Shoot-em-ups are somewhat of a vice. It’s easy to sit down and start playing one for hours on end. The Castle of Shikigami series is obscure to western audiences, possibly because of the first two titles’ poor translation (think of “All your base”). Thankfully, the newest and superior chapter of the series, Castle of Shikigami III, hasn’t fallen victim to same fate as its predecessors.
The actual gameplay is pretty standard fare as far as shoot-em-ups are concerned. The player chooses from one of ten characters in normal mode, or two characters in Dramatic Change mode. The game progression is the same no matter what mode and which characters are chosen, but story events will change to reflect both characters in Dramatic Change mode, similarly if the game were played with two players. The controls are spot-on, and there’s several ways to fight enemies. There’s the normal rapid-fire shot, Shikigami attacks, and bombs. Each character’s Shikigami attack and bomb effect varies, from being homing shots or wide-area effects, and standard bombs to time stopping, respectively. Using a character’s Shikigami attack slows their movement a bit, but draws in coins that enemies drop; this is the key to racking up a high score. Additionally, a bomb can be sacrificed to activate High-Tension Max to increase point values temporarily.
Included in the game is a practice mode which allows the player to select a stage or stage segment and play through it freely, as well as boss attack mode, which pits the player against all 10 bosses in sequence on a single credit. There’s also a gallery mode which allows the review of artwork seen in the game’s story mode, as well as a “story recollection” mode. Story recollection allows the player to watch the in-game story sequences that have already been seen while playing through the game. The last option in the gallery is the jukebox, which goes without saying what it’s used for. I’d like to go on record by saying the game has a pretty slick soundtrack, so it’s a nice feature. The options screen hides the very enticing “extra options.” Once the game is cleared, regardless of which character and how many credits are used, this menu allows for tweaking of other game settings. These include more interesting tweaks like game speed and hitbox size.
Castle of Shikigami III is a worthy addition to any shoot em up fan’s collection, and plays very cleanly. It might feel like the barebones experience as far as games go nowadays, but it’ll provide hours of entertainment, to be sure. As far as story goes, it’s… uh… different. It’s not exactly clearly defined in the game nor in the manual. The in-game story sequences can be quite comical as the characters seem to enjoy breaking the 4th wall, referencing the fact that they’re in a game, or sometimes addressing the player directly. About the only thing the game is missing is the online experience. Granted the Japanese XBox 360 and PC versions didn’t have online play, but they did have an internet score ranking. This would have been a nice little extra just to see how your own skill measures up against the rest of the world. So in spite of the unclear story and the lack of online mode, it’s still quite solid. Be sure and check it out.