Sunday, January 29, 2017

Vampire Rage (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
3 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Tricktale
Published by Tricktale in 2010

With all due respect to a very famous Norwegian pop band, whenever we start to play a new video game hunting highs and lows is something that comes – or should come – naturally. Most good games feature some sort of aspect that eventually succeeds in selling the experience as a worthwhile pastime, be it an enemy, a stage, a song, a scoring system, smartly devised carrots that keep you going from one place to the next or just a good set of flashy doorknobs, among other not so evident goodies.

A few days ago I had a quick breach in my night schedule and chose to tackle another XBLIG title long downloaded but never really savored. Vampire Rage was the chosen one, and in its na├»ve simplicity it certainly embodies what I just wrote in the above paragraph. When playing in the Normal difficulty the game ends abruptly after the third stage, along with an ominous message that seemingly required me to go try the higher setting, aptly named Rage and aimed at experienced, hardcore players. At that point in time I wasn’t yet hooked, but the prospect of facing a tougher challenge certainly had some potential.

But alas!
I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Original trailer, with slowdown that's totally absent from the actual game
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Tricktale)

In Vampire Rage the player assumes the role of a vampire who goes out on a rampage to avenge the death of his beloved. This story is briefly conveyed by a few artsy slides before the credit starts, developing as you advance in your grim quest for revenge. The flying character is reminiscent of other flying character shmups such as Touhou or those from Cave, but the main source of visual inspiration for the whole game is definitely Mushihimesama Futari. Add some dark details of otherworldly nature, enemies exploding into bloody sprites, gothic fonts for stage names, a fitting soundtrack and you get the picture.

By tapping A or B a spread shot with good coverage is fired, but as you hold the button the firing pattern soon changes into a concentrated stream and the character’s speed is reduced. While this mechanic seems odd (why not have both shots mapped to different buttons?), desperate tapping isn’t needed. Relaxed taps will suffice, and if you feel the need to slow down the character when firing the spread shot you can always hold any of the shoulder/trigger buttons. The last input is button X or Y for the sword, which damages enemies and deflects all pink bullets on contact while spinning around the character for a couple of seconds. If you manage to deflect a good number of bullets a localized bomb is created, engulfing everything in a big blast and making you invincible during its animation.

Throwing in the sword mechanic does wonders to Vampire Rage. Not only is it pivotal for survival, but it also contributes to increase your final score. There is a delay that must be considered when using it though, so you can’t just spam the sword everywhere expecting to get through every tight situation. The bomb feature is very similar to the volcanon effect from Giga Wing 2, even if the bullet-eating sword is more akin to Radiant Silvergun. Vampire Rage also adds the “ability” to aim the bomb with the right analog stick, a botched input that’s fundamentally useless and only leads to unnecessary confusion.

Feel the stree... ops, the swords of rage

Anyway, back to the end of Normal mode. I wasn’t thrilled by the game and got really disappointed by being abruptly sent to the screen for the final score tallying after defeating the third boss. Then I started a credit on Rage mode and immediately noticed a few differences: enemies shoot faster bullets more frequently, enemies that didn’t shoot on Normal decided to get more active and there was even some sort of primitive rank, with those ground plants starting to fire annoying circular homing shots after a while. Suddenly the game got truly exciting and fun, with a lot more dodging to do and real opportunities to trigger bombs from deflected bullets. You can say I was finally into it, looking forward to see whatever lied beyond the basic challenge of the Normal difficulty.

Bullet visibility isn’t affected at all by the increased intensity of Rage mode, large point tags and blood clots from defeated enemies flying around everywhere as they get automatically sucked into the flying vampire. Soon you notice that you won’t get too far without proper crowd management, with clever sword/bomb usage helping to move forward in most tricky sections. Those blood gobs sucked in are just for show so scorewise the game is very straightforward, but a nice bonus awaits those who can preserve resources: you get 1.000 for each deflect kill, 5.000 for each bomb detonated and 25.000 points for each life remaining (extends come at every 150.000 points on Rage difficulty). With higher stakes comes greater rewards, right? This is also possible in co-op, how cool is that?

Unfortunately my parade was flooded by the same abrupt ending of Normal mode, since not a single word was different as it again came to an end with “TO BE CONTINUED...”. Of course there was no sequel whatsoever to the story because Tricktale vanished into oblivion soon after, just like many other contemporary indie developers. So what started as a low and went to a high sadly finished at a low, not because Vampire Rage disappoints (in essence it doesn’t) but actually because it deserved at least another level so as to avoid the fate of being so painfully short.

After a few more runs I got the high score below on Rage/Hard difficulty (note: on Normal you get more lives and the extend routine is more generous). Scores on both difficulties are shared in the local high score table, but only the highest one goes to the online leaderboard. I didn’t see any other online scores besides mine though. Only friends' scores should be there, I wonder? I couldn't care less anyway. The ability to remap controls or turn off vibration would've been more useful.