Deathsmiles is a horizontal Bullet Hell centered around five girls and their fight against evil. Right off the bat you are given 6 modes to choose from which all feature subtle tweaks to the gameplay. Normal mode allows you to pick which ever difficulty you want and Arcade mode only allows you to pick the easier levels a few times before forcing you to up the challenge. “Ver.1.1” is definitely a mode you’d want to avoid picking the first time around as it only gives you one bomb per health bar and causes enemies to fire yellow projectiles once they are defeated far more often. Mega Black Edition adds an extra fifth character called Sakura to the fray as well as one new optional level and an new harder, more insane difficulty called “Level 999” that will test even the most hardened bullet hell player’s skills. It is quite an overwhelming number of modes to choose from the first time you play and they don’t state what the differences are so I thought I’d dedicate a paragraph properly explaining them.
After you choose your mode of choice, the game will start up in a rather small screen that you can tweak to your liking in the options menu as well as change the border art. Depending on the mode you choose you are able to choose from either 4 characters or 5. They all have the same speed and health though what really separates them is how they shoot their projectiles and their unique familiars that accompany them throughout. Sakura fires in a narrow spear like formation and has two crow familiars that take quite a bit of skill to use correctly but allows you to fire at any angle. Follet fires in a wide helix like formation and has a dragon familiar that rains fire in a short but devastating stream while Rosa has a single giant stream that sparks a few extra projectiles toward the end of it and has a fairy companion that can shoot through any objects which is insanely useful. The other two have their own quirks too and none of them feel better than the other which really helps fuel the need to discover the ins and outs of all the cast.
One of Deathsmiles most unique features is the ability to choose in what order you take the first 6 missions on. You can play them in any order and if you are playing Arcade mode gives it a bit of strategy as it will not let you play all the levels on easy so choose wisely. After you finish the batch of 6 levels you are then given the option to head to either the last mission or the completely optional stage. Mega Black Label modes adds another optional level resulting in two optional stages if you are brave enough to face them. Those two optional levels do not have a difficulty mode you can set so these will be your demise if you are used to playing on easier difficulties. You don’t receive anything for completing them other than a higher score at the end assuming you don’t die so it may be best to skip them if you are attempting to run with no continues or a 1CC as Shmup fans call it. With 7 levels and two optional ones it will take you around 40 minutes to get through this.
The gameplay has a rather neat feature in which you can shoot to the left with one button or to the right with another. I really liked this unique mechanic as it keeps you from remaining stationary on the edges of the screen like so many other bullet hells. In Deathsmiles sticking in the middle is your best bet as enemies will swarm you from both sides of the screen which feels absolutely awesome as you lay waste to your foes and feel like the anime version of Neo from the Matrix. Unlike most other games of this genre you will not die from a single hit, instead you have a life bar with three sections. Taking a hit will cost you one section of the life bar while touching an enemy or a hazard will cost you half of a section. Losing an entire section will reset your bombs to max capacity though they do not stack so taking a hit while still having bombs left is incredibly wasteful. Bombs work like in any other game and they clear the screen of all projectiles and does heavy damage to your enemies.
You can increase your life bar to allow you to take more hits if you do well enough though it is a very difficult task and using a continue will reset it back to normal. Holding both firing buttons at the same time allows you to fire at any enemy in short range of your character which is less useful than simply firing in that direction. Where it becomes really useful is when facing bosses as getting in close and holding both buttons locks on to him meaning you can focus on just avoiding his attacks while doing consistent damage. As you defeat enemies they will drop items that both increase your score and fill up a number meter at the bottom left of the screen. Once you hit 500 or more in that meter and you press both attack buttons you will enter a “Power-up mode” where you cause more damage and receive much more points per kill.
In “Ver.1.1” entering this power-up mode becomes much riskier as killing an enemy while it’s in effect guarantees that it shoots projectiles once it dies and your attack becomes much more flashier making it hard to keep track of where the projectiles are. It is a risky gamble while on death’s door and you are hoping the extra points you get from it will get you a health item or a bomb. Holding the attack button slows you down and deals more damage but the amount it slows you down is so minimal you are unlikely to notice. The amount of continues you can use is unlimited so any one can get to the end of this title.One minor annoyance that remains from Cave’s last Steam release called Mushihimesama is the lack of one overall option for your screen settings. That means you will have to tweak your preferred screen settings on each of the 6 modes which is a very slight annoyance yet a remaining problem of their ports.
Where Deathsmiles really messes up is on the story. It is pretty terrible and that is nothing new to the genre but there is too much of it here and no way to turn it off. It’s pretty bothersome to mash a button to slightly speed up the cutscenes that were boring the first time around and it does reduce my will to keep on replaying it. Each character has slightly different things to say throughout the course of the game and each one also have one of two endings to choose from at the end. You know nothing about the characters which makes it hard to care but it’s a cool feature nonetheless. A simple option to turn the story off would do wonders for those that have already seen all it has to offer or simply don’t care. Graphics are do the job yet for some reason the characters are 3D models that have aged far worse than the 2D sprite work. The game also has objects like walls or cliffs that block you and forces you to make your way around it. I’m personally not a fan of stuff that impede your movement in bullet hell games but the real problem here is that you occasionally don’t know if it’s an actual object or just background scenery until you try flying through it. In a genre that requires split second timing second guessing yourself like this will likely spell your doom.
Enemies in this game range from minotaurs, cyclops and even tanks. It is a very cool and whacky mix of both reality and fantasy. Each level has a boss at the end waiting for you and they all fight quite differently. Bosses are far odder than regular enemies and your jaw will likely drop when you see one of them is a giant cow. You won’t have much of a chance to gawk at them as they are more than ready to kill you on sight. All in all Deathsmiles is a fun Bullet Hell that tries many different things and succeeds on most of them. While the story is a pain to read through having 5 characters, multiple routes and many modes to choose from is more than enough reason to replay this game time and time again. It’s not the best the genre or Cave has to offer but it is a unique enough experience to warrant a buy from any fan of Bullet Hells.