I really love the bullet hell shooter subgenre of video games; the feeling of avoiding thousands of miniscule projectiles while chipping away at a humongous boss’ health bar is just amazing. Through digital distribution and a wide array of import-friendly titles, this niche genre has been greatly represented at this time. Level 5’s “Liberation Maiden”, part of the Japan-only “Guild 01” collection, aims to recreate an aerial dogfight through its snazzy presentation and high-speed mechanics. However, a limited selection of content and short play length mar this title from being an instant classic.
The story, much like most games of the genre, is hastily shoehorned in, as players control Shoko, the newly elected president of New Japan, and her mechanized suit against the forces that wish to cause environmental destruction of the country. While the story seems like an afterthought, the presentation and setting of the game make for a decently well-made futuristic atmosphere, the likes of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” or another sci-fi anime. The cutscenes, while sparse, look very stylized and lush for the 3DS, and the fully voiced interstitial segments throughout stages were a treat as well. The sounds were appropriate for the title, and the anime-influenced songs in the first and last stages of the game were memorable moments in the soundtrack.
Players control Shoko as she traverses through several areas of New Japan, looking out for lesser spikes to expose the greater spike that leads to the area boss. The areas are open world with a lenient timer, giving players the option to survey their surroundings or go straight to the action. The player is given a couple of methods to attack, utilizing a lock-on missile system as well as a powerful laser that can fire short but devastating blasts at the enemy. The weapons also act as the player’s defensive shields; the longer the player locks on to enemies, the more vulnerable Shoko is to enemy fire. Expending the maximum amount of firepower will leave Shoko vulnerable to enemy fire for a few seconds, while repeated hits with an increased barrier will cause a decrease in weapon power. A temporary charged attack acts as a smart bomb that can wipe out most enemies at a time of need. This means that players are tasked with dodging never-ending gunfire while also counterattacking with the arsenal of weapons. While trying to advance to the area’s boss, players are also given sub-missions in the middle of gameplay which is another opportunity to gain points as well as increase the longevity of the stage.
Once the player reaches the boss, rail shooter elements are involved, as the area becomes a bit restricted, focusing on the main enemy while the player dodges their surroundings. The flow of the game is likened to an arcade shooter, with various bonuses awarded with certain goals or enemy destruction. With different ways to play the game, I really wished there were online leaderboards to compare scores for completionists, as the included local leaderboard is somewhat restricted. It would have been great to add another weapon type to diversify the options to destroy enemies; it seems that a rock-paper-scissors mechanic works well in this type of game.
One thing that will be a dealbreaker for this game is the length; a typical playthrough will last around an hour at most. This is quite alright for most games of the genre, as it’s necessary to keep a run like this short so players can perfect their scores and memorize enemy patterns. However, I felt as if “Liberation Maiden” had an intriguing premise that’s lost at the end of the game; the game ends as soon as it hooks players into its universe, hopefully hinting at a sequel in the near future. Increasing its stage count from five to around seven or eight would have been much better. Considering that this was part of a package of shorter quality titles, it’s understandable, but it would have been nice to add a couple of levels for the international release. Having a length comparable to Nintendo’s “Sin and Punishment: Star Successor” would have been ideal, as that game was short enough to attract high score purists but long enough to justify the original price tag as well as let casual players explore its wonderful universe. While there is an achievement system that will lengthen play time, it ultimately is an excuse to play the game on different difficulty levels. Another thing that might affect replay value would be the uneven difficulty. On easy and normal, the foes are formidable and gameplay is manageable; on hard mode, the game stops holding players’ hands and will overwhelm the unprepared. It’s a nice shift for those that want a harder experience, but I felt as if there should have been another difficulty level to bridge the gap between normal and hard mode to acquaint players with more complicated attack patterns that are laden in hard mode.
In the end, I enjoyed every minute of “Liberation Maiden”; the frantic yet exhilarating gameplay makes this a solid entry in the 3DS eShop. However, a number of limitations with difficulty and content causes the game to miss its attempt to become an instant classic, making me craving for more after the credits rolled. For diehards of the genre, it’s a great bullet hell shooter for eight dollars, but for those that don’t like arcade experiences, it’ll be hard to recommend a somewhat replayable experience that end just as it gets good. Hopefully Level 5 will revisit the world of New Japan and create a longer lasting adventure that will appeal to everyone wanting a great time.