4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable, criteria-based)
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
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Developed by Cave
Published by 5pb in 2010
For a very long time, Ketsui remained an object of cult by a specific portion of the shmup community who had access to arcades, while the unlucky ones were left with impressions from comments like "the definitive" or "the best" Cave shooter ever designed. It would take a good seven years for the game to be ported, and after all the scandals involving DoDonPachi Dai-ou-jou it was just refreshing to see that the guys at 5pb had learned their lesson, gracing the Xbox 360 with a fine product, hailed by experts as being pretty identical to the arcade. Widespread awareness was suddenly a reality as a whole legion of admirers finally had access to the game, but the expectations for yet another addictive bullet hell were met with mixed reactions. After all, it takes just a few credits to realize how brutal this game is.
My initial impression at the time was that Ketsui was pretty much another iteration of the well-established DoDonPachi formula. It seemed more of the same. Fast forward one year and I find myself having cleared the game's first loop. This process took me one month of solid playing sessions, and made me a lot less noobish about it. First of all, I ditched the DoDonPachi association completely. The vibe in Ketsui is different, as well as the scoring system. I also noticed that it's the last Cave shooter that focuses strictly on a military theme before the company shifted to fantasy-based stories with the subsequent Espgaluda. By all means, Ketsui seems to represent a turning point in Cave's portfolio, with one of the strongest mixes ever seen of 2D graphical excellence and extremely tough challenge level.
In Ketsui you take the role of a pair of pilots controlling one of two ships, the Tiger Schwert (wide shot, slow speed, orange for player 1) or the Panzer Jager (straight shot, faster speed, purple for player 1). They are sent to save the world from an evil corporation that's behind World War III in the near future, and what lies ahead of them is nothing less than the ultimate sacrifice (they will die, succeeding or not). Enemy forces become more and more aggressive in each of the five stages, and if you're good enough you can access a second loop upon beating the game, just don't die or bomb more than 6 times (the so-called "tsuujou" loop). Furthermore, beating the game without bombing/dying will grant access to the rarely seen URA loop, which then makes it possible to see the game's true last boss. Surely beating the regular first loop is challenge enough for mere mortals such as myself, but the greatest thing about Ketsui is that you always feel you can do better, with the ending for the first loop teasing you to come back for more - a new beginning of sorts.
Each ship is equipped with a regular shot (tap fire button) and a lock shot (hold fire button), for which your satellites will automatically lock onto the nearest enemy and hit it until it dies or leaves the screen. There's also a bomb that travels forward until it hits (regular shot) or homes (lock shot) on an enemy. The ship's speed is reduced when using the lock shot, and it's important to mention that the frontal laser the ship fires while you're using lock shot doesn't reach the whole stretch of the screen.
While these basic inputs are enough to enjoy the game, scoring higher requires a bit of knowledge about the scoring system. In a nutshell, here's how it goes: killed enemies release green chips with values that range from 1 to 5. The three counters on the upper left of the screen keep track of your chip performance: the 1st row is the sum of all chips collected and also the multiplier to be applied at the end of the stage, the 2nd row is the stage multiplier (depletes when you collect chips using the lock shot) and the 3rd row is the current chip value. Now here's the catch: the closer you are when an enemy is killed, the higher the chip value. The extra counter/timer that appears to the side of the 3rd row shows for how long you can extract chips of the current value, and depletes even faster if you kill enemies using the lock shot. The lock shot killings, however, release more chips than the regular shot.
It seems complicated, but a rule of thumb to start getting the hang of it is to kill an enemy close enough with the regular shot to get a chip of value 5, then use lock shot to take advantage of the timer to collect more of these chips until they get back to value 1. Advanced techniques will eventually unfold by themselves, such as memorizing the best killing route to get more chips or destroying larger enemies in two steps of regular + lock shot. The end-of-stage multiplier (1st row) depletes fast during boss battles, but you can recover lost chips by destroying their parts with the regular shot (using the lock shot will eat a considerable chunk of the multiplier).
The game has no rank, so the brutal difficulty will always be the same regardless of survival or scoring performance. Regular power-ups and extra bombs are obtained from specific carriers, and when you die all your power-up items get scattered around the screen for you to recover them. Dying isn't good because it slices 1/4 of the chip counter and considerably reduces the bonus you get at the end of the stage, which is based in life reserve and bomb stock. Extends are given with 20 and 45 million points, and 1UPs can be taken by destroying all turrets from the mid-boss in stage 3 and by killing both clone ships that appear before the mid-boss in stage 5.
My raw 1CC run for the first loop
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)
So what makes Ketsui such a revered shmup despite its extremely hardcore nature? One of the reasons is also the staple of most Cave products, and that is the unmatched intensity of the gameplay. There's never a dull moment, the player is kept under pressure at all times and the amount of patterns and bullets provides for an overwhelming assault to the reflexes, which in turn must be exquisitely exercised through memorization and practice. Another good reason is the amazing soundtrack, which enhances and gets enhanced by the non-stop action. And of course, as with all hard games, getting better in a game like Ketsui requires a good deal of dedication but pays off as one of the most rewarding shmup experiences a player can have. You'd never guess how much of a destruction spectacle these hordes of tanks, planes, and deadly turrets can give, so coming out in one piece from those heavy bullet showers is no ordinary achievement.
The Xbox 360 port is named Ketsui Extra. It has a special arrange mode included, hence the "extra", and allows all kinds of aesthetical adjustments for both LCD and CRT TVs. It's possible to record replays and to practice each stage with any presetting for power/bombs, I just wish there was an option to also practice boss battles. It's a great package all around, and a mandatory item in every shmupper's Japanese 360 collection. The limited edition comes with two CDs with arranged music for both Ketsui and DoDonPachi Dai-ou-jou, an irresistible treat for soundtrack lovers.
As I mentioned above, I managed to achieve the 1-ALL on the regular Arcade mode within one month of dedication, and below is the final result (NORMAL) playing with Tiger Schwert. I guess my new objective in further Ketsui runs is to reach the tsuujou loop!