Friday 26 July 2019

Switch Review - Pawarumi

Another Vertical Scrolling Shooter lands on the eShop, but is its colour changing weapon mechanic, enough to separate it from the crowd of other bullet hell shooters?

Developed by Manufacture 43 
Released in 2019

In 1987 Sensible Software released ‘Shoot 'Em Up Construction Kit’ for the Commodore 64. With it, aspiring programmes could create a vertically scrolling shooting game with relative ease. It was the programme’s release on the Amiga though that ultimately frustrated game reviewers though. The software allowed the ability for creations to be exported as self-booting games and as a result PD libraries quickly became flooded with near identical games. Bedroom coders desperate for acclaim meant games magazines were inundated with floppy discs for review.

The problem was that because ‘Shoot 'Em Up Construction Kit’ was simple to use, unless you deliberately tried to exploit the quirks of the engine all the games it created were practically identical. “If you’re not going to do one thing different, don’t bother sending us a SEUCK game!” Wrote an Amiga Power reviewer. “We’ve played them all, we are bored! One star”.

Today the vertical scrolling Shoot ‘Em Up genre is not quite so saturated, but even a quick glance at the eShop shows there’s dozens to choose from. With the exception of FuturLab’s ‘Velocity 2X’, most seem to pride themselves on being brutally hard. eShop descriptions include “Bullet storms”, “horrifying challenge”, “insane high intensity” and “one man army”.   Since ‘Ikaruga’ the genre has really become associated with extreme difficulty and most new additions to the genre are “bullet hell shooters”. Here success in the game seems to be largely down to your ability to find somewhere to fide in a screens full of enemy bullets. They’re deliberately masochistic games where survival is the sole aim and victory only comes from memorising attack patterns. Clearly it’s a very niche audience.

This is who Manufacture 43, a French Indie developer, is aiming ‘Pawarumi’ at, and the influence of ‘Ikaruga’ is acutely felt. ‘Pawarumi’ is described as an ”intense, challenging and fast-paced shooter”, or at least that’s what it will eventually evolve into. In an attempt to also appeal to more casual players who would have enjoyed SEUCK thirty years ago, the game has three difficulty settings. Playing each unlocks various story cut scenes, so clearly to experience all the game has to offer, a player must continually push themselves to play on increasingly more challenging modes. “The difficulty curve is designed so that a player that beats the game in easy mode gets ready to play in normal mode and then in hard mode” notes the developers. But despite noble intentions, even the game’s easy mode presents a fearsome challenge and any chance of success will depend entirely on your mastery of the “trinity system”.

‘Pawarumi’ actually sees you playing as three different coloured ships, although only one is on screen. The ship you’re controlling will depend on which fire button you’re holding and each fires a different coloured weapon, red, blue or green.  The majority of enemies, including the bosses, have a dominant colour, but it’s not simply a case of matching the foe with the right coloured projectile. Doing this will in fact cause minimal damage, although it will restore your shield. Using the opposite colour on the spectrum will cause most damage and using the remaining colour will charge up your super weapon. According to programmer Daniel Borges, “it gives players quite a refreshing and very tactic feeling in this classic genre. Shoot wisely to either do double damage, heal yourself or charge your Super Attack!”

In practice this means you’ll need to remember nine different colour combinations and switch between them instinctively. It’s a daunting prospect for any player, unless you’re used to the aforementioned ‘Ikaruga’ which has a similar game play style where you swap your ship between white and black. On screen symbols are there to help. But with so much going on the screen you’ll be unlikely to have the time to glance at anything other than your ship. Although the first stage on easy mode is relatively gentle, by the third level the screen is filled with bullets. The amount you can withstand will reflect the difficulty but get hit too much and it's an instant game over. There’s no extra lives or continues here, its straight back to the title screen via an old-school high score table. Tellingly this also shows which coloured ship you favoured and in my experience balanced play works best. You’ll default to choosing the colour that causes most damage to the most enemies on screen, but then have to switch to other weapons to keep your health and special meters high. You certainly don’t want to take on the end of level bosses with anything but a fully charged ship. Even on easy mode they’re bullet sponges and will evolve and take on different forms throughout the battle.
It’s during the end of stage battles that the colour changing mechanic is the most fun, as you gauge if it’s worth going in hard with the strongest firepower, or playing it safe with a weaker weapon but restoring your health as you do. Unlike other vertical shooters there are no pickups in ‘Pawarumi’ and no upgrades. All your weapons are available at the start and the only super weapon is the one you charge, which can be upgraded three times.

