Review

Danmaku Unlimited 2

So this was my first step on the way down the rabbit hole called “Bullet Hell”: Danmaku Unlimited 2, easily available on Steam (current price: EUR 4.99). There are versions for Android and iOS as well, but because I don’t really have a gaming phone, I will focus on the PC version here.

What I like…

The first thing that catched my eye was the music. Wait, that sounds wrong. Anyway, the soundtrack by Japanese indie band Blankfield is what I like best about this game. I suck at categorizing music, but it’s some metal industrial thingy. Look, it has electric guitars in it. The entire soundtrack is on Spotify and probably other streaming platforms, so just judge for yourself. It is loud, it is fast, it is exciting.

Danmaku Unlimited - Trance Mode

And so is the game. You essentially have three attacks on your hand: The basic shot, which you will use all the time. The beam, which destroys enemy bullets and transform them into a higher score modifier. And lastly, Trance Mode, which gives you a huge boost to damage and score modifier for a while, but needs to be charged by “scraping” bullets – i. e. bullets hitting your ship but missing the hitbox (which is, as per Bullet Hell conventions, smaller than the actual ship and displayed as a big glowing dot). Using those special attacks at the right time is crucial to getting a good score and adds another layer of complexity over merely beating the game without dying over and over. The pacing is tight, enemies don’t take too much time to eliminate and bosses don’t stay at the same pattern for too long, either.

That being said, Danmaku Unlimited 2 is very forgiving when compared to other Bullet Hell games. Usually, you have three to five lives and if you get hit just once, you die. In Danmaku Unlimited, a single ship can take up to five hits before exploding on the sixth one, and you can have five lives – giving you the ability to eat thirty bullets in a single playthrough! You do have to give up a lot of firepower for that, but even in a balanced build, you still can take way more damage than in other games.

But that does not make the game easy: It makes up for that in the design of its bullet patterns. They are varied, creative, good-looking and hard – especially those of the later bosses (or “Valkyrias”). My personal favourites are a couple of patterns where a handful of bullets “eat” other bullets and clear your path through another, nigh-undodgeable pattern.  But of course, those vaccum cleaner bullets will still damage you if you hit them.

I played through the first three levels just now just for this one screenshot. Not sure if fail or win.

I played through the first three levels just now just for this one screenshot. Not sure if fail or win.

…and what I dislike

When I played this game first, I found it overwhelmingly good. Today, I am a bit more ambiguous on it. Yes, I still like it and yes, I still recommend it, but there are other Bullet Hell games I like better.

My quarrel with the game is that it looks a bit bland. The backgrounds are completely forgettable and the enemies somehow all look the same. The game does have a high level of visual clarity, which is certainly a good thing, but it does have some disadvantages. Also, the sound effects don’t really give you the feeling of sitting in a space ship and shooting other spaceships, but rather sound like shooting a Nerf blaster at a concrete wall. Believe me, I am an expert on shooting Nerf blasters at concrete walls. Especially in contrast to the great music, those sound effects just are a bit… meh.

Still, it is a really good game. Just not the best one I ever played.

A word on smartphones

Danmaku Unlimited 2 is actually a port of an earlier mobile game version – and it doesn’t feel like that for a bit. It looks great on the big screen (with the issues I mentioned before) and works great with both keyboard and gamepad controls. That history does, however, take a bit of an edge off my earlier criticism, because clearly a high degree of visual strategy is far more important on a smartphone.

And yes, the game actually works on Smartphones! I gave the demo a whirl and even though my phone lacks the power needed for a decent gameplay, the controls actually feel far more smooth than I expected. I still think touch controls are not really the way to go for games like this, but if you are a mobile gamer, you might still want to check it out. Otherwise – I recommend getting the Steam version. For five bucks, you really get a good game with a lot of long-term fun included.

Next game to be reviewed: Crimzon Clover WORLD IGNITION.

Stars without Number and Other Dust: Re-Revisited

This is not the first time I review Stars without Number, the old-school SciFi sandboxing RPG by Kevin Crawford (Sine Nomine Publishing), but with my growing experience in role-play gaming I feel I missed some real important things the last two times. So, again, let’s have a look at what makes SWN special.

We’ll skip the boring parts, like the character creations (it’s D&D. Take 3d6 and roll them. Got it?), combat rules (Take a d20 and I’ll tell you if you hit!), gear (pistol goes bang, laser pistol goes pew, plasma rifle goes slurp and so on) and the setting (there are stars, and they don’t have numbers). Let’s instead look right at the part of SWN that receives the most praise, the star system generation.

