When I think of bullet hell action games, there’s always a specific vision that comes to mind. Newgrounds flash games, Touhou, and incredibly retro top-down shooters. The genre seems to have some niche appeal that follows it wherever it may go, at least from my viewpoint. There’s been very little AAA treatment for this specific type of game, which is understandable given its assumed difficulty. Accessibility is everything in a medium since gussied by “The Man,” leaving those without the standard interest to resort to alternative means. ITTA is just that kind of bullet hell bonus.
The indie scene has also begun an unspoken interest in a specific type of storytelling. Self-reflective, broody, and emotional; polar opposite from the generalized amoral slaughterfests that tend to gain some traction in gaming. What one receives is a best-of-both-worlds situation that blends the typical action shooter with the questioning nature of humanity and its role through the lead character. How this all fits within the course of the game will be what ultimately gauges its recommendability.
The story does not pull any punches—after all, you wake up next to your dead family. Not a cozy, puritan sight, either: bloodied, battered, and horrifically recognizable. With hardly an introductory to progress through, one simply wakes up and is prompted to continue. Some fantasy shenanigans take place in the form of a spirit cat that guides poor Itta along, but otherwise, it’s straightforward from there.
A common point of mysterious, emotionally poignant fantasy settings tend to revolve around mental health or psychology. Even the Steam synopsis for ITTA states that the game is “inspired by themes of personal struggle.” As such, many of the events that embody the narrative don’t make much sense from a practical standpoint, lobbying for the player to use some measure of imagination. Similarly, the moral fabric of one’s actions are also called into question multiple times, alienating the player into wondering if all the fighting is worth it. More involved then the general bullet hell shooter, ITTA is something of an amalgamation of various game types.
I will always vouch for a personal approach to storytelling. Seeing what people are able to come up with to give their games meaning and insight is something I genuinely wish AAA games would do, as well. However, there’s something of an unsatisfactory taste to a vague presentation of ideas without much of a payoff. This narrative is clearly striving for moral ambiguity, a grayness in a bleak(?) world where dark actions are common. Yet the focus gels into this middle space of uncertainty that, while trying to provoke ideas, doesn’t end up saying much at all. Ironically enough, the most concrete statement is said in the aforementioned Steam synopsis: “The important thing is to keep going… no matter what you endure along the way.” Similar is said near the game’s endpoint, but until then, it may as well have been a random offbeat dream.
Did I mention ITTA is a bullet hell game? Great, because it also combines various gameplay tweaks that have become popular in recent times. The ever famous dodge-roll, an accessible weapon ring, and a boss-rush structure make this among the more hands-on titles I’ve played yet. For those familiar with the title, the base gameplay is very Enter the Gungeon-esque. For those unaware of the reference, it plays in a top-down, twin-stick fashion where one stick moves and the other aims. Shoot and dodge and shoot some more while dodging thousands of bullets that fly one’s way.
Playing through this was a bit of an up-and-down experience, particularly because I missed the “freely toggle damage multipliers or invincibility” prompt. To be blunt, this is not an easy game. Even during the beginning, without any aid from the game’s options, bosses can catch you off-guard and rack up lives. One boss in particular, fashioning a teleportation attack with a borderline-unfair hitbox, had me stuck for nearly an hour. That was a clear low, but continuing the adventure, I found myself intrigued with finding all the little secrets available in the overworld. One can (almost) freely explore every area before fighting any boss, strengthening themselves to make bosses more manageable. I was so frugal that I almost made it too easy, which made me appreciate the freedom to do so. This, at the very least, adds replayability to pose further challenges on players taken by the boss duels.
Of the bosses, it’s not very hard to describe what “bullet hell” entails, and ITTA is fully aware of this. Enemies shoot tons of bullets that flood the screen at alarming rates, requiring the player to have twenty eyes at once. To quickly clarify, there are no enemies in the overworld. Whatever threat comes into view is entirely predicated on the player entering a designated boss room and moving close to it. Each boss has a bit of differentiation to their offensive strategy, and also applies to the symbolic nature of their struggles or inner desires (theoretically). At their core, most are going to shoot a million bullets at you, but while some randomly call upon a partner, others may use their surrounding environment, boost their abilities, or jump often. There’s enough distinction between them to make it enjoyable to strategize, but again, just try and avoid the inevitable bullet hell.
In the overworld, the priority is much different. Most of what’s available outside boss fights include running around, interacting with random figures and textbooks, and finding secrets. Poetically, one could consider it the exploratory heaven to the bullet hell alternative. Some may find this a solitary escape from anxiety, or a plain existence that doesn’t offer anything. Personally, I wish there was more to the overworld than there is, even if its emptiness may have been symbolically driven. Exploring does provide an adequate amount of rewards, and some of the individuals one can converse with offer intriguing dialogue. Nevertheless, especially when not entirely sure of where to go, travel can be tedious.
One more small note to make is that the game copy I was provided was a little unstable. Upon finishing one boss, the game crashed, causing me to have to beat them again. Another glitch had me entering various boss room doors, only to have the game register that I exited, forcing me to access the entrance twice despite already being behind the door. Finally, certain terrains that shouldn’t be accessible, were, particularly those in black. These things aren’t so terrible that they end up game-breaking, but if they deterred me to this degree, who knows how much it could affect others?
Graphics & Audio
Pixel graphics are a niche appeal, I fully acknowledge that. Nevertheless, I do believe that the quality of animation, particularly with the boss animation, is better suited for that style. There’s a minimalist approach that makes the tranquil moments—and sudden dark turns—all the more effective. Even if it’s strong in context, the objective take on the art direction is… neat. Nothing rapturous enough to make it official eye candy, though there’s a simple charm attached. The mood intends to capture a balanced steadiness of unnerved tranquility, constantly at battle. It’s reflected well in the art style, which my sister described as “Adventure Time.”
Its auditory features are much of the same way. Peaceful and erratic, quiet and loud. The constant theme of duality seems to be at play in every facet of IITA‘s structure. Though from my perspective, the soundtrack to this game is probably the weakest part of the game. At the time of writing, I don’t recall a single track from the game, aside from the general energy from boss tracks. For as personal as the game is, there isn’t too much present that invokes the same degree of intensity, perhaps due to a lack of narrative focus. It sticks to the theme it adheres to, which is commendable enough, but doesn’t resonate much.