Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Ghost Blade (Dreamcast)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hucast
Published by Hucast / Play-Asia in 2015


My friends, I wish I was starting the log in the new year with a better game. However, one of my nephews saw the TV turned on its side and wanted to see how a video game looked in it, so on a whim I decided to take Ghost Blade off the shelf for a quick demonstration of its TATE mode. Then I thought it would be nice to tackle the game properly before putting it back, so here we are.

What a sad disappointment!

Aside from the usual letdown provided by pretty much all products made by Hucast (excessive development delays, promised game modes that never came to be, beta visual assets that never made it to the final product), Ghost Blade is a derivative mess that's completely devoid of any character. It lacks proper challenge and stutters a lot when the screen gets cluttered, in a frameskipping fest that strains the eye after only a few minutes. TATE mode is even worse because the frame rate is degraded all the time and practically makes you want to turn off the Dreamcast to go play something like Galaga instead. Don't be fooled by what you see from official trailers for this version of the game, that's not how it actually looks and plays.

One of the bosses

It's baffling how mediocre Ghost Blade is considering it was designed as a soft homage to developer Cave. The control scheme, for example, follows the classic Cave mold of shot, laser (focus) and bomb, which may be freely assigned in the Dreamcast controller so that you can play it as if you were playing Dodonpachi. Ghost Blade even comes with the choice of three ships: Milan (straight shot, no spread), Ghost (spread pattern) and Rekka (wider shot stream, no spread). Milan is the strongest and fastest of them all, Ghost is the weakest and Rekka stands between them as far as firepower goes. Upon selecting one of them the player is prompted to choose between Normal and Novice difficulties.

As you advance through the levels, little excitement is to be expected due to the generic sci-fi motif, the lethargic way the game is laid out and the na├»ve boss patterns. Destroyed enemies leave stars behind, and if you kill them with the focus shot they'll also release "tech orbs" that fill up a special gauge for extra bombs. All airborne items are automatically sucked into the ship, ground ones need to be flown over. There's no need to worry about powering up at all since you come out of the first level already fully powered and the Ps and Vs you pick up are never lost when you die. I also didn't care to check the extend routine because I got lost in numbers due to the massive bonus granted at the end of the level (a lone 1UP can also be picked during the 2nd stage).

The above is probably the most critical failure of this game and of any similarly designed shooter: if you don't even care about such precious things like powering up and extra lives, why bother at all? When you analyze the design closely, the background graphics in Ghost Blade are at least decent (faint nods to Ketsui and Pink Sweets included), and so is the soundtrack. But these aspects aren't enough to make a game, they just come off as a waste of resources. There's no kinetic balance when the game is in motion, and playing it often feels like crawling through quicksand, hiccups and bad visibility causing unexpected deaths when you least expect it. Nevertheless Ghost Blade is still remarkably easy, with lots of leeway provided by a bomb stock that's not reset upon death and bullet cancelling in place for most medium-sized enemies.


Intro for Ghost Blade on the Sega Dreamcast
(courtesy of YouTube user Team Shmup'Em-All)

Another similarity with Dodonpachi is in the chaining system, which tracks the number of enemies destroyed for an increasing score multiplier. However, combos in Ghost Blade don't give outrageous score boosts and are a lot less strict since the chain counter isn't lost if you take too long to kill the next enemy. It merely decreases, very slowly. Chains are only completely lost when you die. The end-of-level bonus mentioned above is based on the max combo and the amount of stars and tech orbs collected, as well as lives remaining. Now for something extremely odd: the max combo bonus is always the highest combo you can achieve, so if you manage to get a good one in the first stage you'll always get the very same bonus for all subsequent levels regardless of how badly you play them. This max combo bonus is even repeated in the next credits, so talk about an amateurish oversight! Lastly, I could swear I got an instant GAME OVER once or twice in the final level even though I still had lives in stock.

Besides the base game, Ghost Blade has a training mode and tweaks for the HUD and the audio balance. The collector's edition comes in two DVD cases with the game, the soundtrack and a "superplay" disc with special demonstrations for Ghost Blade, DUX 1.5 and REDUX - Dark Matters. As you can see, it's a royal feast for Hucast fans...

My best result for Ghost Blade in the Normal mode/difficulty is below, playing with the Ghost ship. Just note how even this high score table is messed up, some of the credits display zero as "max" combo. After this original Dreamcast release the game was also made available for more recent platforms such as the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 under the title Ghost Blade HD. It's supposedly a much improved final product, but I'll refrain from trying it for the time being.