Japanese developer MOSS have made a name for themselves in the hardcore shoot-em-up genre with their Raiden series, which has gained its fair share of fans due to it’s lightning fast combat and intense difficulty. To be fair, it’s not an incredibly prominent genre nowadays, but MOSS games have come with a pedigree that pleases both fans of classic shoot-em-ups, as well as newcomers looking for a tight action experience. Thankfully, their latest release on the Playstation 4 is no different. Caladrius Blaze might be short on content, but it easily makes up for that with it’s old-school sensibilities and intense combat.
Originally debuting in Japanese arcades in September of 2013, Caladrius Blaze also made its way onto the Xbox 360 that same year, which leads to one of the games biggest problems. Since its initial release, it appears as though there have been no visual upgrades to the already outdated graphics of the game. This could be divisive among players looking for a polished graphical experience for the $30 asking price. While everything animates smoothly and the backgrounds look great in motion, when things slow down a bit, it becomes easily apparent how comfortable some of the textures would look on a PS2. But that isn’t to say it’s a bad looking game. For once, I actually consider the game’s lack of fidelity a stylistic boon, giving it a very specific old-school feel. Playing through each of the varied stages, I couldn’t help but feel like I was playing a long-lost cult classic of the Dreamcast age. Like I said, it will certainly be a divisive element among fans and players, but for me it blends nicely with the gameplay sensibilities on display.
The overall aesthetic of the game also deserves praise, breaking away from the standard sci-fi based tropes of the genre, and bringing something a bit more interesting to look at to the table. Acclaimed Japanese artist Suzuhito Yasuda manages to breathe awesome life into the universe, making each ship and boss feel unique and intimidating, and just as empowering to defeat. There is a sinister edge to much of the world design as you blast through the individual stages, giving the game a great sense of atmosphere overall. It’s a shame then that the paper-thin storylines don’t do much to reinforce the strong art direction. While it’s far from the most egregious storyline I’ve seen in a game, the bits scattered throughout each individual character’s levels never materialize into anything worth caring about. It’s a good thing that nobody is exactly looking for that in this genre.
The core game is incredibly light on content. There are only three main game modes for players to choose: Story Mode, Score Attack, and the unlockable Boss Rush mode. From the offset, players can choose from three distinct paths through the story, each of them offering slightly different ways to get through the same seven stages. After beating the game a set amount of times, players can choose to partake in a grueling boss rush, but it’s just replaying content again for a different score. This will immediately turn some players off, but for fans of the genre this could be a big plus. While the levels available are limited in their variety, the way players can choose to go about them are not. With four difficulties and ten surprisingly unique characters, fans of old-school score-hunting will have a blast getting down strategies for those leaderboard-chasing runs. There’s even a light upgrade system in play between levels, allowing players to buff certain attacks as it suits them. As with most aspects of the game, it probably won’t suit newcomers to the genre that you can ostensibly see all the game has to offer in a comfortable half hour, but for the arcade shooter fans of yesteryear, it is a welcome invitation back to the genre.
Which brings me to the game’s strongest point: its gameplay. Coming from the developers of the legendary Raiden series, it should be no surprise that Caladrius Blaze has fantastic gameplay chops. What surprised me, however, was how accessible it was to someone relatively unfamiliar to the genre. Even without a tutorial, I quickly figured out how each of the four attacks at my disposal worked, as well as how to make them work best for me. Be it on the PS4 joystick or D-pad, the game controls well, with the ships flying around the screen with a buttery smoothness. Each of the individual ships bring something innovative and different to the experience, be it lasers that follow the path of your ship, or bullets that only shoot in a “V” motion ahead of you. It all serves the game well, and is never anything less than a satisfying arcade experience. The scrolling backgrounds are also worth mentioning, as the rolling 3D backgrounds produce some of the game’s most memorable moments as you soar above clouds, castles, and even deep underground. Everything about the gameplay serves to be as friendly, without sacrificing the moment to moment, edge-of-your-seat gameplay. There is a timeless feeling of deftly weaving through a screenful of enemy fire, and Caladrius Blaze nails it.
Also worth mentioning is the soundtrack. While the constant hair metal riffs and generally 80’s inspired score won’t resonate with some, it does its job by complimenting the intense action, and making you feel like a badass in the process. I don’t know if I will be able to find it anywhere, but I certainly wouldn’t mind throwing a couple bucks to whoever made it to get it on my iPod.
I can’t see a world where Caladrius Blaze isn’t divisive. It certainly has it’s shortcomings—with its short length and paltry story chief among them—but it still remains a satisfying representation of the old style of shoot em ups that we used to love. Intense, varied combat highlighted by fantastic art direction and a groovy soundtrack make Caladrius Blaze one of the best surprises of this summer, and I would immedieately recommend it to anyone looking for a fix in an often overlooked genre.