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Astebreed Review: Walking a Line
Astebreed, Edelweiss’s sequel to their earlier PC shooter, Ether Vapor, finds a happy medium between accessible, cinematic shooters like Star Fox and elegant, punishing shooters like Ikaruga. This is a grand, exciting, incomprehensible experience filled with gorgeous set pieces and exciting, strategic gameplay scenarios in equal measure, and even on my fourth playthrough I’m finding new ways to appreciate both.
After a dramatic, harrowing prologue, Astebreed’s story moves in increasingly confusing directions. There is a lot of technobabble, a weapon that can alter reality in unspecified ways, an intergalactic war, cities teleported across the astral plane and a dysfunctional family that may or may not be made up of onboard AIs.
Through it all, it’s clear that Roy Becket and his stepsister Fiona have stepped into Xbreed, a mythically powerful giant robot, and balance participating in the war’s battles with their pursuit of Fio’s sister, Esto. Even though I had trouble keeping track of all the details, Astebreed has a fantastic dramatic presentation and some engaging characters, especially Roy’s endlessly optimistic commanding officer, Daniel, and the possibly dead mercenary, Grato who ends up acting as Roy’s mentor from beyond the grave.
The largest barrier to appreciating the story is the Japanese voice acting, forcing English-speaking players to speed read the subtitles that appear in a corner of the screen during gameplay, forcing one to choose between focusing on the action or on the story.
Said action is hard to look away from; Astebreed is beautiful, filled with cool robot designs, gorgeous environments and an endless supply of particles to throw at Xbreed. The camera shifts constantly to give the best view of the action, and Astebreed’s gameplay styles shift seamlessly between horizontal, vertical and rail shooter styles.
Movement is camera relative, and these styles never feel disorienting, or like they were arbitrarily thrown together. Astebreed is the rare game where gameplay feels cinematic without ever detracting from the gameplay. Background enemies even behave slightly differently from enemies on Xbreed’s plane, meaning that the hyperactive camera work actually makes for more gameplay variety.
Xbreed’s attacks are loosely sorted into four categories: normal shots, which come in both wide and concentrated varieties, homing attacks, sword moves and EX attacks, and they all interact in a variety of satisfying crunchy but intuitive ways. Homing attacks, activated by holding one of the two shot buttons, work through a screen overlay in either a narrow cone that stretches across the screen or a circle centered on Xbreed, lock on to any enemy that passes through the overlay and fires upon all of them. Sword options include single slashes, flurries that do more damage and have a wider radius but have a longer recovery and dashes that cut a swathe towards the edge of the screen. Sword attacks can destroy certain types of bullets, and deal more damage than either shots or homing attacks.
Sword attacks also form the backbone of Astebreed’s scoring system for anyone looking for an extra challenge or to get more value out of the 90 minute campaign. Every enemy killed by a normal or homing shot increases the multiplier by one, a multiplier that doubles at full health and resets after taking damage. The multiplier is applied to the score of any sword kill, though each enemy killed with the sword causes the multiplier to drop. The constantly fluctuating multiplier requires precision to master, especially since the multiplier only drops after an attack is preformed: it is possible to max out the multiplier, weaken several enemies and take them all out with a single, max score dash attack.
Xbreed’s most powerful attacks are its EX attacks, which can be used without penalty but all share the cooldown. Pressing the EX button in most situations will result in a low damage sword sweep of the entire screen, good for taking advantage of a high multiplier or for clearing swathes of weaker enemies. The neutral EX attack also causes a shield to form around Xbreed for a few seconds, deflecting all fire.
Use the EX attack while Xbreed is locked on to multiple enemies with the homing attack and Xbreed will flit between all locked enemies and deliver a medium strength sword attack to each, including enemies in the background that cannot otherwise be attacked with the sword. Finally, using the EX attack with a full lock on a single enemy (achieved by keeping the overlay trained on it for several seconds) delivers an extremely damaging sword combo. The lock for the strong attack raises much faster with the cone overlay, so aiming the cone while avoiding damage is one of the best ways to finish off any of Astebreed’s imposing boss battles.
While most shooters kill the player in a single hit, Xbreed can take several hits before going down, and can even regenerate a portion of its health if it avoids damage for a few unbearably long seconds. While Xbreed can take a lot of punishment on normal mode (I didn’t die once before the final few bosses), hard mode steps up the challenge significantly with much greater damage and less powerful health regeneration: don’t expect to eat a missile and be at full strength a minute later. A checkpoint system keeps death from being frustrating, and manages to avoid trivializing the challenge.
The major score penalties associated with taking damage will give anyone who wants to truly dig in to Astebreed something to perfect, and anyone looking to find that sort of experience in Astebreed will find it no less exciting, only for different reasons.