Publisher: Nyu Media | Capcom
As a fan of Danmaku/Barrage/Bullet Hell shooters, I've been vaguely aware of the eXceed series for a while, seeing the three doujin (read: collaborative indie) SHMUPs floating around downloadable marketplaces for several months now. I love the focus on pure gameplay, the way the genre places players into an intricate clockwork mechanism powered by reflexes, memory and raw skill. Brilliantly, I now have an opportunity to write about them, seeing as a trilogy collection has finally found its way to Steam.
At this point, I should probably mention that the eXceed Collection has a somewhat controversial story, insofar as it hinges on the idea of the Catholic church brainwashing young girls into being magical vampire hunters. And then, before you either start sharpening your pitchfork or get too excited, I should also point out that it hasn't been translated into English, neither does it factor into gameplay in any significant way. If you're interested, do your homework.
What's fascinating about the eXceed Collection is that you can chart the evolution of a series from godawful to sensational, experiencing how each mistake was corrected and feature was iterated on through gameplay. It's an intriguing look into the modern Danmaku genre, and how Japanese doujin circles experiment with new ideas. With that in mind, we're going to cover each game in turn.
eXceed: Gun Bullet Children
Gun Bullet Children aspires to be a traditional 5-stage bullet hell shooter: i.e. a punishing experience that revolves around dodging through insane mazes of incoming artillery as well as returning fire. The ability to choose one of three different characters with unique shot patterns is a nice touch, as is an attempt at adaptive difficulty, but GBC is otherwise an utter disaster.
Where to start? Movement is slow and sluggish, while hitboxes are poorly defined and make navigating the busier encounters a matter of trial and error. Collision detection proves to be flat-out broken, which combined with the hitbox issue (something masterful SHMUP designers overcome by integrating the hitbox directly into the sprite artwork), means that you can sometimes just pass straight through incoming bullets. A dull, unimaginative art style becomes increasingly painful to behold, and worse, some of the powerups actually look just like projectiles.
The last of GBC's charm disappears in translation. The Japanese script hasn't been translated, and gallingly, it appears as garbage text unless you're willing to change your default Windows language settings. Gamepads simply won't work (you're unable to move vertically and horizontally at the same time), and performance varies between ridiculously quick - 120 FPS - or bizarrely slow - 20 FPS - bascially, it hasn't been optimised for anything. Getting it to run properly, regardless of hardware, is akin to playing Russian Roulette.
Thankfully, Gun Bullet Children became a learning exercise rather than a coffin nail, resulting in two superior shooters.
eXceed 2nd: Vampire REX
Vampire REX sharpens up the experience into something much more enjoyable. Responsive controls give you enough speed and manoeuvrability to match your reflexes, while a graphical overhaul presents a more vibrant, varied and visually appealing experience. Enemy sprites, backgrounds and bullet patterns have been improved both in terms of fidelity and variation, and some great bosses up the ante. Basically: Vampire Rex plays well and looks fantastic, while also providing a more interesting storyline courtesy of new vampire character Ria Fyle.
In terms of mechanics, Vampire Rex is a little bipolar... in a good way. Incoming projectiles are either light or dark, and you're free to shift your polarity between these two extremes; harmlessly absorbing similarly-coloured shots and using it to power up your special attacks. This makes for a deep and thoughtful new gameplay dimension, and really comes into its own against some taxing boss fights. Whether to dodge or polarity shift is an exciting question.
Of course, many of you will have realised that Vampire Rex basically just ripped off Ikaruga. Which it absolutely did. But there's nothing wrong with taking inspiration from a good place, in my humble opinion, and it demonstrates how doujin circles look to other franchises for inspiration.
eXceed 3rd: Jade Penetrate Black Package
This is it: the real deal. The main event. Though eXceed 3rd lacks the Ikaruga gimmick and boasts one of the flat-out dumbest names I've ever seen, it's easily the high point of the series, and a SHMUP that can stand tall with the absolute best of them.
Of course, Jade Penetrate comes with a host of graphical and gameplay improvements. It looks better than its predecessors, plays smoother and grants you the full control that was lacking from the first game. The story is interesting, the gameplay is fluid, the difficulty curve is finely-balanced: above all, it's brilliant fun.
However, Jade Penetrate mainly exceeds (heh) expectations due to its three strong core mechanics, which actively encourage players to experiment, play aggressively and take risks. Bullet grazing, one of my all-time favourite SHMUP systems, powers up your super weapon and increases your score the closer you get to incoming fire, making you feel like a daredevil rather than a rabbit in the headlights. Killing enemies quickly grants you score multipliers and chains, again putting the focus on aggression, while your weapons become more powerful as you edge closer to boss enemies. It's a perfect balance of evasion and attack, a system that wouldn't feel out of place in a CAVE or Treasure shooter.
Put simply, if you enjoy bullet hell shooters, Jade Penetrate deserves a place in your library.
- Vampire REX is solid
- Jade Penetrate Black Passage is absolutely exceptional
- An intriguing look into doujin development
- Gun Bullet Children is horrendous
- Only suitable for bullet hell fans
- Arguably better value to just buy Jade Penetrate seperately
The Short Version: The eXceed Collection contains a decent shooter, a sensational example of the Bullet Hell genre and the terrible original that inspired them both. It's a unique look into how doujin circles collaborate and experiment, and an entire series in a single package.
Though you might be better off just buying the superior third game, the eXceed Collection is still great value, and recommended if you're a fan of punishing bullet curtains. As much as anything, you'll appreciate how the eXquisite Jade Penetrate came about.