Pawarumi’s game-over screen, which you’ll see more times than you can possibly imagine in your attempts to complete Manufacture 43’s shooter, exclaims to the beaten player “Try Again, You Can Do It!” This is a game that knows it’s hard, knows it’s got a steep learning curve – one of the steepest we’ve encountered in quite some time – and knows its meagre offering of just one life per run in campaign mode will see even the most hardened shoot ‘em up fan reading these haunted words frequently. It’s a little rub on the back in a very dark place; give it another shot hero, you can do this, you will be rewarded, and it’s true; stick at it, and you will.
This “retro-futuristic pre-Columbian” shooter shares a lot of DNA with Treasure’s 2001 classic Ikaruga. Both games see you take on the role of a hero charged with piloting a very special ship; here the Chukaru replaces the Ikaruga, to dominate waves of enemies utilising a unique gimmick. Both games are played out over five tough levels with three difficulty settings and both do away with expected shoot ’em up conventions such as power-ups and pick-ups in favour of pinning their attack strategy on your ship’s magical ability; in Ikaruga, you could play with polarities, while in Pawarumi you’ve got The Trinity Mechanic.
At its most basic level, the Trinity Mechanic is rock, paper, scissors. The Chukaru is equipped with three weapons: one green, one red, one blue. Your enemies are also either green, red or blue, and shooting a certain colour of enemy with a certain colour of weapon will have one of three effects, either replenishing your shield (known as “Boost”), recharging your super (“Drain”), or maximising the damage dealt out to a targeted enemy (“Crush”).
In Crush mode, a green weapon will have maximum effect on a red enemy, a red weapon will do the same to a blue enemy and blue will make short work of green. This is your go-to mode for attacking big foes and dealing with immediate threats, the hardest you can hit. Still with us? Are you sure? Drain mode sees attacks with a red weapon on a green enemy recharge your super – same for blue on red and green on blue. Boost on the other hand, (that’s right, you’ve got three hands now), sees your shield regenerate when red meets red, green meets green or blue meets blue. It's the easiest of the trinity to remember, but, put them all together and you have the makings of a system that, for any level of player, takes a good few games to start to get your head around. It’s like Ikaruga’s central mechanic on acid.
Thankfully, Manufacture 43 has done an excellent job of helping you to get to grips with the twisty combinations of colours and enemies through a crisp, clean HUD which displays at the bottom of the screen at all times and, depending on which weapon you currently have equipped, shows you clearly which enemy colour attacked will result in either boost, drain or crush. It’s still overwhelming to start out with, but it does get easier; eventually, you’ll find it becomes pretty much second nature and here is where you start to get rewarded – this is a fast-paced, flashy and original shoot em' up with a ton of on-the-fly, quick-thinking strategy involved and some absolutely belting boss and sub-boss encounters to look forward to.
Graphically it’s a real looker, too; its five levels may sound rote on paper with the usual desert, industrial and snowy areas in the mix, but it’s got such a vibrant style to it that levels just come alive. The camera sweeps down into areas as you transition from opening cutscenes, twisting and turning through the terrain at 360° whenever a wave of enemies has been decimated, the on-rails nature of the action allowing Manufacture 43 to go to town on channelling you stylishly through areas towards their ferocious final encounters.
Boss battles are sometimes almost traditional stationary affairs that take what you’ve learned regarding the Trinity System and throw it back in your face at 100mph, other times they’re breakneck rollercoaster rides, dragging you from the top of a bizarre neon pyramid through a desert pursuing a giant pulsating robot worm. All the while you’ll constantly be switching between boost, crush and drain, desperately trying to regenerate your almost exhausted shield whilst attempting to recharge that super weapon for a boss fight you know is only moments away. It’s intense, satisfying stuff, made even more nail-biting by the fact you only have one life, one chance to succeed, with failure dumping you right back to that menu and those haunting words.
The three difficulty modes on offer also make for quite a different game depending on which you select, and we recommend swallowing your pride and starting out on easy to learn the ropes. Here you’ve only got four of the five levels to get through and, more importantly, much more time and space to play around and get used to switching up your weapons and making runs at the boss battles without getting absolutely pounded. Normal mode is a big step up, a much tougher affair, and hard, well, hard pretty much turns Pawarumi into a straight-up bullet hell nightmare, with tons more enemy firepower being directed your way and barely a split second to consider your options.
In fact, as much as we like a challenge, Pawarumi’s steep difficulty is a little bit too much at times. Having one life is harsh but, even forgiving that, it does feel like the damage the Chukaru takes from enemies – even on easy mode – is too extreme, a couple of shots from the smallest of foes enough to put an end to proceedings abruptly. Fans of hardcore shoot ‘em ups will be in their element, especially on the higher settings, but for everyone else this difficulty, sat alongside the effort and time it takes to get your head around the Trinity System, is asking quite a lot.
In terms of modes and running time, it’s also a spartan offering. The campaign can be completed in around an hour on normal mode and besides that there’s just a training mode – where you’ll end up spending most of your time with Pawarumi, honing your skills on each level as you unlock them by beating them in the main game. The story is also bare-bones; a lacklustre affair with short, almost nonsensical cutscenes which don’t do a lot to add drama to the action. There are, thankfully, online leaderboards to start climbing, giving things some much-needed replayability.
All these negatives aside this is a game that, as we said, knows it’s hard; it takes no prisoners and its systems, once mastered, work perfectly. It also performs flawlessly on Switch in both handheld and docked modes, looks amazing and, for the committed player, provides a real test – an exhilarating, fast-paced blast through some spectacular looking levels with some excellent and memorable boss encounters to sink your teeth into. It feels like Manufacture 43 took a risk with the learning curve of its Trinity System for sure, but it ultimately pays off by injecting the game with a system that adds genuine tension and strategy to every second you’re up in the air, blasting your enemies.
Pawarumi is a tough-as-nails shmup with a unique central mechanic that takes time to master. Stick with it though and you’ll be rewarded with a slick, fast-paced shooter that looks and sounds amazing and will test your skills to the max. There’s really nothing else like it out there right now and, even with slight reservations over the difficulty, a lacklustre story and paucity of game modes, this is an easy recommend for fans of the genre looking for a proper challenge.