In these days of ever-more complicated and time-consuming games, sometimes I find myself yearning for something simpler that I can simply pick up and play without hours of poring over a manual or weeks of investment of my time simply to reach "the good bit" of a particular title. Enter Deathsmiles, a sideways scrolling (well, mostly sideways scrolling) shooter from specialists in their field Cave, and brought to the UK via Rising Star Games.
I could probably wax lyrical about the rather gothic and occult themed back-story to Deathsmiles, but really all that you need to know is that the game provides you with a handful of young magical girls with differing powers, abilities and familiars to support them in battle to choose from before setting you loose on the game's world - a world, naturally, filled with monsters and nasties that want to shoot stuff at you and see you killed in a swathe of fire, while your task is to avoid such perils and destroy anything in your path towards a goal that becomes clearer as the game's levels progress.
Controlling the girl of your choice in this magic and demon-infused land couldn't be simpler, with the left analogue stick used to control your character, the right analogue stick controlling the girl's familiar (in the game's version 1.1 mode at least, more on that later) and pretty much every other button and trigger configured to spew various levels of fiery death upon whatever happens to get in your way. Kill everything, dodge any returning fire (and trust me there's a lot of it - this is a "bullet hell" shooter after all) and occasionally pit your wits against huge end of level bosses with similarly huge grudges against magical girls.
Visually, Deathsmiles feels like a bit of an odd beast in comparison to your average Xbox 360 game, relying on sprites and backdrops rather than the kind of 3D treatments we're used to, while the actual playable area of the screen is significantly reduced from the overall real estate afforded the console courtesy of some hefty borders. The reason for these borders become clear soon enough - Deathsmiles is one busy, visually intensive game, and even with this reduced resolution the game chugs and slows down markedly when the going gets tough and you start deploying the massive exploding death that is your special weapon upon the critters and bullets which threaten to fill your screen.
Once you get used to this old-school visual approach, you can soon start to appreciate the care and attention that has been lavished to every aspect of the game, with gorgeous backdrops, excellent character designs (even if they aren't always the most inventive) and some beautiful pieces of artwork to accompany stage completion and the like. Deathsmiles doesn't slouch in terms of its soundtrack either, with some great tracks to serve as a backdrop to your laser-borne death sprees that perfectly match the game's retro aesthetic. Rather nicely, this soundtrack is included as a bonus CD within the game's Deluxe Edition package, although bizarrely it's been created in a format that won't play on any standalone CD player, meaning you'll need to copy and burn it again to listen to in your car or Hi-Fi!
While sound and visuals are all well and good, when it comes to the crunch what really matters with any game is how it plays, and thankfully this is where Deathsmiles excels. So many games, and in particular fast-paced shooters and their ilk, can leave you shouting at your screen in frustration as bad collision detection or poor layouts contribute to your death - conversely, I can't think of a single occasion during my time with Deathsmiles where I blamed the game for my premature demise. When I died it was my fault, and when I completed a level it was down to my own ability; exactly how any game should be.
For all its simplicity, Deathsmiles is an incredibly addictive little game that draws you completely into its world of fighting against near-impossible odds - arguably the greatest complement I can pay it is that at times I found myself in an almost trance-like state, barely looking at my character's position in relation to the hail of bullets traversing the screen and controlling events instinctively without a thought in my head, only snapping back to reality at the end of a level.
Perhaps the only real downside to this title is my use of the word "little" in the previous paragraph - although Rising Star have bundled as much as possible with the game to flesh it out, actually playing Deathsmiles right through from beginning to end will only take you twenty to thirty minutes for a single iteration. Sure, you have four characters to choose from (five if you include the Mega Black Label version's addition of Sakura) each with two endings to pick at the end of the game, various versions of the game to check out with subtle differences within them (including additional difficulty levels to try your hand at) and of course a co-op multiplayer mode, but ultimately a short game is a short game and chances are you'll only want to play it through so many times before you lose interest unless you're a completist or obsessed with achieving high scores.
Then again, with a retail price of £29.99 (and you can buy it for half that cost online), Deathsmiles is significantly cheaper than most Xbox 360 titles, and on my own entirely fictional money-to-fun scale it's almost off the radar - it's incredibly fun to play, and it's an utter bargain, putting it up there as a must-by title for anyone with a hankering for a good, old-fashioned shoot 'em up with some delicious artwork to help it in its way. Deathsmiles may not be the kind of game you sink fifty hours into, but the time you do spend with it will fly by in a blur of aching thumbs and, ultimately, satisfaction aplenty.