Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Vorpal (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Red Wolf
Published by Red Wolf in 2010

There are games, especially among the independent development scene, that often adopt a minimalistic approach towards a specific design aspect. Some people like to label such endeavors as artistic efforts, others simply discard them as boring crap. As one of these titles, Vorpal certainly has what it takes to fuel some quick discussion on a seminal question: what's important in the end, graphics or gameplay?

If you're one of those who'll right away dismiss games that do not present flashy explosions, cool effects and a plethora of colors, Vorpal will put you to sleep in less than a minute, so my recommendation is pass. If the thrill in your case resides in the act of dodging bullets and overcoming the odds while pursuing higher scores, then Vorpal might be a valid pick out of the gazillion games offered by the currently dwindling XBLIG platform.

In a nutshell, the main mode in this game (Story) is a boss rush where you select one out of six characters and battle the remaining five. As such, it's got echoes of Wartech and Chaos Field, whereas the bulk of the inspiration in the gameplay seems to come from the likes of the Touhou series. Unfortunately Versus mode isn't a 2-player option as its name implies, it's just a practice alternative where you can freely select an oponent for a single round.

Future or eternal void

The mechanics of Vorpal are simple enough to grasp, and certainly give you that quick one-more-go itch when the game is over. As the underdog fighter, the player counts with a single shield/health meter that can withstand a determined number of hits. The opponents, on the other hand, come with nothing less than eight health bars in reserve, which means you need to defeat nine different forms for each of them (by forms I mean attack patterns, they don't actually switch sprites or anything). Before each stage/encounter there's some boring dialogue between the characters, and then the action starts as if you're entering the arena of a fighting game, only with everything in only two color shades (black and red) and a white background devoid of any scrolling effect. All in the name of visibility, right?

Controls work with A for shot (slow movement with RB/RT) and B for the special/break attack, whose power is gauged by a so-called "stress" meter. This meter is filled slowly by hitting your enemy or getting hit, and faster by collecting S items. It's possible to unleash a break attack as soon as the stress meter reaches 25%, but the higher it is the longer the attack will last. Besides S, all other items are released whenever you destroy one of the small carriers that appear while the opponent is moving around. These also include + (health recovery), □ (score multiplier) and H (hell power-up).

H is the most important item to be collected once the round starts, simply because it's actually your regular and much needed firepower upgrade (you start every stage with the default pea shot). When level 4 is achieved the firing pattern receives an intermittent thin laser upgrade that considerably boosts its efficiency. If you receive damage to the point where the shield gets completely depleted you enter a danger state, which causes your firepower to degrade while the shield slowly regenerates. The credit is lost if you get hit before the last health cell is regenerated, of course.

Demo game with Abel Sigrid
(courtesy of YouTube user Splazer Productions)

Defeating boss phases with a high number of on-screen bullets is the main source of points within the level, simply because at that moment all bullets are converted into points that get automatically sucked into the player's craft. Since the game awards extra stage bonuses for remaining health, power-ups collected and shorter completion times, improving performance involves not getting hit, picking up everything and timing boss breaks accordingly. The only problem with this approach is that some characters are in clear advantage against others, be it for their strength ratings (regardless of shot style) or for the type of their native break attacks. The "barrage" break, for instance, is a total waste because it does nothing once the on-screen bullets are blocked. Note that boss phases time out, which is obviously bad for scoring.

One of the most interesting influences from Touhou is the enemy locator, a small bar at the bottom of the screen that follows the vertical movement of your opponent and helps you target your foe while focusing on dodging the bullet curtains. I can see why it's useful, even though I didn't feel the need to guide myself by it at all. Some boss patterns are tricky, in that lots of bullets get spammed in the same place and might eat away all your shields instantly (even with the screen-clearing effect that should follow). Other than that, a few sounds used in certain boss attacks are identical to the one that plays when you get hit, causing unnecessary confusion. Speaking of sound, there are lots of digitized robotic voices in Vorpal, but none of the dialogue interactions is voice-acted.

As much as I tried to get that PERFECT bonus at the end of the level by not getting hit during a round, the game never granted me such an honor. I wonder if you need to collect all power-ups in the stage in order to earn it, but I didn't bother to confirm that. Players that choose Hard difficulty start with only 3 shields instead of 6, coping with stronger bosses and the constant risk of timing out their phases. As a whole Vorpal isn't too demanding and can provide some relaxed dodging fun, but the enjoyment is bound to wear off fast due to the lack of visual flair. Additionally, the tribal art design isn't helped much by the techno-oriented soundtrack. Turning off vibration, sound effects and music is possible, which is a nice touch if you want to play listening to your own tunes so as to spice up the game a little bit.

Below is my best result playing on Normal with the character K' Gallant. There were talks of Vorpal 2 coming out for XBLIG soon after this game hit the platform, but apparently the sequel never saw the light of day in any form whatsoever.