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Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action
Publisher: Fruitbat Factory
Developer: Orange Juice
Release Date: Jan. 5, 2016

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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PC Review - 'Sora'

by Brian Dumlao on June 6, 2016 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Sora is about an enhanced human and her struggle to protect a fading world. The fast-paced combat, improved game system and graphics feature original trance music by DEKU.

Before the big names like Treasure and Cave began to look at the PC market, fans of bullet hell shooters would often have to rely on indie developers for a fix if they didn't want to mess with MAME. One of the developers that has profited from this is Orange_Juice, a conglomerate of programmers who have brought a number of anime bullet hell shooters to the platform — as well as a digital board game. After its first stint with a RPG, the team has returned to its roots with Sora, and unless you've played the team's previous works, you'll be in for a bit of a surprise.

The story is about as apocalyptic as you can get without diving into the usual tropes of nuclear weaponry, desert-like environments, and so forth. On a planet that could be Earth, war has ravaged the area. It has gone on for so long that few remember why it continues, but they know that is has covered the sky in smoke and ash. During the final days of the planet's existence, a child named Sora is born. Altered to be a cybernetic weapon of war, she fights in hopes of a more positive world.

Narrative isn't a strong suit of most shooters of this kind, since the tales tend to be forgotten shortly after the player quits. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see that the game tries to do something beyond the opening cut scene. Cut scenes between Sora and the bosses bookend each fight, giving them character and fleshing out the world. It certainly isn't something to the scale and quality of Sine Mora, but it is impressive to see something like this come from such a small outfit.

Presented in a side-scrolling format, the game immediately dispels some of the basic notions people expect from the genre. You're equipped with three weapons: a melee weapon, a gun, and ordnance (usually in the form of missiles and rockets). As you progress, you'll be able to acquire new weapons, so you'll have a more diverse loadout every time you play. As expected, all of those weapons differ in range and damage power, but they all prevent you from moving when you're using them. Every shot you take has you stopping in your tracks for a split second, so you're even more vulnerable than you'd normally be. The game does away with one-hit kills, so taking a bullet means depleting your energy meter instead of instant death, and you don't incur damage when touching enemies, but you have to learn to be more strategic when you decide to attack.

To counteract this, Sora gives you a dash ability, which becomes the crux of the gameplay. Holding down the dash button lets you fly around the level at a greater speed than your normal movements, so you can easily dart between enemies. Dashing lets you pass through energy-based projectiles, so you can get through a hail of lasers relatively unscathed. Though the technique won't work on more solid weapons like missiles, you can try to let one pass if you want to get some energy back. The dash move also acts as a cancel, so you can quickly fire off a shot and dart away without standing around in one spot for too long. Finally, dashing through enough laser fire builds up a special meter that lets you pull off a hyper attack, essentially a superpowered move.

While the dash ability seems like it could render what is supposed to be a difficult gameplay type rather easy, there are some drawbacks to keep things fair. Dashing prevents you from attacking, so you're on the defensive when you use it. Also, staying in dash mode raises a heat meter, which increases the amount of damage you take. It cools down quickly enough once you stop dashing, but you're still vulnerable to something that would normally barely register a nick on your meter. It also means that dashing into rocket fire can quickly put you at a major disadvantage if you're boosting for a long time.

With that combination, what you're essentially left with is a bullet hell shooter version of Devil May Cry. Darting between enemies and dodging shots looks great and is a joy to perform once you get used to the mechanics. Normal enemies are pretty easy to take down but can be so clustered together that it's easy to make short order of them and get some breathing room before another wave hits. It doesn't take long before you look like you know what you're doing, and that's never a bad thing.

The added mobility and fluidity in fighting is heavily counteracted by the level of difficulty. As mentioned earlier, you have an energy meter so you can take more than one hit, but you only have one life before the game ends. There are also no continues, so you can't take hits, die, and still move forward like you could in other shooters. While the bullet coverage isn't as thick as one may expect, Sora mixes up missiles and laser fire well enough that you have to be very nimble if you want to escape situations relatively unscathed. The bosses can also be very tricky, since you're not going after big behemoth ships but other cyborgs that are just as nimble as you are. When you get into a game that has you dying on the first level although the difficulty is set to easy, you know that you've stumbled upon something that is meant to test your skills.

The title sports two modes, but the differences between them are pretty minimal. Story mode lets you go through the campaign starting from any level you unlocked, and Arcade mode has you going through all of the stages in sequential order in one shot. As expected, both give you letter rankings for your performance, but only Arcade mode gives you a score leaderboard. That leaderboard is local only, though, so there's no opportunity for you to compete online.

The sound is some pretty high-quality stuff, particularly the music. The trance music on the soundtrack is courtesy of DEKU and fits the game perfectly, as it is some high-energy material but not to the point of it being tiresome by the end of the stage. The effects are also good, as every shot and swipe come in pretty clearly. Interestingly, there are no voices in the game until the very end. Even with the amount of cut scenes and characters, the game is pretty silent in this regard, so even the small blips of letter typing are completely missing. Some may see it as a strange omission, but it doesn't hurt the game too badly.

While the sound is great, the graphics don't live up to that standard. A bulk of that criticism is attributed to the backgrounds, which are pretty drab. Even though you are supposed to be fighting on a planet that is about to experience its end of days, the monotonous skylines are very boring, and the explosions and other background elements actually end up being distracting. The sense of depth on these things is poor enough that you could leave yourself more prone to attack since you might dodge fire that wasn't there to begin with. Elsewhere, the explosions and ship designs are pretty basic, but the designs for the bosses and for Sora, while also pretty simple by anime character standards, are cute because of their animations. Those who have played the game in its original incarnation will be happy to know that the resolution has been upgraded for the Steam release. While it may natively be 720p, the upscaling is done well enough that few will notice the difference.

Sora is an experience worth checking out if you're grown bored of the standard bullet hell formula. The juggling of three different weapons sets and dash ability make this more involving than other shooters, while the difficulty level makes you pay attention to strategies, especially if you've lost your edge because other titles offer unlimited continues. With a presentation that is mostly good, Sora is a title that shooter fans should definitely check out.

Score: 8.0/10

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