Playing so many shmups to feature them on this ranking is very similar to dating. You go out with different people, you get to know them personally, all the good and all the bad. You create memories, some fade away over time, some stay with you forever. If shmups are like dates, you are bound to eventually go out on one where you might just say “damn, this might be the only one I want to date for the rest of my life”.
So if shmups are like dates, then Devil Engine might just be “the one” for me.
Publisher: Dangen Entertainment
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release date: Feb 21, 2019
Devil Engine is a 2D side-scroller shmup. You play the AI ship Andraste with the goal of destroying the Devil Engine. The main game is divided between 6 main stages, each with its own style and enemy types. Blasting through this levels will be no easy task, so make sure you are prepared to take on the toughest enemies in the galaxy.
Why Devil Engine
I’ll be the first to admit that Devil Engine wasn’t a game I was eagerly expecting. It wasn’t even one I knew existed until I saw the listing on the coming soon page! However, upon checking the shop listing I found numerous clues that hinted to a game that was as fast-paced and action packed as those first shmups I first fell in love with from my arcade and SNES days.
When trying to describe how it felt to pick a relatively unknown game to me like Devil Engine and play it for the first time, I have to look back at my past. There is one other game where I felt this same sensation, and it is one game you might have heard about. That game was Axelay.
It was until I played the first game that I discovered that I wasn’t wrong at all! Devil Engine doesn’t waste any time before throwing you into the gauntlet where only your best reactions will save you from the waves of enemies. All of this action embellished by a beautiful 32 bit art style and one of the most blood-pumping soundtracks I’ve heard in a long time.
Easy to pick-up, difficult to master
Playing as Andraste is as simple as it gets. You have four main action buttons: fire, bombs, speed-up and burst. Contrary to being discouraged by a lack of nuanced sub-systems, I actually loved that the controls were as straightforward as possible. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy innovation such as Ikaruga’s polarity switches or Danmaku Unlimited’s graze and trance mode, but going back to the basics is a warm welcome.
As expected from the genre, fire is your standard attack button. Devil Engine features 3 different weapon types which are Spread, Laser and Homing. There is a very discernible trend of keeping things simple, and this definitely allowed each weapon type to shine for its own specific purpose. Spread will be the main weapon you use when you want your shots to cover as much screen space as possible, but also to deal the most damage if you are brave enough to stand close to enemies. Laser is best when fighting long range against a specific target, it also deals a decent amount of damage. Homing is by far the weakest weapon, but it does the job of aiming for you so that you can focus on dodging. Each weapon has 3 levels of power which increases when you collect the same weapon you have equipped, or decrease when you die.
Bombs are slightly different from what you would expect. In Devil Engine, they serve as a powerful attack to destroy your enemies. They only deal damage, so if you expect them to clear the bullets from the screen or serve as a get-out-of-jail free card then you are in for a rough awakening. Although they don’t work as panic buttons per-se, they do deal a lot of damage, so in a way you can use them to quickly kill bosses before you even get a chance to panic. There is a different bomb attack for each weapon, but they all follow the concept of their base weapon.
Despite me saying that there weren’t complicated sub-systems, Devil Engine does feature a unique mechanic: Burst. Bursting allows you to erase the bullets in your vicinity, at the cost of your score multiplier and a small cool down. The bigger your score multiplier, the bigger the effective area of the burst. As you can expect, you should only use it when things are getting extremely complicated, or else you risk losing out on big score gains. The fact that there isn’t any real penalty for using is great at making it a valid defense mechanism if hi-scores aren’t your goal, but do keep in mind that repeated uses of burst will dramatically reduce their effectiveness are due to a lack of combo multiplier.
Lastly we have the speed-up button. Andraste feature 3 different speed, so pressing X will increase your speed to the next level or drop it to the lowest if you are at the highest speed already. I’ll admit that I am not a fan of speed altering power-ups such as those from R-Type and Gradius, but I did think Lightening Force’s speed toggle was ok. Devil Engine’s toggle is that same as Lightening Force’s toggle, with the only difference being that there are 3 speeds instead of 4. I never got to master Lightening Force’s system because I wasn’t a big fan of the game when I played it, but I have taken my sweet time learning it for Devil Engine.
The danmaku ship
As hinted by the game’s official site, there is at least another ship you can play as. I can’t pronounce the name very well so I’ll refer to it as the danmaku ship, but I can say that it plays differently from Andraste.
