As Cave continues to make Xbox 360 its second home, we’re into the second wave of shooters from the legendary studio. With the likes of Deathsmiles and DoDonPachi now available, can we expect something even fresher from the somewhat unknown Akai Katana?
The answer is no – sorry for ruining the surprise – although Akai Katana is still an enjoyable shooter. Akai Katana’s main gimmick is in its shield Summon. Building up your green bar buys extra time for how long your Summoned ally stays out. When called, the Summon locks into place firing out its own beam of death while your ship raises a shield, blocking dangers (each bullet knocks a chunk of time from how long your Summon stays out). When the time drains, your ship reverts to vulnerable form. This is your main defensive tactic, as each Summon completely drains your bar, so you have to judge the right time to blow your meter so you can safely navigate through the bullet storm ahead. Cleverly, it can also be used as an offensive tactic, as the Summon beam is the easiest way to rack up combos. Initially a desperation measure for panicked newcomers, seasoned players will learn to turn the gameplay mechanic into a tool for chasing high scores.
The problem with Akai Katana, even with its three variations in Origin, Slash and Climax, is that there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen in other shoot-’em-ups on Xbox 360. It doesn’t have the puzzle tilt of Ikaruga, the quirkiness of Guwange, the enchanting design of Deathsmiles or back-to-the-wall bullet hell of DonDonPachi. That’s not to say that Akai Katana doesn’t have those elements, but rather that it can feel like an indistinct blend of the genre rather than something with its own standout identity. The closest it comes is with large, military bosses such as tanks and helicopters, but even they feel as though they’ve stumbled from Metal Slug into a more serious game rather than something unique to Akai Katana.
Akai Katana is also, bizarrely, rather easy – a complaint rarely heard in the genre. Bar the Origin variant, the challenge doesn’t scale up significantly until the last two levels, where use of the Summon mechanic to survive switches from optional extra to necessary bullet shield. A big part of the genre’s appeal is learning how to survive, then how to thrive, then how to pick the largest score possible from the menacing, snarling teeth of each wave of enemies. The muted difficulty here renders a huge chunk of that process void.
Even so, the saviour is that the Summon can be used offensively and that will draw you back for your leaderboard runs. This is what demands you learn Akai Katana inside out, when you should gamble, the best way to beat bosses and how to combo through waves of enemies. It’s a good shooter, then, but one that struggles to hit the same heights of Cave’s other Xbox 360 output.