You get lots of things if you're a cloud god. Your very own personal, environmentally friendly air transportation, the power to smite the mightiest of demons with only the tips of your fingers and the undying devotion of as many little old men as you like.
It's not all lounging on beds of water vapour and gobbling grapes, though. Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims catches the titular deity in a particularly turbulent year as his followers decide to go on a big trek, and what kind of god would he be if he let them trot off into the mouths and claws of any old heinous hell-beings alone? Thus you take control of the almighty cloud-dweller in a horizontal shoot 'em up that mixes in a bit of divine strategy.
The goal is simply to reach the gate at the end of each right-scrolling stage. The catch is, it's not just you that needs to get there. Beneath you struts a line of pilgrims that must be guarded at all odds from the swarms that approach from the right, using only right- and downward-moving projectiles – and your own body.
Your cloud god has free reign to fly around the screen, and how you protect them is up to you; is it best to shoot away enemy projectiles from afar, or charge into them and blow them up in close quarters before they get the chance to unleash anything? From time to time your progression will be halted by slightly puzzle-tinged boss battles in restricted spaces, with fast reactions required to thwart their attacks and beat them down before your followers succumb to their assaults.
Mechanically the pilgrims act as a life bar, as once their numbers are completely diminished it's game over. However, they also represent your weak point, albeit one that is detached and external to your avatar. Followers perish upon touching a demon or their attack, but Mr Floating Cloud God is invulnerable to enemy fire, able to charge into them to block attacks without health penalty. In fact, some areas seem to encourage such kamikaze techniques to protect your wards, such is the frequency of enemies.
You have a maximum of eight followers with you at any one time, and as long as you reach the gate with at least one intact, you pass the level. Completing a stage adds another pilgrim to your journey, but if your numbers fall too much the way forward becomes much tougher. You can always return to earlier levels – paths – to attempt to save more, but you can't play one at a time and magically improve your numbers; if you go back, you must perform better on all subsequent levels to feel the benefit for later stages.
The relationship between worshipped and worshipper is symbiotic, which gives further incentive to keep everybody alive. As you dispatch devils, each a creature of Japanese mythology such as sneaky kitsune or the umbrella-like kasa-obake, the pilgrims offer up prayers and adulation. Represented by floating hearts varying in size, gathering up this praise bolsters your powers, allowing you to shoot stronger projectiles into the cursed bodies of your foes. Get hit by an enemy yourself and some of the faith is literally knocked out of you, reverting your attacks to a more feeble state. Thus it is rare — unless you're very skilled — to maintain a continual level of attack strength, due to the need to balance between attacking and blocking anything that threatens your adoring troops.
The human aspect of your quest is effective. It's never pleasant to see one of your friends die, thanks to the twofold assault of your position being weakened and, less callously, the cuteness aspect. Each little guy is utterly helpless, but they have enough blind faith to follow you into swarms of beasts, all the while happily chirping, jumping and believing, uncomplaining if you hit their tiny hats off in the fray, content to just pick them up again down the road. It doesn't help that the end of each level displays the number of men lost during your journey; tiny touches like this, and the lack of high scores, make Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims a spiritual shoot 'em up rather than an all-out arcade-fest, and it becomes second nature to hurl yourself into harm rather than lose a follower.
The cartoon-like art style is critical to this; a good balance of simplicity and detail, it displays its folklore inspirations at every turn and gives even the most hideous monster an appealing look of mischief. Similarly the music follows the notes of Japanese times past, modernising the strings and percussion of traditional instruments into a gloriously sedate soundtrack that simultaneously has potential to panic or energise in tougher moments.
It also gives Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims a deceptively friendly face – this is a difficult game, particularly if you want to keep the death toll low. It's all too easy to let a stray bullet slide past you and collide into a follower. Most devastating is when, in the midst of a battle, you don't notice a loss until the enemies are destroyed; moments of victory are often dampened by the ever-dwindling numbers of your believers.
Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims is essentially a shoot 'em up version of an escort mission. There's a constant need to balance your offensive manoeuvres with the defence of the religious convoy that strides beneath, and the two ideas combine fantastically. There are enough different obstacles to stave off complacency, clever boss battles to overcome and it's presented wonderfully through a design that owes much to Japanese folklore, with just enough of a twist to make it Dakko Dakko's own.