Every button performs a different functions. For example, the speed-up button slows down your ship while you hold it and narrows your fire to a reduced cone in front of you similar to Shikhondo or any other TATE shooters that features focus fire. Your burst charges up to 3 levels, and each features giant attacks that erase bullets and deal heavy damage to enemies. Bombs are replaced by a lock-on beam which can target up to 6 enemies and gives you bonus points per enemy hit. Lastly fire is… fire.
Even with the 10+ hours I’ve spent playing as Andraste, I gotta say I felt right at home when playing the other ship. The focus fire state gives you more control over your movement and makes bullet dodging a more enjoyable experience. It just feels right.
Score as currency
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Devil Engine is the staggering amount of customization it offers and the ways to unlock it. I praised R-Type Dimensions’ customization options in 2D and 3D, but Devil Engine just took it to the next level! You can customize the way you see the game by applying filters which range from basic scanlines to a reddish style reminiscent of the Virtual Boy and even “Bad handheld port” which looks blurry and downscaled and I love it! As you progress through the game, more customization options will be unlocked such as changing the menu music, hot-blooded mode for intense explosions and even European Extreme, whose effect is so hilarious that I’ll just let you discover it by yourselves.
What sets Devil Engine apart is the fact that getting new unlocks is related to your lifetime score. To put it simply, the more you play, the more you will increase your lifetime total score. Once your score reaches certain thresholds, new unlockables will be available to you! They can be the previously discussed customization options, upgrades such as increasing your number of continues, extra modes to play and even challenge stages which offer unique scenarios.
The real beauty is that things will naturally be unlocked the more you play. There is an incentive to become a better player to maximize your score and increase the unlockables, but if you are playing in a more casual manner then that’s also ok! Things will naturally become available to you. The combination of unlockables through merit but without the pressure to perform is a breathe of fresh air into the way of approaching gated content.
Plenty of challenging modes
As I mentioned, you will unlock challenge stages as you keep on playing. These challenge stages pose unique scenarios such as beating every single enemy, surviving a pacifist stage or even setting in motion the Final attack plan. The challenges are incredibly hard (especially the Final attack plan), so you will certainly keep coming back for more. They also hint at new strategies to use during your arcade runs such as bursting amidst high concentrations of bullets.
You can also play an extra stage which features hellish bullet patterns to scratch that bullet hell itch. I usually don’t play so much in extra stages, but there is something unique about transitioning from arcade mode to a single stage designed to have you dodging as many bullets as possible
Lastly there are even alternate ways of playing the arcade mode and give you rewards for it. One is playing without using bombs and bursts. Sounds simple, but the removal of your main defensive options and your most offensive one creates a gameplay that revolves around patient play and a timely offensive. The second one is a pacifist run, which means you can’t attack anything at all. As you play a pacifist run you will realize that bosses eventually flee, making the entire run possible.
There’s even more ways to play, but I want to keep some things as a secret for players to discover. Most of what I’ve mentioned is present on the shop listing, but rest assured there is a lot more to discover!
A rocking soundtrack
Shmup games always have amazing soundtracks, but Devil Engine easily has one of my favorites. It is hard to describe why I love it so much, but the best I could come up with is that each track does a great job at pumping you up, while never becoming stale. I always favor soundtracks that resonate with my SNES days. My favorite track is by far the second boss’ battle theme, followed by the final battle.
Sometimes I just go to challenge mode and leave the game at the score screen, just to hear the music playing in the background while I do something else.
The soundtrack features tracks by Hyakutaro Tsukumo, who is known for soundtracks such as thunder Force V or Assault Suit Leynos. Fun fact, I’ve never heard of anyone else mention Assault Suit Leynos, but Cybernator is a personal favorite of mine and that alone led me to experience Assault Suit Leynos.
Update: Apparently I misread to soundtracks authors a little bit, it turns out Mason Lieberman composed the challenge mode track, while the rest of the soundtrack was composed by Joseph Bailey. Be sure to give Joseph a follow! His work in this game is outstanding!
The devil is in the details
If there is one thing which is extremely apparent for anyone who plays Devil Engine, is how much the developers understood the source material. Littered throughout the game are nods to other shooters and their history. Just by going to an untouched leaderboard you can see references to Styx and Rynex from Lightening Force. You can also find popular cultural references like the phrase “Stay hydrated” or the meme-ish “& Knuckles”.
After every run or game over you will also be presented with random tips. They range from actually useful tips like how bursting can help you keep or increase your score to funny nods to classic strategies such as abusing bosses for hi-scores. Perhaps my favorite is the encouraging reminder that shmups are like sports, and a little practice every day can go a long way into your improvement.
Apparently you shouldn’t be trying to play Devil Engine in TATE mode, so it’s a sad day for flip grips.
