Touhou, Vorpal is a bullet hell shoot-em-up, and true to the genre, success is as dependent on dodging bullets as it is on defeating enemies. It's important for smaller, independent games to have a quick, recognizable hook, be it enjoyable gameplay mechanics, catchy music or simply a unique look. Vorpal, it turns out, has all three.
Presented entirely in shades of black, white and red, Vorpal doesn't have the traditional scrolling stages of most shooters. Instead players are subjected to a series of increasingly difficult boss battles. Each boss has nine different attack phases, each with a unique pattern of bullets. Nearly every attack phase does have one thing in common: Lots of bullets, like lots and lots and lots. It's the player's job to take down the boss's shield in each phase, at which point the shield regenerates and a new phase begins.
There are several characters to choose from, each with their own bullet type and special "Break" attack. During each level, players scramble for power-ups, dodge hundreds of bullets and chip away at the boss's health, all to a relentless techno beat. As the game progresses -- and every time you're hit by a bullet -- the "Stress" meter fills up. Once filled to a certain point, players can unleash their Break, a powerful attack that clears the screen of bullets and delivers massive damage to enemy health -- but also reduces your possible score.
As I said, initially I thought I might never clear the first level. Then I realized that, like all shooters, the key to defeating any boss is pattern recognition. Thus each encounter and each boss attack phase boils down to a frantic choreography of avoiding bullets and getting your shots in when you can, occasionally deploying a Break to create breathing room and quickly put an end to a more difficult attack phase.
Red Wolf's Abraham Morales says he hopes that Vorpal "immerses the player in a trance." I don't know about a trance, but I can certainly attest to a few "zen" moments." And more than once I've found myself with only one health bar, dodging bullets like mad, unleashing a Break attack and just barely killing a boss before being killed myself. It can be pretty exhilarating.
To put it plainly: Vorpal ties together polished shoot-em-up mechanics, great music and a unique visual style and rolls it all into a stupidly affordable package. Shoot-em-up fans are advised to give it a try.
Want to try out Vorpal? You can queue the trial for download here on Xbox.com! The full version is 80 MS Points ($1). If you've discovered (or created) an outstanding Xbox Live Indie Game and think it deserves some more visibility, email Richard aat joystiq dawt com, subject line "Xbox Live Indie Gems."