The Castle of Shikigami series is one of the more recent shooting franchises to appear in Japanese arcades and subsequently home consoles. Castle of Shikigami III is the first to appear on Wii with Aksys providing the localisation for North America. Combining good looks, humour and challenging gameplay, it's a welcome addition to the Wii's shooter library.
There's a back story regarding a castle appearing in the sky over modern-day Tokyo and a bunch of adventurers of various stripes going to it for various reasons, but it doesn't get a mention anywhere in the game and it isn't terribly relevant (there are manga and novels based upon the games if you're so inclined). The player chooses one of ten characters and sets off to defeat a series of ten bosses in five stages.
Castle of Shikigami is part of the "bullet hell" shooting sub-genre with numerous enemies filling the screen with shots that must be avoided in gameplay that's often akin to navigating a maze. Like similar games, getting close to shots without getting hit confers bonuses, both to score and to the damage inflicted by your primary attack, referred to as the "Tension Bonus System." The closer you are to enemies when you destroy them the higher your score and the more bonus coins are worth. Whilst getting grazed by shots your attack will increase in range and power. You can also sacrifice one of your special bombs to enter a "High Tension Max" state which confers the same effect for a limited amount of time regardless of your distance to enemy shots.
In addition to your primary attack you can hold the fire button to perform a "Shikigami attack" which makes you less manoeuvrable and is radically different from your primary attack; requiring different play tactics. Destroying enemies with the Shikigami attack confers still more bonuses to scores that are already comically in the nine-figure range. Each character has different primary and bomb attacks and then a further choice between two different Shikigami attacks to decide upon before starting the game, providing a lot of variety and much to master.
Whilst the cannon fodder you deal with between boss battles is pretty much the same throughout the game the bosses are the real highlight. Unlike boss fights in other games where they may or may not have a life bar showing the amount of damage being inflicted and how close you are to destroying them, Castle of Shikigami III bosses have a minimum of three life bars: each time one is eliminated bonus coins are released and the enemy's attack changes, making the encounters challenging even after multiple replays. There is a ship-like boss in the first part of the stage and then another character as the main boss at the end of the stage. If you like you can play through the boss fights alone as a separate game mode, though this sadly strips out the story bits.
Each game has only four continues (use of which hurts your final ranking, which can be from F- to SS) and voluminous statistics relating to score, bonuses, number of bombs used, number of times 8x Tension Bonus was achieved (equivalent to High Tension Max without using a bomb) and number of health points earned (like the bosses the player has three health points). Despite only having five stages the game is quite challenging, though there is a three stage Easy Mode and Practice levels for honing your techniques outwith the normal game.
The aspect of the game that most sets it apart from other shooters is the fact that the player controls not ships, but the characters themselves, all of whom have monologues recited in cut scenes before and after stages and, most amusingly, dialogue with the stage-end bosses. This Puyo Puyo-like aspect to the proceedings greatly enhances replay value as all characters have separate dialogue with the bosses. There's also a "Dramatic Change" mode where you can swap between two characters who will speak with each other and have three-way conversations with the bosses. They're all different with a claimed 55 dialogue combinations possible. The voice acting is pretty good, even when the sometimes poorly-translated dialogue makes no sense. Conversations are often self-referential, but quite funny: in one instance the first boss mentions being so good as the fourth boss in the previous game they got a new job, only to have it pointed out that being made the first boss is a major demotion!
The graphics are sublime. Characters are fully 3D in nature, flying through the air with their hair and clothing visibly rippling in the wind and shifting posture when moving in various directions. The action takes place over impressively high polygon-count landscapes and interiors which are flown over at great speed with shifting camera angles. There's good use of lighting effects on player and enemy attacks and the large ship bosses are nicely animated. The audio tracks are of good quality and you can listen to the full soundtrack and sound effects in a gallery "jukebox." There's the option to have remixed music from Castle of Shikigami 2 as the game soundtrack if you so desire and there's a full range of options available allowing you to adjust the volume of music, sound effects and character voices independently.
The basic game alone offers a lot of replay value, but on top of that you have the aforementioned "Dramatic Change" and "Boss Battle" modes, the arcade mode (featuring different enemy patterns), three "Extreme" play modes, five different difficulty levels and the option to play simultaneously with a friend. Characters have different costume colours depending on which side of the screen they're on and solo players can choose to play "left side" or "right side" for variety. There's even the ability to play the game in vertical mode, should you have a vertical monitor to hook up to your Wii for the real arcade experience (otherwise the game is played pillar-boxed with character art to the side). There's a full range of control options with Remote, Remote + Nunchuk, Classic Controller (though annoyingly navigating extras still uses the Remote buttons) and GameCube controllers all supported. All functions can be remapped as you see fit with separate buttons for auto-fire, normal fire (hold to activate the Shikigami attack), High Tension Max, Bomb, character swap (Dramatic Change mode only) and pause.
There's extra content to view in the form of galleries featuring still pictures of the characters that are used in the cut scenes (you can pan and zoom, play audio clips and change costume colour) and fan art from Japanese contest winners. You can even view the various conversation bits separately after you've encountered them in-game.
Castle of Shikigami III is a great Wii shooter with appeal for those who enjoy quirky anime characters chatting in their games. If you have a North American Wii you should be able to find this title for a budget price so go out and get it! UPDATE: PAL gamers can take heart that PQube Games is publishing this title in Europe with a planned release date of Q3 2010.