Nowadays, it seems to be rather common for developers to lose focus of what they set out to do when they start making a particular game. In an attempt to include "something for everyone" or to make the gameplay as diverse and interesting as possible, a game can often get bogged down by unnecessary distractions and additional content that just doesn't gel with the rest of the title. And then, every once in a while, you come across a game that obviously had a very clear vision from the start that was pursued with determination. Enter Graceful Explosion Machine, a Switch-exclusive arcade shooter with a lot of style and a surprising amount of substance. Graceful Explosion Machine is a game that knows exactly what it wants to be, and it delivers on that to nearly the highest degree.
Gameplay is quite simple, nailing that sense of being easy to pick up and difficult to master. Levels are tackled in three phases - often with aspects of the environment changing between phases - and wrap around; flying far enough to the right will eventually pop you out on the left. Your ship has four weapons: a basic peashooter that can be fired continuously, but with the threat of overheating, and three more powerful weapons that rely on a shared energy bar that is refilled with pickups from felled enemies. These weapons each excel in their own particular way while also having glaring weaknesses that encourage usage of your full arsenal; for example the missiles are quite useful for crowd control, but they empty the energy gauge the fastest. It's a system that works remarkably well, as the game quickly becomes an exercise in resource management in addition to a test of the raw reflexes required to successfully navigate hordes of enemies.
Once you get into the thick of things, gameplay takes on the feeling of something that's rather like a cross of Bayonetta and an arcade shooter. Upon completing a level you're given a grade based on how efficiently and stylishly you blasted through your enemies, and the highest ranks are tied to maintaining a high score multiplier and using all your weapons to the best of your ability. If you get damaged or go too long without shooting something the multiplier resets to one; this encourages aggressive and diverse tactics as you progress. Moreover, you're awarded more points if you frequently switch between weapons, and receive bonuses for using them to the full extent of their capabilities, such as getting "Missile Heaven" for unloading nearly a full energy gauge of missiles on a legion of enemies.
What's immediately gripping about all of this is how continuously dynamic the experience feels. Even though there are only a handful of enemy types and level designs are difficult to distinguish from each other, no two games are quite the same as the chaotic and fast paced nature of combat takes hold. There's no progression to speak of here — all weapons and abilities are handed to you up front — but it's the natural experience that you acquire over repeated play that'll keep you coming back and hook you in over the long run.
For example, it becomes incredibly satisfying to go back to previous levels for a higher score once you've gotten a handle on the nuances of spacing and timing of attacks. Also, after beating a world, you unlock challenge mode levels for it, which entail a juiced up version of the world's final level and a brutal one shot run of the whole world to see how high you can pump up a continuous score. Clearly, the main draw of Graceful Explosion Machine is not found in simply beating the game, that's only the beginning, it's found in repeated attempts at beating previous records and attaining higher ranks. And if self-motivation isn't enough, there are also leaderboards with a range of filtering options to keep you supplied with more short term goals.
The presentation is another highlight of the experience, nailing the look of being both simple and sophisticated. The visuals of this game can be characterized by plenty of geometric shapes, boldly defined lines, and rich monochromatic worlds. This all works to support the gameplay structure in a pleasing way; the minimalist visuals make it easy to track the chaos happening on screen, and it looks quite pretty in motion. This is further supported by the HD Rumble, which vibrates differently depending upon what wepon is being used and what kind of enemy is being blown up. It's subtle to be sure, but that's arguably what the effect is intended to be, a natural extension of the experience that adds that extra immersion factor.
The sound design is well executed, though a bit forgettable. The various bleeps and bloops that you hear as you multipliers skyrocket and missiles are sent flying fit the experience perfectly, but the soundtrack leaves a bit to be desired. It feels like there could've been a bit more done on this front, as the music tends to be a bit one-note and repetitive. Still, it doesn't do anything to detract from the game as a whole, and you'll be far too focused on the action on screen to really notice anyway.
If we were to name one complaint with Graceful Explosion Machine, it would be that it's a game which tends to show its hand quite early. Though there are four distinct worlds, they mostly function as palette swaps of each other, with only the colour theme and maybe an enemy or two differentiating them from each other. This extends to the enemy variety as well; it seems like you see the same few enemies all too often. Now, the inherent nature of an arcade shooter certainly does minimize the impact of this — after all, the "arcade" element would be dialed down quite a bit if it threw something new at you every other level — but there's a lingering sense of sameness to the whole experience.
Make no mistake, this is a game that you won't want to be buying for the breadth of its content, but for the depth of its content. It'll take you many hours to truly master each level, but if you're just looking to just blitz through the main story and call it a day, the value drops.
Overall, Graceful Explosion Machine is a masterful example of how to do an arcade shooter right. Eye-catching visuals and extremely fine-tuned gameplay combine to make this a memorable and compelling experience for anybody looking to get into a faster paced, action focused game. That being said, there is a minor element of repetitiveness which never goes away entirely; the selling point comes not from the amount of levels, but from how many times you'll be playing each one.
We give Graceful Explosion Machine a very strong recommendation, all told; considering the amount of polish and replayability on offer, this is quite the bang for your buck.