Though modern shooters remain popular in the land of the rising sun, most North American gamers could honestly care less. Perhaps it's because we've grown accustomed to being coddled and can no longer handle real challenges, or maybe we've just finally accepted that no westerner has the reflexes, skill and discipline required to survive a never ending hail of bullets. Either way, trying to sell a SHMUP here often amounts to little more than economic suicide, so it was rather surprising to hear that UFO Interactive had decided to bring the Japanese shooter Raiden IV stateside.
Raiden, for those unable to associate the name with anything other than Mortal Kombat or Metal Gear Solid, is a classic shooter series originally created by Seibu Kaihatsu, but now being developed by MOSS Ltd. It's a significantly tamer affair than bullet hell shooters designed by the likes of CAVE, but in many ways it's far more complex and challenging because of the slower pace. Players used to split second dodging will no doubt have trouble adapting, but in time will learn to start planning their moves several seconds ahead, turning the manic experience into something more refined and civil, not unlike a game of chess. Bosses do turn up the action with more complex bullet patterns, especially during the second loop, but again with grace of movement they can be conquered.
In keeping with the series you have the option of using several different weapons based on the colour of the power-up collected. Red gives you the wide spread Vulcan Cannon, while Blue gives you a strong forward focused Laser and purple gives you either the tracking Plasma Laser or awkward Proton Cannon depending on your pre-play selection. Collecting more power-ups of the same colour will increase your weapons level, while collecting a different colour will change weapons but maintain your current level. Nothing original, but when the formula works why change it?
Like most Xbox 360 SHMUP ports, Raiden IV has been expanded from it's original arcade release. Though you can still play the original arcade version, a special Xbox 360 mode has been added bringing two new levels and several new enemy craft into the fray. Surprisingly the added levels are rather long and significantly extend the experience. Whether or not this is a good thing comes down to what type of player you are. For those who want more value for their dollar it's certainly nice, but for fans of the genre it may make the game feel a tad long winded.
If for some reason you don't find the normal game modes challenging enough you may want to check out Double play mode where you control two ships with one controller. It takes quite a bit of practice to become comfortable with the concept and it doesn't help that you're also restricted to a shared set of bombs, shared lives and no continues. It’s not a mode you’ll find yourself regularly playing, but is a neat idea to say the least.
Another pleasing new feature is the ability to save and upload replays of your game sessions. At first this may seem like trivial fluff, but it's actually a very useful tool as you'll be able to watch and learn from not only your own mistakes, but those of others. Replays posted to the World Rankings leaderboards are an excellent source of information and are invaluable if you want to earn any of the “One Credit” achievements.
Visually Raiden IV is very similar to Raiden III, just with more complex textures and models. Nothing fancy, but nothing ugly either. Musically, Raiden IV takes the series back to it's roots by ditching the techno beats of Raiden III for more traditional shooter ballads. Easily some of the best music the genre has seen and if you pick up the limited edition (currently the only edition) you'll get a soundtrack CD.
Simply put, Raiden IV is a game that doesn't really venture into new territory, but it's so refined it doesn't really need to. Although $40 seems like a lot to ask for the somewhat minimal content, if you're a fan of the genre you'll easily get your money's worth from it's high replayability. If, on the other hand, you're a mainstream gamer who favours pomp and circumstance over gameplay and skill, what are you doing reading this review in the first place? Go back to your Bioshock.
Author's Note – On the Subject of DLC in Raiden IV:
A number of people on the internet have decided to take issue with how UFO Interactive is handling the use of DLC with Raiden IV. While I don't really agree with them or think that it's even an issue to begin with, I figured it's important enough of a subject to state my opinion on it. For those who are blissfully unaware, the argument goes something like this:
UFO Interactive is nickel and diming people who purchase Raiden IV because the DLC ships are mentioned in both the manual and the menu of the game – they should just be on disc.
I have a number of problems with this summation, mostly because it demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the product. When Raiden IV was released in Japan over a year ago it came with one ship on disc and two bonus ships available as DLC for 80 MSP each. This was the strategy MOSS and Japanese publisher Taito agreed upon. When UFO Interactive decided to bring the game to North America they translated it, but preserved all the original design decisions. Thus we have two ships for DLC in North America for 80 MSP, just like in Japan. They were never on disc and never part of the game, arcade or otherwise, so the argument is completely null and void.
Now because the DLC ships are mentioned in the manual and they appear in the character select screen I can see how someone would interpret then as missing content, not bonus content. However if you know the history of Raiden you know there has always only been one ship and that's the one on disc. Yes there's a character select that's only used for selecting and buying the extra ships, but some feature like this has to be present. How else are you supposed to choose to use an extra ship? This isn't a case like Lumines Live where half the games content was stripped to release as DLC, it's more like BlazBlue where you get a great game, but can buy extra colour palettes if you're a real fan. Besides the total price of both ships is less than some EA cheats.
A far bigger issue, and one I fail to see addressed, is the fact the DLC is completely missing from the Canadian Marketplace. I don't know if this is a failing on the part of UFO or Microsoft, but this is a major oversight and as a Canadian SHMUP fan it's really annoying.
UPDATE: Shannon Min, Product Coordinator for UFO Interactive got back to us, saying "… the DLC content for Raiden IV is being addressed with Microsoft. Many of our die-hard fans have expressed concern over this and we are working closely with MS to rectify the situation. We will send out a press release once the situation has been squared away." (October 20, 2009)
UPDATE 2: It is now possible to download the DLC in Canada. A big thank you to UFO Interactive and Microsoft! (November 21, 2009)
Raiden IV is rated E10+ (Everyone) by the ESRB for Mild Fantasy Violence, Mild Suggestive Themes.