There are plenty of arcade shooters on Sony consoles; Housemarque's Super Stardust HD and Resogun pretty much set a gold standard on PlayStation. Other than shifting perspectives and prettier graphics, there aren't that many twists left in the genre. Vertex Pop’s Graceful Explosion Machine distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack with a striking art style and some interesting mechanical twists on the traditional shmup.
Visually stunning, with a bright primary colour palette that we don't often see in modern design, the game is a joy to look at. The chunky ship model and almost cutesy enemies give it a cartoonish feel; it plays like a side scrolling variant on the gummi ship battles in Kingdom Hearts. The sound too is exemplary, with rhythmic synth complementing the blaster fire. The jarring thump of an enemy hit and the tactile feedback from the controller is a potent adrenaline spike.
Combat is surprising in its depth, building to a satisfying balancing act of form and function in the later stages. Early on you're given a varied weapon set to juggle, each mapped to a face button: blaster, energy sword, sniper, and missiles. Everything but your main blaster consumes energy, which is replenished by collecting floating gold fragments from downed enemies. Your trusty blaster – the fallback for when the other guns don't have juice – can overheat, which takes a couple of seconds to recharge. Pretty soon it becomes apparent that not only are the weapons you have going to require economical shuffling to be used effectively, but your go to damage dealer can’t always be relied upon.
Enemy types are varied and some are particularly susceptible to a certain weapon: your sniper beam can take out a floating laser turret but takes time to wind up and also bites a big chunk out of your energy reserves; the sword is effective against swarming, but frequent use will prevent you from firing off the larger guns. Perhaps the biggest gamble is the missile barrage, which can be used sparingly, but it’s potentially a screen-filling death dealer, which depletes all your energy and leaves you with only the blaster for a few tense moments.
Meanwhile, the looping nature of the stages coupled with the ability to flip your ship and travel in both directions creates an interesting ebb and flow that differs from the forward momentum that the scrolling shooter genre is known for. And the resource management of the weapon systems always keeps you on your toes and forces tactical thinking from the beginning. There’s an escape boost which has two initial charges, adding another gamble to your repertoire, but this one more often than not can land you right in the middle of another pack of enemies.
After the initial tutorial phase, the game settles into a smooth, climbing difficulty curve that slowly introduces new enemy types and dramatically increases spawn rates. It gets about as overwhelming as these games tend to, but the combat system offers an unprecedented element of control. It’s addictive to rack up multipliers and return to levels in pursuit of a perfect run, completing challenges and trying to break into the online leaderboards.
Graceful Explosion Machine is a gorgeous and innovative take on a now ancient genre of arcade shooter. The weapon system brings an element of combo juggling to the combat and challenge runs are addictive and, crucially, not too punishing. Simply put, this is another top-notch PS4 shmup.