Generating star systems by rolling some dice is not exactly a new idea, but SWN has a unique take on it because it does not focus on a planet’s astronomic and geographic properties. You do roll some stuff like temperatures on the planet, but it doesn’t go into the detail of g-levels, day length and exact composition of the atmosphere some other systems do. Instead, after rolling just five basic properties – atmosphere, temperature, biosphere, population and tech level – that might be resolved as simply “breathable, cold-to-temperate, engineered biosphere, failed colony, baseline postech”. Just enough to get your imagination going.

Then, you get to the really important part of system creation: Giving your planets tags. Tags are short descriptors like “Heavy Mining”, or “Tomb World”, or “Psyonics Academy”. Tags are, essentially, those tropes that are connected to this planet. They are not intended to make the game world realistic – they are intended to make the game world feel dynamic and full of awesome stuff and they are intended to get the game going.

And yes, there is a table for randomly rolling for tags. It’s OSR, what did you think?

After selecting and rolling tags, you go to the description of the tags. Each tag has a list of possible friends, enemies, places, things and complications associated with it, and each planet has to be populated with friends, enemies, places, things and complications (called FEPTCs from now on, because I can’t be bothered to list them all) that can be used to make your sandbox feel vast yet detailed and alive.

For example, let’s go with a planet that hosts Alien Ruins and where a Civil War is going on. One of the possible friends for Alien Ruins is the Curious Scholar, and one of the possible friends in the Civil War is the Offworlder seeking passage off the planet. In combining those two, we might get our first FEPTC: A naive adventure scientist who’s getting caught up in the crossfire while exploring some alien ruins, because both sides of the Civil War think there might be some useful XenoTech in there, and who might turn for help to the PCs when they turn up there for whatever reason.

When the DM has assigned tags and FEPTCs to all relevant planets or at least to those three or four in the corner of the system where the PCs happen to start their adventure, there should be plenty of ideas going around on how to get the game going. If not, don’t panic, ’cause Crawford got you covered. Turn your rulebook to page 132, roll a D100 and get a useful adventure suggestion like “A Friend has been lost in hostile wilderness, and the party must reach a Place to rescue them in the teeth of a dangerous Complication”. Now, just choose some FEPTCs from those you created before et voilà, you’re ready to go.

There are similar tools for creating factions, like the two sides in this Civil War we have going on, or corporations, or religious groups – anything from a local Tentacle Monster Cult to an interstellar church to make the world even more vibrant, dynamic and filled with awesome stuff. They’re pretty unspectacular, but rock-solid.

Oh, and did I mention you can get the PDF for free?

There are some other games running on the SWN engine – one of them is Other Dust, by exactly the same author. The main difference between both games is in genre. While SWN is SciFi, Other Dust is Post-Apocalypse. There are, of course, a lot of similarities in both games, starting with the rules: To anybody who has understood character creation and rules of play in SWN, OD won’t offer any big surprises. But there are some small modifications, like other classes and a system for weapon wear and repair. I think it’s a nice example on how to modify a system for a different genre without really changing any of the fundamentals.

But, like I said right in the second paragraph, the rules are not the interesting part of any Crawford game. Other Dust is, like SWN, a sandboxing game, and it shares the whole “setting generation” aspect. This time, you don’t generate a star system but a patch of the postapocalyptic wasteland and the enclaves set in this wasteland. Again, the generation is driven not by statistics but by tags. This time, the PCs might encounter a Functioning industry in a village, or they might find a Tyrant ruling over the inhabitants of an old power station. There are fewer tags than there are in SWN, but still, a nice variety is in store and all the usual post-apocalyptic tropes are available.

Unlike SWN, Other Dust does not offer a free PDF version, but it is definitely worth its money.

In my humble opinion, SWN and Other Dust are two of the best RPGs out there and I am not known for my fanboy attitudes about OSR games. What makes these games so great is how they incorporate the feeling of the genre into the very heart of the game. And, as the sandboxing tools are completely disconnected from the rules of play, they are very easy to put on any universal system like Savage Worlds. Also, if you would like to modify the rules, there is a chapter explaining the design choices and recommending possible optional rules and house rules for both games in the SWN rulebook.

These two games offer a whole bunch of possible fun for very little money and learning effort. They might not seem to be the most innovative games out there, but there is a lot of quality stuff in them.

And yes, both games have some parts one might criticize. For me, that would mostly be that I dislike the classic D&D rules and feel they are clunky, slow and boring. But, like I said, that’s easy to fix and the games offer so much good and fun stuff that I am more than willing to glance over these parts.

You can find the designer’s website at www.sinenomine-pub.com, and you can get the games at Drivethru RPG. Also, they are in the Bundle of Holding for 22 more hours from now.