Astebreed is a port of a game that released last year on the PC. Don't let that give you the wrong idea, though: this is about as far from a stereotypical PC game as you could imagine – XCOM it ain't. Instead, it's a shooter that wouldn't be out of place in a late nineties or early noughties arcade. So much so, in fact, that we found ourselves wishing for an arcade stick to make the experience feel all that more authentic. The game is heavily influenced by the likes of R-Type, Ikaruga, and even a little Space Harrier. As such, the 3D visuals jump from horizontal to vertical to over-the-shoulder viewpoints seamlessly, making the alien zapping chaos that bit more exciting.
The game does have a story, and it's one which is typical of popular anime. It's delivered via in-game dialogue which, rather unhelpfully, is all in Japanese. English subtitles constantly race along the bottom of the screen at a pace akin to that of the action; it's all very difficult to keep track of, if not nigh on impossible. Fortunately, it's not the deep and meaningful story that most players will be coming to this game for – it's all about the gameplay.
Regardless, for the sake of this review, we tried to piece together the narrative with frequent presses of the pause button, which allowed us to take it in so that you don't have to. Humanity is involved in a lengthy war with an alien race called the Filunes, and events are currently tipping in the favour of our foreign foe. You assume the role of a talented young mech pilot hoping to re-address the balance. The robot that you have access to is known as the X-Breed, which is a lethal killing machine that resembles any number of cool mecha designs. And that's pretty much all there is to it.
Levels take a fairly uniform structure, as you work your way through waves of enemies that get progressively harder and more frantic before an inevitable boss fight. The X-Breed is equipped with laser cannons and a bullet eating sword that can also be used for short dashes across the screen. Its melee attacks are far more powerful than its laser cannons, and we often found ourselves weighing out the benefits of rushing in against hanging back and picking off enemies, before we realised how easy it was to concentrate on doing both at the same time. The X-Breed itself handles like an absolute dream, and anyone who has played a 2D shooter before should be able to pick it up almost immediately.
Perhaps the mech even handles a little too well, as the game's six stages can be completed quickly and easily by people of most skill levels. This is due to a very forgiving shield system, which regenerates after just a few seconds. The real challenge and fun can be found in chasing points in Score Attack mode, which kept us coming back for just one last try to better our score again and again in the hope of pushing ourselves a place or ten up the global leaderboards. The gameplay as a whole is incredibly old school, and challenges you to try and score as many hits on enemies as possible while dodging the incessant attacks of waves of enemy minions that zoom at top speed onto the screen.
The game's visuals whiz and bang at a frenetic pace like the best fireworks display that you've never been to. Purples, oranges, greens, and a rainbow of other colours light up the screen, making the black depths of space look very pretty. Put simply, this title looks gorgeous in a way that would have made our excitable 12-year-old selves cry with delight. Meanwhile, explosions and laser fire pop satisfyingly and constantly through the speakers while the slightly-cheesy-but-still-awesome soundtrack zips along, perfectly suiting the pace of the release. Needless to say, the whole thing will have you grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Astebreed is great fun, and its download price makes it very easy to recommend – it just seems a shame that the game's six stages can be whizzed through in the best part of an afternoon. Without the Score Attack mode, the game would actually feel pretty hollow, but the blast-'em-up's still sure to stir emotions in anyone who had the pleasure of growing up with some of the fantastic titles that inspired it. Just be thankful that this game exists, saving us all a walk to the arcade and countless pockets of change.