Review: Castle of Shikigami

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Bullet hell fans have been really excited for the Degica release of Castle of Shikigami onto Steam, and it’s clear why. The game itself is a big piece of bullet hell history and, more importantly, the first is the only one to not receive a proper release in the West. Degica promised a re-translated storyline and character bios, as well as all the standard Steam bells and whistles (cards, achievements, etc.). Unfortunately, for all the wonders that Castle of Shikigami brings, it’s still not quite where it could be.

Firstly, the storyline. Castle of Shikigami has an absolutely eerie and addicting framework that revolves around a massive string of murders happening in Tokyo. After a 32nd victim is discovered, everyone springs into action in their own way, quickly revealing that the deaths of these young women are connected to a dark occult undertone. Besides having different shooting abilities, each of the six characters also has a unique perspective on the ongoing case and you get a real sense of storytelling by doing multiple playthroughs. What’s really cool is that the bosses and stages don’t change whatsoever, so you can potentially unlock the story faster and faster the more you play. If you get dragged in like I did, I recommend simply going from the furthest left to the right in order, as it unfolds the story in a way that feels very natural and consistently surprising.

The mechanics themselves are still pretty spiffy by today’s standards. The genre is true to it’s name, as even the “very easy” setting still requires tight controls and reflexes. You can constantly fire your primary weapon, charge up a mystical attack that varies from character to character, or unleash a bomb to hopefully clear the screen (which you have a limited number of). Shikigami uses a “tension meter” which increases the strength of your shot as long as you’re in too-close-for-comfort proximity to enemy bullets. A dangerous situation, but sometimes necessary to get out those last shots before the boss gets you. Get hit once and it looks like a scene out of Sonic as a ton of coins scatter. Three hits and it’s game over. You have an unlimited number of continues to use, but it will reset your score back to zero. There are online leaderboards baked into the game for each of the difficulty settings, which gives pros incentives to absolutely decimate the easy settings and gloat over everyone on a global scale.

The main problem comes in the game itself. Now, difficulty wise, I get it, bullet hell games are meant to fray your nerves and force you to blink sweat out of your eyes as you navigate in pixel-perfect safety. But Castle of Shikigami doesn’t look like a game from this decade or even the last. The super creepy monsters and character profiles look to be distinctly 1980’s anime (I got a Demon City Shinjuku vibe). This was all well and good when the game first came out back in 2001, and even held water for the PS2 release of 2003. But the game looks blurry and stretched out on today’s screens, even with some frames in place to try and center your attention. The constant motion of the city beneath didn’t feel fluid and actually brought up some motion sickness. As much as I wanted to focus on the story and the game itself, I was constantly snapped out of the experience by noticing how dated it all felt.

Another thing is the sound system behind the game. Music gets a pass because I imagine that people would have felt slighted if the soundtrack was redone, and I get that. But the voices are a serious problem. When you encounter a boss or when you die, your character/their character tends to utter some phrases in Japanese that fit the moment and atmosphere. Yet the sound bites were not touched up or re-recorded, probably to preserve the original actors. As a result, it sounds broken and crackly, like someone is piping in a cassette recording of these voices during the stage. It is actually so starkly different that I thought one of my speakers had gotten damaged and I was only now noticing.

Lastly, I hope you’re happy with the keyboard controls or have an old control pad lying around. Castle of Shikigami was designed before the digital joystick revolution and, as such, is mapped for keyboard keys or an old d-pad. Thankfully I have my trusty FC30 Pro, which has the d-pad in a comfortable position and made for very successful runs. But the initial test with a 360 controller required a pretty gnarly grip and was quite unpleasant. And no, it can’t be remapped, I definitely tried.

If this review feels short, it’s because it is. Castle of Shikigami is a classic and inspired a whole slew of modern bullet hell games. It deserves to be recognized and praised for what it was, but not necessarily what it is now. Digica wanted to capture exactly what players felt back in the day and I suppose they succeeded. Fans who worship the genre will pick it up and swear it’s fantastic and they can be right in their own way. But this isn’t going to turn on new players and may even frustrate people who were hoping for more than a quick and dirty Steam port. If you must have a piece of shmup history in your Steam library, then by all means, pick it up and support future releases and possible ports. Otherwise I give this a hard pass for anyone looking for something fresh.

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