Deathsmiles

[15 August 2010]

By Mike Schiller

How do you root for a football team that employs Mike Vick?  How do you enjoy a great movie that just happens to prominently feature Mel Gibson?  How do you absorb a masterfully written book if it’s written by Orson Scott Card?

How can you possibly enjoy a video game whose protagonists are scantily clad teenagers?

To be clear, the four protagonists of Deathsmiles are 17, 14, 13, and 11 (with a 15-year-old boss-turned-avatar in the “Mega Black Label” enhanced version).  The game’s official tagline is “Death smiles at us all.  Lolis smile back.”  Maybe it’s the unapologetic use of the term “Lolis” that is so offensive, or maybe it’s the overly sexualized depictions of 14-year-old Follett and 17-year-old Rosa, but there’s something deeply uncomfortable about the way that the game’s narrative is presented that detracts mightily from the experience of the game as a whole.  Maybe it’s simply that we’re told to notice these things, thanks to an unfortunate marketing push.

Whatever the reason for the discomfort, it’s a shame because the gameplay here is fantastic.

Unfortunately, having not yet imported any of the region free games Cave is now offering for the Xbox 360, I can’t say with any certainty exactly how Deathsmiles compares to, say, Mushihimesama Futari or Espgaluda II.  What I can say, however, is that the setting of Deathsmiles is an incredibly welcome and beautifully-realized change from the “pilot a plane/spaceship and destroy millions of other planes/spaceships” rut that American shmupland has been in of late; honestly, to play a retail bullet-dodging exercise on the Xbox 360 that’s not Raiden is a pleasure in and of itself.  Your teenage girl of choice flies around with a little familiar, and the pair of you toss piles and piles of unidentifiable fire-type stuff at wave after wave of baddies.  And there are bosses!  Oh, are there bosses.  There’s a grim reaper, a giant dragon, an even gianter dragon-thing, a tree, and a humongous cow.

Amongst the hardcore, gripes like reduced slowdown (in a genre where slowdown is actually sort of welcome) and the not-all-that-punishing difficulty of the game’s easiest levels have surfaced, but for an American audience that hasn’t yet been sucked in enough to resort to playing emulated versions of Japanese arcade shooters, these are minor problems if they are problems at all.  One of the most interesting aspects of the gameplay actually comes from the difficulty levels, which are chosen before each of the first six stages.  Different difficulty combinations spawn different rewards, whether extra screen-clearing bombs or all important life giving cake, and toying with the best risk-reward combination to achieve the ever elusive one credit clear is unlike any gambling scenario that I’ve been offered in a shmup to date.

There are even four distinct modes available—you can play the original arcade mode (which is good mostly for nostalgia’s sake), an updated Xbox 360 mode that turns the sprites to HD, version 1.1 which adds familiar control and changed score mechanics, and the Mega Black Label mode which offers a new level, a new avatar, and a changed power up scheme.  Mastering all of the modes would be an astounding feat of mental dexterity given the way the game changes in each of them. It feels like you’re playing the same game, but the strategies that you build will be completely different from one mode to the next, heightening the replay value immensely.

So yes, there is much to love about Deathsmiles.  And yet, it’s hard to be happy for the publishers of a game whose press calls it “Lolitastic”.

Deathsmiles is the second game this year (following Record of Agarest War) to feature an obscure Japanese property brought to North America courtesy of Aksys games with the help of a marketing scheme that panders to the basest elements of humanity.  I will grant that these elements of the games always existed—Record of Agarest War is one part fanservice-oriented dating sim, and it wasn’t Aksys’s decision to make the protagonists of Deathsmiles teenage girls, nor did they have a say in their choices of dress—but the push to North America has made the least palatable parts of these games their reasons for being.  The disappointment in this approach is particularly palpable for Deathsmiles, a game in which the “underdressed and underage” aspect is, while present, really quite minor. These are just the unfortunate plot trappings of a solid shooter.

Still, it’s the “Lolis” that we notice because they are shoved in front of us.  Their ubiquity in the game’s marketing ensures that their presence remains at the forefront of our mind even as we are dodging hundreds of bullets at a time to the point where it actually detracts from the experience.

The sales numbers for Deathsmiles have so far been favorable, as were the numbers for Record of Agarest War—if nothing else, these releases have managed to show that there is indeed an audience for hardcore SRPGs and shmups in the states, even if it’s nowhere near the level of, say, the first-person shooter.  While it would be convenient and preferable to attribute this success to a hunger for underrepresented genre exercises, it’s just as likely that the Aksys approach to pushing these games is actually kind of working.  If nothing else, this sort of publicity leads to high hit counts on major gaming blogs and websites, increasing awareness of the game for those who wouldn’t normally be aware of its existence.  Perhaps it’s a necessary evil.  Perhaps it’s what we need in order to see more of these types of games here in the states.

Still, it’s hard not to hope that someday that we’ll be able to buy these sorts of games without the urge to ask for a plain brown bag to put them in.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/129536-deathsmiles/