While most shmups inherently have danger as an aspect in the form of enemies and bullets that will kill you, I’ve recently come across a shmup that takes the feeling of danger and brings it to new heights. It’s one thing to be in a bullet hell situation, it’s another to be in one where you have to make your life worse intentionally for high scores, and yet…I somehow love this concept in the shmup in question:
GET IT HERE: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1808900/GRAND_CROSS_ReNOVATION/
GENRE: “I’m In Danger~!” The Shmup
So, Grand Cross. It’s definitely a game that came out of nowhere for me, but I’m darn glad I discovered it, because it’s probably one of my favorite shmups now. I’ll admit, the story premise is a bit tough to follow: I’m not sure if you’re a person piloting a ship, or if you are in fact, the ship itself. That said, the story isn’t really what we’re here for, this is a shmup, right? So let’s talk about what we’re here for: Shooting things. Lots of things.
So, we need to talk about your ship/person/thing: Nexalts. You have a basic rapid shot attack, but the funny thing is you will almost never use it, because you have a much stronger (and riskier) weapon in the form of Sun Blade. The Sun Blade ties into the unique mechanic of this game having a health system instead of lives, and your health regenerates whenever you aren’t taking damage, so you can afford to take quite a few hits. So what’s all this “danger” I keep talking about? Well, the Sun Blade requires your health to fire! So in order to wield your obscenely powerful main weapon, which can be either an aimed laser you can sweep to destroy enemy and bullet alike, or use a dispersion mode that does less damage but hits the entire screen (Perfect for weak swarms), you have to be willing to burn away the health that prevents you from dying immediately from a stray bullet. You can also use a stronger version of the aimable, sweepable laser at the cost of an even faster health drain, so you technically have three modes of fire for this thing.
“Oh, that’s no biggie, so I just don’t let myself go too low on health” you say? Well, that’s where the other thing comes in if you’re playing this game for score: You are rewarded for being in the danger zone of your health, meaning you need to intentionally keep your health at critical levels for higher scores! But you also need to avoid hitting 0 health, because while it won’t kill you if you drain your health to 0, it WILL kill the damage output of your Sun Blade.
In other words, it’s a bullet hell with a precarious balancing act: You need to use the Sun Blade to destroy your foes and clear paths through enemy bullets, and you want to keep your health low enough that you get rewarded more points for doing so: But you also don’t want to let your health get TOO low or else your damage plummets (And you can easily be oneshot).
So, that said, the real challenge of this game is knowing when to use each of your Sun Blade’s modes, given that you have two for direct damage and one for dealing with crowds. Balancing this with your health while dodging (or destroying) bullets keeps things interesting and fresh each level as you’ll have a rather large variety of enemies and bosses to deal with. There’s also additional Reinforcement waves (and bosses) that can show up if you meet certain criteria in each stage, meaning you’ll have a lot of work cut out for you if playing for score over survival. Bosses are definitely the highlight, because as strong as they are, you are equally powerful.
That’s one thing about this game I love alongside its risk mechanics: The sense of absolute power you feel. Yes, your enemies may fire hundreds of bullets at you, but you have a laser cannon capable of slicing through everything thrown at you and then some, and when used properly it will even melt bosses with ease. So yeah, it’s a risk/reward system combined with a feeling of ridiculous, godly power you just won’t find in any other shmup. While plenty of shmups give you big guns, they rarely feel this obscenely powerful in how they work and how fast they can take down a threat.
It’s a decent enough game as is for the price, but what was surprising is that you also get not one, but TWO collab DLC ships for the price of absolutely nothing! Free DLC, in this day and age? Yeah, it still exists!
The first collab DLC ship is the Kirisame Blade, which is unlocked after beating the game once, and it trades long range destruction for two close range beam swords that follow your craft. You can use them to slash through enemies, parry bullets, and just drill them into enemies for ridiculous damage. And of course, you drain your health using the drill attack, so the high risk, high reward element of gameplay is ever present here. If there’s one thing I have to compliment this game on, it’s making each ship feel different despite embracing some of the same mechanics. Yeah, the risk factor is a thing no matter what, but the way Nexalts and Kirisame Blade handle is VERY different. And then there’s the second collab ship, which is a very special one for me. So it’s time for a history lesson.
So back in 1999, an indie dev group named Siter Skain released an incredible, quality doujin (Japanese indie) shmup for Windows PCs known as Kamui. Kamui was easily compared to the Ray series (Rayforce/Raystorm/Raycrisis) due to its lock-on mechanic where you could lock onto enemies in the background to hit them with a specialized homing attack, while your main gun dealt with enemies on the foreground with you. The game’s visual quality for a 2D game at the time were pretty darned impressive, and the game was super fun, if a bit hard. It was the shmup that introduced me to the Japanese indie/doujin scene, and thus has had a special place in my heart since I first discovered it. It’s also on steam, by the way: https://store.steampowered.com/app/283820/KAMUI/
And then it got added as the second Collab DLC ship for Grand Cross. And good lord, indie dev ES4 absolutely nailed it. The lock on lightning mechanic feels spot on, the lighting sword special (A giant electric beam of death) cuts through things as well as I would expect. What makes the Kamui interesting though is that it takes the risk element and takes it up to 11. The Kamui doesn’t use a % based health system, and instead uses a more retro styled life meter with several lights on a meter that each represent one direct hit that your shield can take. If your shield is down, the next hit is fatal. While your shield recharges between levels, there are two scenarios where your shield can go offline: Overheating from using too much Lightning, or disengaging Kamui’s Limiter. In both cases, the shield loss is temporary and you’ll regain your shields after you cool down/re-engage your Limiter. What this means though is that you need to be careful about overusing your Lightning attacks, and if you’re going for score or overwhelming firepower, you can shut off your Limiter to unleash absolute hell. But the risk is much more severe here than with the other ships. See, even if you die in Grand Cross, you can normally use a continue to resume where you died. Kamui doesn’t get this luxury: it’s a One Credit Clear or death! The one credit aspect greatly increases the risk factor of the Kamui, which is quite fascinating since the original Kamui lacked any kind of risk systems, yet they feel perfectly natural being added so that the Kamui can engage in the same risk based gameplay as the other ships of Grand Cross. I should note that this does not necessarily make the Kamui a harder ship to play casually: You never at any point need to shut off your Limiter to get the damage output you need for a boss fight. As long as you avoid overheating, you’ll always have enough shields to survive the challenges you face. But those wanting score, or wanting to try for even faster boss kills might just want to switch off the Limiter function in order to completely decimate an enemy. It’s all up to you in the end.
At the end of the day though, the spectacle might be a bit much for some, but I honestly love the idea of a shmup that’s all about power and spectacle, as opposed to just being another bullet hell. What makes Grand Cross feel so fun for me at the end of the day is that usually a shmup has you as the lone pilot, fighting against impossible odds against a massive enemy force.
There is admittedly one flaw more experienced shmup players will notice: The game’s systems make it a rather easy shmup for the most part (aside from when you play as Kamui with your Limiter off). Yes, there’s the whole low health risky play aspect, but a skilled player will eliminate any danger to their ship before they even come close to getting hit. The game is definitely one that expert players will find on the easy side, but more casual players of shmups (like me) will have a much easier time getting into it. That said, I still recommend this to any shmup enthusiast to try at least once.
In Grand Cross, you don’t feel like some pilot. You feel like a god taking on other gods in epic clashes of raw power and destruction that simply have to be experienced. And I absolutely love that feeling of power the game gives you. If anything, that alone is a reason to experience Grand Cross.