It is very clear that the developers had fun making Devil Engine, but most importantly, they they went out of their way to bring in the best of the genre. Many creators don’t play their creations, but I’m willing to bet Devil Engine’s developers do play their own game on a regular basis, after all, they did make it 100% for the shmup fans.
The Devil Engine
I would love to be able to explain the story, but like with most shmups I’m at a loss at trying to figure out what’s going on, and that’s ok by me. That’s not to say that there aren’t bit of lore here and there. I’m happy knowing that there is a huge confrontation going on and a big bad boss awaiting at the end of the journey. If you are interested, though, just know that you are an AI ship and apparently there is an alien force which almost wiped the human forces, which led to the creation of the AI for future combat efforts.
You probably have to keep attention to the details to piece the story together. If you ever figure out the story, please let me know! I would be happy to learn it as well!
It might sound contradictory with all the praise I’ve given the game for its gameplay, presentation, even the tiny details, but I recommend waiting for a patch before purchasing this game.
There are some loose ends which cause some unexpected behavior within the game. Some are pretty harmless like false unlockables, some are more devilish like incorrect game modes, but one is especially game breaking.
I can’t pinpoint what is the deal with the false unlockables, but I’ve seen the game presenting me an unlockable that is nowhere to be found. Some examples are expert mode, which is still not available, and infinite continues, which aren’t working.
For wonky behavior there are some unexpected transitions that feel like developer oversights. The easiest one to find is that quick restart always takes you back to the first stage. The issue is that when this happens, you only play with 2 continues as opposed to the number of continues you have gained through progression. A crazier scenario happens when you play as the secondary ship on boss rush and select quick restart. This caused me to go to the first stage of arcade mode with the secondary ship (which I haven’t unlocked for arcade play), while keeping track of my score on the boss rush leaderboard. As you might expect, this allowed me to get a crazy illegal hi-score on boss rush. It also unlocked the secondary ship for arcade mode and Andraste for the extra stage. At this point I don’t know if I’m supposed to have either of those options unlocked yet, so time will tell.
Sadly there are 2 game breaking bugs which I’ve found. The first one is that shooting the blue laser and pausing the game will 100% crash the game if you select resume from the pause menu. The second one has only happened once, but my game crashed when I beat the 4th boss using Spread and spamming bombs.
At the moment of this review, I was informed that there is a patch for Devil Engine ready and awaiting certification from Nintendo, so I’ll update this review with any new changes.
Devil Engine vs Steredenn
One very important question remains. I’ve spoken very highly of this game, but do I think it is much better than the current #1 ranked game in this list, Steredenn: Binary Stars? The short answer is: Yes!
The long answer is that I liked Devil Engine much more because it feels like a complete package. Everything from gameplay, enemy design, backgrounds and especially the game progression just feels smoother and more fun to play. I’ve had countless Steredenn sessions looking forward to that one run in which I might conquer the game. My issue was that I never felt like there was anything different between runs. There was no progression other than me getting better, different ships were unlocked but that was pretty much it. I did discover different weapons, but that was only relevant if I decided to play boss rush. I also fought secret bosses. Steredenn challenged me, and thanks to its random design it left a door open for me to come back to the game any time I pleased and get a brand new shooting experience.
Devil Engine fixed every issue I had with Steredenn. I still felt the urge to have my victory on arcade mode, but while pursuing that path I was awarded with myriads of unlockables like filters or challenge mode stages. I knew that my goal was to beat arcade with 1 credit, but I still had other vastly different game modes to play like challenge mode or the extra stage. The game even acknowledged small milestones like letting me pick any level to start at based on how far I’ve gone through the game with 1 credit. This alone made me more than happy to restart runs to chase that elusive advanced starts to my arcade run.
I was not ready for Devil Engine. What I thought at first to be a fun little shmup turned out to be the most fun I’ve had with shooters on the Switch so far! With its mixture of tight gameplay, rewards system and extra content, there is a lot to keep you busy for the months to come. But what brings the package together is how much soul in contained within the game. I don’t know the developers of this game, but everything they did here just shows how much love they have for shmups and a deep understanding of what makes them amazing games. This really is an outstanding game and one that deserves to be in everyone’s collection.
Devil Engine is a game that promises to be among the first to pop-up in your head when someone asks you: What is your favorite shmup on the Switch?
THE RANKING SO FAR:
- Devil Engine
- Steredenn: Binary Stars
- R-Type Dimensions EX
- Shikhondo – Soul Eater
- Aero Fighters 2 (ACA Neogeo)
- Lightening Force: Quest for the darkstar (Sega Ages)
- Last Resort (ACA Neogeo)