There's nothing quite like a good old-fashioned shoot-'em-up to get your pulse racing and your thumbs twitching. And if there's one company that knows a thing or two about hurling a barrage of beautifully crafted bullets at you, it's Cave. Akai Katana Shin (known simply as Akai Katana in the UK) is the latest in the studio's line of psychedelic, 2D arcade shooters to make its way to the Xbox 360, bringing with it an impressive array of gloriously over-the-top visuals, expertly crafted stages, and a lot of depth that make chasing high scores an absolute blast.
It's not as confusing as it looks.
That's fortunate, because there's certainly not much of a story to keep you entertained. You play as a rebellious pilot dedicated to blowing up your former masters. The who and why are buried in the manual; all you're given is a choice between three different rebels, each with their own craft and special power. The craft they pilot are modelled after World War II-era planes, but despite their apparent age, they have the uncanny ability to fire waves of laser bullets and unleash devastating energy attacks.
Those bullets are put to good use throughout all six of Akai Katana Shin's stages, where you pilot your fighter across great-looking retro 2D backdrops set across land, sea, and air, and blow the living crap out of a range of tanks, planes, and turrets. Of course, they don't go down without a fight. There are streams of bullets to negotiate, some of which create mazelike patterns for you to navigate your way through, while others home in on you, requiring you to weave your way through the tightest of spaces to survive.
Akai Katana Shin is challenging but also satisfying to play. There's a great feeling of accomplishment when you make your way through one of the intricately designed 2D bullet mazes unscathed. The slightest twitch of your thumb can take you from a dangerous situation to a high-scoring one. If a bullet does hit you, all is not lost. You have three lives with which to make it through to the end of a stage, as well as three smart bombs that destroy all the bullets onscreen and deal damage to enemies.
In Akai Katana Shin, swords can stop bullets.
You also have the option to use a special support character called a phantom, whom you can call upon to dish out some mega-damage. What exactly you can do with the phantom depends on what mode you're in. In Origin mode (a straight port of the arcade original), your phantom can deflect bullets, but only for as long as you have energy, which you collect from destroyed enemies. If you ration out your special ability, an extra layer of strategy is added to the action, making it more than just a test of your reflexes.