Exclusive to the Switch version of ‘Pawarumi’ is the “joyful gun”, which changes weapon colour based on the colour of the JoyCon you’re using. You’ll likely try this terrible gimmick and then promptly vow to never bother again. The JoyCons seem to be a terribly imprecise way to play the game, and I found the game to be much more enjoyable when holding a Pro Controller.

As each level is started, they’ll be unlocked in a practice mode. Obviously this offers the opportunity to perfect your skills in a stage before taking it on in arcade mode. It does avoid the repetition of having to continually replay the first stage, but you, of course, can’t progress to unlocked later levels unless you finish the levels sequentially and in order.

True to generic traditions, ‘Pawarumi’ becomes insanely hard even on normal mode. Hard difficulty is unmistakably “bullet hell” and something I can only last minutes playing. Of course my inability to progress too far in later difficulties means I can’t see how the story plays out. While the game may reward you with narrative segments for playing on increasingly harder modes, this design decision does backfire if it means you’re left unable to see the story conclusion. Not that I followed much of the story to be honest. “The background story is quite dark” admits the developers.
“It’s about how Axo – you – the pilot of Chukaru, destroyed every Earth defence while being controlled by an alien entity. The first four levels of the game are actually flashbacks; the last level is your revenge!” The game is set in a retro futuristic sci-fi pre-Columbian universe, that’s inspired by Mayan and Aztec architecture.  It’s a story told quite elegantly in Visual Novel style intermissions, with 2.5D images surrounded by smoke or similar particle effects. In fact the whole game is visually impressive. Although the gameplay is viewed from above the entire stages are 3D rendered landscapes. As you progress through them occasionally the camera will sweep to a lower angle to see your ship nimbly pass through a canyon or under an obstruction. Although few, these little moments give ‘Pawarumi’ a cinematic feel; reminiscent of pre-rendered CDi Shoot ‘Em ups like ‘Tetsuo Gaiden’.

Of course it would be impossible to talk about the visuals of a vertical shooter without mentioning explosions and ‘Pawarumi’ certainly doesn’t disappoint. The demise of an enemy is celebrated by a huge shower of fire and debris, and your three weapons dance across the screen with an awesome sense of power and destruction. The most spectacular is of course a fully charged super weapon, with its multi-coloured showers of destruction prompting a chain reaction of explosions and chaos.

But your appreciation of this chaos will ultimately reflect your appreciation of ‘Pawarumi’ as a whole. Despite developer claims, this isn’t a vertical shooter for all. The central “Trinity Mechanic” is complicated and it takes time to be efficient. Until you do, you’ll see more failure than success, as you struggle to implement all that’s explained in the brief tutorial. Anyone new to the genre won’t get further than completing the easy mode, and although the challenge is greater on later modes the game itself is identical with only one additional level. As such it does get very repetitive, especially the first stage which you have to play on every arcade mode run.

Thirty years ago that Amiga Power reviewer said they would only consider a shoot ‘Em up if it tries something new, and ‘Pawarumi’ certainly attempts to break the mould. “Shoot ’’Em ups are part of the first genres of video games, and they will never die” says Daniel Borges. “It’s been more than 40 years since ‘Space Invaders’, and we can still come up with original new game mechanics for them!” By discarding power-ups and ship upgrades it’s a game that feel unique, but the stripped back nature of the game also means there’s nothing to discover beyond new bosses and new environments. But that’s really the nature of the genre.  No doubt fans will love the scope of the colour changing weapons and the brutal bullet hell difficulty of hard mode.

‘Pawarumi’ is a game you’ll either play for twenty minutes or twenty hours - there’s really no middle ground. Those happy to take time to memories which coloured weapon to use in every given situation, will probably also appreciate the rushes of adrenalin and joy you get when you finally finish a level on hard mode. Those who get frustrated that they are facing a seemingly impossible challenge won’t enjoy the game for long. Evidently first impressions count when it comes to a game like this, and that’s as true today as it was when people dabbled with  ‘Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit’.


A copy of this game was provided for free to review. The content of this post has not been seen or edited by anyone prior to publication. 

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