Bullet hell shoot-'em-ups can be intimidating to jump into if you're not a diehard player of the genre. Where Ghost Blade HD succeeds most is in finding the delicate balance between offering a level of difficulty that doesn't turn off newcomers, but also challenges seasoned veterans.
Before starting the actual game you can jump into training mode, which allows you to get comfortable with all the basics of the release, rather than just being dumped into the first level with no idea how to play. Here you'll familiarise yourself with the scatter shot, the more powerful focused shot, and your screen-clearing bombs. Training mode also allows you to practice specific levels, so if one particular stage is giving you a lot of grief you can jump in and work on your strategy without having to worry about getting a game over.
Ghost Blade HD consists of five levels, which seems rather short, but with the amount of trial and error required to successfully run through them all there ends up being a meatier game than you'd think.
The difficulty progression is spot on from developer Hucast. The first level starts off pretty easy, even for a newcomer, but each subsequent stage ramps up the chaos ever so slightly until the final level where all hell breaks loose. There's also a steady stream of new enemy ships introduced, which will keep you on your toes and helps keep the gameplay feeling fresh.
Initially you are given three credits for your run, like an old arcade game. Once you're out of lives you must use a credit to continue, but once you run out of credits it's game over, and you'll have to start from the beginning. However, if the game senses you're struggling to progress, it'll give you an additional credit, which prevents novice players from hitting a brick wall. You also have the option of easy, normal and hard mode to choose from, so if the game's still giving you trouble, you have the flexibility to drop down a difficulty level to help make things more manageable.
Unless you're already an expert in the genre you'll expect to be dying a lot. This never becomes frustrating though, as you can feel yourself learning from your mistakes and your skills growing with each subsequent run.
There's also a strong focus on strategy and tactics. While you could probably brute force your way through the game by just holding down one of the fire buttons, things become much more enjoyable once you figure out the best and most efficient ways to deal with enemies.
Tactics will vary from player to player and will even change over time as you play. For example, we were initially using our bombs whenever there were a large number of enemies on the screen. However, we found that a lot of the time we could actually deal with them without using a bomb, so we then started using the bombs whenever it looked like we were about to get hit, as it'd clear all incoming attacks instead.
Each level ends in a boss battle where you come up against a massive ship. These encounters are challenging and require you to adapt to their various firing patterns. Each of the five boss battle are unique, although we must admit that the game's last boss battle is incredibly disappointing for what's supposed to be the game's finale.
After completing the five levels you can dive back in on a harder difficulty, or you can jump into the addictive score attack mode. Here you'll be focused on running up your score by surviving for as long as possible and stringing together huge combos of destroyed ships. This is the mode that will provide longevity to fans of the genre; those players will be looking to battle it out for the top spot of the online leader boards.
You also have the option for two-player co-op mode. This initially seems like a fun idea, but the game becomes much easier with two ships instead of one, and while you will get some laughs out of it, it ultimately takes away the challenge.
Ghost Blade HD is a brilliant entry into the shoot-'em-up genre for both newcomers and veterans alike. It strikes the tricky balance of offering a reasonable challenge to anybody who picks it up, but makes sure that the difficulty never gets out of hand. The deep gameplay and strategy allows for a variety of playstyles, and while the two-player co-op is a let down, the score attack mode will leave you coming back for more after you've bested the main game.