, so long as it's only enemies you move through since the ship cannot blast through enemy bullets. This feature is very handy, and you can do it two times before it needs to recharge, but even then, the recharge only takes a few seconds. It seemed too convenient in the early stages, but you will need to use this more and more as your progress through the game.
Another longtime shmup staple is having multipliers to get higher points. If you can consistently keep hitting enemies without getting hit or taking too long a break between shots then your multiplier will increase. This gives you a higher score, and thus, a higher ranking. There is an online leaderboard for high scores, and aiming for multipliers and points greatly increases the game's difficulty.
I really liked the incredibly overpowered, tiny ship I got to control, and while some enemies very obviously require a certain type of weaponry to quickly dispose of them, it was fun to pave my own path and slice through hordes of vibrantly colored foes however I saw fit. By changing weapons at the right time, and playing intelligently, the game offers a serious adrenaline rush and sense of freedom that most shmups deny.
The freedom that the weaponry offers is essential since the levels have a feeling of claustrophobia, and you are often piloting through narrow gaps with foes on both sides. There is a map to show enemies, but it's a constant fight to find enough space to comfortably ward off foes. I did enjoy using dead ends and small areas to my advantage by bottlenecking hostiles. It isn't always possible, but I was surprised by the amount of strategy that I was able to employ in what initially felt like a very simplistic shooter.
visuals and sound
At first, the visuals seem overly simple and look like a Saturday morning cartoon shooter. It quickly becomes apparent that the graphics, simple as they may be, are stylish and actually do gracefully explode upon the screen. Enemies range from every color in the spectrum, and projectiles light up the screen with colorful bursts of energy. Destroyed enemies blow up and turn into geometric blasts, and flashy trails constantly fill the horizon.
The backgrounds are very simple, and it seems you are always inside a cave, just with different colors, but thankfully the levels all have their own design, and each planet has just enough personality where it doesn't feel like you are playing the same level over and over again. I absolutely loved the pixelated world Vertex Pop created, and there was always plenty of splashy explosions and colors on the screen to keep me entranced.
The soundtrack was arguably the weakest point of Graceful Explosion Machine. Anyone who has played a lot of shmups knows that they have traditionally boasted some of the most ripping, glorious, and kick butt soundtracks ever made. Graceful Explosion Machine commits no crime with its soundtrack, but the fairly relaxed electronic beats ended up meshing together and sounding a bit humdrum. With that said, I still thought the music was ok, and the gunfire and explosions sound great, so it doesn't take much away from the final product.
It's obvious that the developers have played some past shmups and have put forth a ton of effort in creating a brand new game while paying homage to other classics in the genre. Graceful Explosion Machine may seem ordinary at first, but the game has a lot of levels and will require players to employ some serious strategy if they are to survive the later stages. Unfortunately, the downside of there being so many levels is that some of them seem to blend together, and there can be a slight sense of tedium in trying to complete a planet, but the gameplay is addicting enough to make this only a minor problem.
The weapon and recharging system is one of the best-balanced systems I have played in any shmup, and I like that there is a lot of freedom allowed in how to best complete a level. There is rarely any memorization required as in some older shooters, and there is a constant tension that fills nearly every moment of gameplay as both death and victory crawl in the periphery.
I think longtime shmup fans, as well as rookies, will find this game to be a worthwhile predecessor in a long line of modern shooters, and the price tag is very fair for the available content. If you like shmups, or just want to try the genre, this is a great place to start or continue your legacy. It isn't the best shmup ever made, but it's definitely a very good one.
+ Weapon system rocks
– Some levels felt too similar
+ Beautiful 2D explosions
-Music wasn't shmuptacular
+ Difficulty climbs steadily without spiking