The Nyagu are an alien species enlightened with good intentions, rainbows and sunshine. Upon meeting mankind for the first time, they grant each and every human the power to conjure electricity from their bodies. Think of the possibilities: no more hassle with power outlets or wires if you needed to charge up your smartphone, laptop or Nintendo Switch.
Sadly it didn't take long for other not so friendly alien species to realise that this has turned humanity into a living power plant. Enslavement and breeding followed suit and in the reality of Iro Hero, humans are nothing more than expendable batteries powering anything from pocket calculators to interstellar spaceships. Yes indeed, it’s The Matrix storyline all over again!
While the plot takes some inspiration from the Wachowskis' 1999 cinematic masterpiece, the shmup action itself looked elsewhere, to none other than Treasure’s 2001 cult hit (and recent eShop success story) Ikaruga. Instead of black and white, you now deal in red and blue. You can absorb the bullets of the same colour as your ship, but you can only damage enemies if you are firing bullets of their opposite colour. Controls are straightforward: ‘A’ fires your main weapon, ‘R’ switches your ship's colour, ‘X’ will unleash the ‘Tesla Shock’ (a homing attack that is charged up from enemy bullets and might just save you on a tight spot). If you manage to conquer the first few levels, your ship will also gain the ability to unleash ‘Gravity Ignition’ with ‘Y’, which makes every foe on-screen disappear down a space sinkhole.
While the game is played on a 16:9 full-screen format, the actual action is restricted to a TATE slice in the center of the screen. The game consists of nine challenging (sometimes unfairly so) levels, which isn't what you'd expect by looking at the game in static images. While the pacing is more of a laid back euro-shmup than that of a Japanese bullet hell, the fact your ship can take a couple of hits before being destroyed and the way enemy formations move through each level means you will eventually make an error. With nothing but three lives to make your way through each long level and defeat the clichéd huge end-of-level boss, this becomes a far trickier proposition.
Apart from the difficulty, some bizarre design decisions do bring the experience down. Our titular Iro (whose portrait is always on the left of the screen) often engages in banter with other characters (with portraits on the right side of the screen) as the uninterrupted action continues. Since there is no voice acting, the only way for you to read the dialogue is to stop looking at your ship and divert your attention to either side of the screen, an often fatal mistake on your life expectancy. Furthermore, and as consequence of this design choice, the game does not support either portable or docked vertical screen display. Add to that the lack of a two-player mode and it is impossible not to feel this one is a bit lacking when stacked up to other currently available shmup offerings on the eShop.
The game does use a very pleasing 2D sprite art - from your enemies to the backgrounds, everything has a lovely 16-bit look even if some of the ship designs are a bit bland and ‘safe’. Some of the hand-drawn imagery used for level intermissions and plot developments are also nice and the game boasts a great soundtrack to accompany the task at hand.
Iro Hero ends up being a competent euro-shmup homage to the dual phase/puzzle shmup gameplay pivoted by Treasure’s Magnum Opus. While some designs choices could be avoided with some proper care while transitioning the game to Switch, what is on offer is solid shmup action for those who are seeking something a new challenge. Hard as nails, often unfairly so until you learn to play with perfect precision, we still consider it worthy of your time.