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[ Writer ] = CMoon
[ 02/07/04 ] = Psyvariar Revision

Psyvariar is perhaps the perfect rainy-day shooter. If you've been playing a lot of Cave, Psikyo, Toaplan, Treasure, Raizing, etc., etc., you're first thought might be that Psyvariar is little more than home-brew shmup, but the game quickly proves itself, if little more.

The closest comparison to Psyvariar is the widely loved and hated Shikigami No Shiro series. Both are 'scratch/graze/buzz' based games, both use polygons exclusively, both appear to run on the Naomi hardware, and both - to me - lack a little something (I'm not quite sure what) that tends to exude from more experienced shmup developers. All feel welcome to argue the point on the Shiki games which I know are good but still have never really caught my fancy.

But while Psyvariar may not be winning any awards for shooter of the year (the past year!), it is strangely addictive. The scratch system is simpler here than in Shiki. A small meter builds up every time you graze a bullet, and when the meter is full, a shield suddenly pops around your ship for a few seconds. Not long after playing Psyvariar you will notice that you can still graze bullets even while invincible, and thus the major premise of the game appears - once invincible, dive straight into as many bullets as possible. In addition, every time you fill up the meter, your ship levels up, actually changing form as the game proceeds. The variety is pretty significant since one form has a side shot, while other forms are more forward-shot oriented. One form even looks suspiciously like an Einhander ship. Since grazing bullets is your main source of points, you'll want to do this constantly, getting your ship to the highest level possible.

I don't know if this idea of eating bullets is exactly appealing to me, but Psyvariar makes good use of sound effects and the PS2 pad rumbles nicely as you plow through bullets. Every time your ship evolves, an electric sound fills the air. It is rather satisfying, but shooters have high standards to keep up with. Clearly, this isn't enough. Fortunate or not (I'm not sure), Psyvariar is a bit deeper than this. Perhaps inspired by Donpachi, Psyvariar allows you to vary how your ship moves, how it shoots and how your bomb operates, all on the fly. Unfortunately, I strongly prefer how Cave did it. Fortunately, it adds the depth that Psyvariar needs to be more than a very average shooter.

The game mechanics work as such: Normal moving and normal shooting (holding down the shoot button) allows you to move at a fairly standard clip with a wide shot. Rotating the stick (or holding one of the shoulder pads on the PS2) will slow your ship down for precise movement, and also focus in your shot to a beam (where have I seen this before?). In addition, however, you can tap the shoulder button (not quite sure how you do this in the arcade) to keep the beam but move a bit faster than normal. So when the going gets tough you can just tap your way into Dangun Feveron mode (which is useless for scoring but great for staying alive!).

As I said above, the bombs also have multiple functions. The first is your standard screen clearing bomb. I like it! The second is more tactical and I've had mixed results with it. By holding the bomb button you can start up your shield. This would be perfect for massive boss assaults if you were sure that by diving into the bullets you could keep the shield going through constant leveling-up. Obviously standard bombing is safer, and not being an expert player, I tend to favor it.

Speaking of those bombs, don't be afraid to use them. Psyvariar is short and I find myself dying because of stupid things, praying the shield will kick on in time when I've got a full stock of bombs. Like Shiki, this is all about lots and lots of slow bullets, so when you die you feel really stupid. Use those bombs!

Now it's about time to discuss the problems with this game. Sheesh, where to start! Man, the backgrounds are sometimes really bad. Perhaps it is because there are so many levels (I'll explain how the game is short and has lots of levels a little later), that some just didn't get the attention they deserve. I recall the forest level being little more than a green background (I guess it's forest) that is finally broken by something that might be a river. I hear the people who say that 3-D is still a 'new' artform, but c'mon, there are plenty of late 90's games with 3-D graphics that easily surpass this. Ah, at least the enemies are fairly animate. I don't mean they are great, I mean they are ok. Overall, you're going to have a far more interesting time with the bullets than the enemies (who die quickly and rarely do much of anything). Maybe I'm being too harsh here, but even though Psyvariar has plenty of enemies, they really don't have much in the way of character (here is where Shiki really does blow Psyvariar out of the water).

Levels are short and not particularly distinguishable other than their (once again) poorly rendered backgrounds. Some are obviously more difficult than others, and typically a new enemy or two will be introduced, but in general it is pretty blah.

Perhaps to balance out all that's mediocre, your performance on any particular level unlocks more difficult levels that you can select in play. So if you do reasonably well in the first level, you can pick from one of three scenarios for level 2 (actually four if you are super!). This is not a warp to a later level, but a pathway not unlike in the Darius games. I suppose it's a little like Border Down, except that all emphasis is on picking harder levels (since there's more potential for buzz-points). Here's where replay comes in since there's plenty of routes to choose from, and even though it's all pretty much the same, the variety does add something, as does the excitement of unlocking a new level.

How far the game goes exactly I'm not sure. X-A is the 'you suck' final boss level that you'll fight - if you suck (but still survive). If you are doing pretty well, you'll take on X-A before level 4 (sort of weird, I don't know why). Then you'll play level 4, then X-B. X-B is as far as I've gotten, and I haven't beaten X-B yet. The question is, if I was doing far better, would I still go to X-B and then on to X-C, or would I skip X-B? For all the initial deceptive ease of the game, the real thing doesn't start until you are into these X levels, and the increase in difficulty is pretty severe (unless you've been traveling along the C or D route the whole way). For instance, level 2-D (Volcano) is rather tough, but you'll have to perform very well to get it.

Thus, Psyvariar does do something many other shooters don't. It has an unfolding nature. If you want to play it just like a standard shooter, you very well can. You'll only get the first boss, but there's nothing to stop you from doing this. If you want to abuse the game engine, you can do that too, and you'll no doubt get quite a bit farther with a significantly higher score (though it becomes a lot harder to 1 cc when you do this). What I really dig about this is the idea of difficulty being built in, and the game adapting to your level of play. What started out as something mediocre becomes a sort of 'every man's' shooter. Play the way you want, and Psyvariar will meet you half way. There's always going to be a challenge waiting, regardless of your ability. Having the ability to play it more methodically or as a faster, twitch oriented shooter is pretty nice.

On the whole, Psyvariar suffers like many novelty-based shooters suffer. Instead of relying wholly on gameplay, the focus is almost entirely on grazing, just as the Giga Wings became entirely about the reflect barrier. Nonetheless, Psyvariar is a highly enjoyable shooter and one worth picking up at budget price. With some of the little oddities of this game ironed out, perhaps Psyvariar 2 will truly be a shooter meant for more than a rainy afternoon.