Caladrius Blaze is new to the Switch, but didn’t just pop up overnight. The top-down shooter launched as plain old Caladrius on Xbox 360 in Japan in 2013, before progressing through arcade, PS3, PS4 and Windows on the way to Switch. Looking further back, it’s descended from 1990s Japanese arcade favourite Raiden, which was among the early vertical shooters that set the scene for the bullet hell genre. When Seibu Kaihatsu, the makers of Raiden, went bankrupt, its former developers founded a studio called MOSS and purchased the Raiden IP. In between Raidens IV and V, MOSS gave us Caladrius. So here we are; a classic scrolling shooter with big-hitter heritage.
Caladrius doesn't go to a great deal of trouble to tell a story, but it seems MOSS felt obliged to at least come up with something. They reached for the lowest-hanging post-war Japanese trope: a forbidden technology so powerful it must never be used; the folly of deploying such power in an attempt to eradicate evil. Therefore, you fly a spaceship and shoot baddies, apparently.
Each of the eight playable characters has a contrived motivation to fight their way to the game’s antagonist, whose wicked name must never be spoken. Actually, it’s fine: he’s called Graham. Let’s be honest: there’s no story to be had here. You shoot stuff and – much more frequently – get shot by stuff. And they all lived happily ever after.
We get three game types in Caladrius Blaze on the Switch, corresponding to the original Caladrius, the arcade game Caladrius AC and the additional Evolution Mode. Evolution adds a new stage (for six total) and three new characters (for eight total).
Each mode has a tutorial video setting out the fundaments of its gameplay. However, since the videos are tiny, repetitive and without playback controls, you would need to be half-saint-half-hawk to have the patience and eyesight to identify the differences. To our knowledge, there has never been an offspring of a saint and a hawk. In fact, breeding with a hawk probably precludes you from sainthood. So the gameplay differences remain obscure.
The distinguishing mechanic of Caladrius is its elemental shot system. Your ship has a standard, unlimited shot, fired with B, and three elemental shots fired with A, X and Y. Elementals offer benefits like higher power, wider spread or shielding from enemy bullets. However, they are limited by gauges at the bottom-left of the screen, which will recharge slowly over time. When all three elementals are charged over 50 percent, a screen-swiping combined shot is available that drains everything to zero. On top of that, you have bombs that deal heavy damage across the whole playfield. It’s interesting to learn the ins and outs of each attack and it’s a complication of the genre formula that holds together nicely. Each character has distinct shots types, too, providing a lot to explore.
And you’ll be grateful for six different ways to wreck stuff – because this game is hard. This is focused, white-knuckle, lean-forward gaming. The bullet patterns are almost indecipherably intricate. At 'peak bullet', they surely couldn’t be deconstructed by conscious thought. Only a deeper psychic engagement with the game, directly steering thumbs and bypassing the ego, could possibly shiver through the maelstrom. When you pull it off, it feels great, but you’ll need to work at it.
So what gentle mercy it is for the game to offer a “Very Easy” difficulty setting! The mad genius smash of bullet patterns can be toned down to a more relaxing level. Throw in a second player and it can be as chilled as you want. Without this concession, the difficulty curve is more of a difficulty wall – a flaming, spiked, overhanging difficulty wall, crunching in at you from front and back.
The gameplay is challenging but, unfortunately, so is the game’s presentation. Video games used to have to work hard: they had to squeeze onto giant disks that held almost no data and they had to run on hulking machines that had almost no memory. If they looked a bit dishevelled for it, no one would think any less of them. They did well just to turn up, frankly.
Not true these days. A modern game comes from an affluent background of miniature solid-state trinkets with acres of storage inside consoles whose power would have started religions if we’d seen them in the 1980s. If a game like that can’t muster the common courtesy to greet its players politely, then what exactly is the world coming to? Caladrius, sadly, is just such a spoilt ragamuffin. One symptom of this is some absurdly minuscule text, which is almost illegible when the Switch is in handheld mode. Make us work at the game and we will respect you: make us work at the menu screen and we will doubt you: make us work at just seeing the flipping text and we will throw you across the room.
In fact, even beyond the lazy, ugly text presentation and maddeningly tiny tutorial videos, Caladrius Blaze soon becomes an intensive visual acuity regimen. The first levels are chaotic and noisy in a fun way, but some later graphical choices have not come off. Bullet hell is called bullet hell because there's a hell of a lot of bullets. Reading the playing field is always going to be hard, but the 3D backdrops are sometimes complicated, smudgy and fast-moving, making it unnecessarily painful to parse the bedlam. An unexperienced bystander might wonder whether this is a game or some kind of mean eye test.
There’s one last feature of Caladrius Blaze that needs attention: the “Shame Break”. On our first go, seeing the same old gratuitously over-sexualised roster of player characters, we chose the least pornographic option. They were the most respectably dressed of everyone, with a coolly androgynous vibe: prim, slick, stylish. The opening cutscene immediately told me “She dresses like a man”, then the first few minutes of gameplay saw her retro sci-fi leotard rent to slivers, her heretofore absent embonpoint suddenly lunging forth like a hungry dog slavering against its leash.
How did that happen? Well, when a character receives intense damage, their clothes get exploded off by the violence and their semi-nude image flashed giant across the screen. The publisher’s website explains: “Shoot-down bonus for sexy CG cuts and images!”
What message are MOSS sending with the “Shame Break”? Thrash her clothes off! Gawp for thrills! Shame on her! It seems that when it comes to female characters, the overbearing point of interest is the constant, tantalising possibility that they might be seen naked, combined with disgust at their low moral standards should that ever happen. It's a damning truth about gaming that we are so desensitised to it all that we will readily shrug off this kind of obsessive sexist behaviour. In any other medium, Caladrius Blaze would be coldly disowned by the establishment for this irrelevant, gratuitous misogyny. But in video games? It's fine, honest!
So, throw away the dud story, the awful presentation and the violence-and-shame-based soft porn and haven’t we got a great little shoot-em-up here? The fact is that this mechanically competent shooter in a classic style from a proven team comes with all those crummy decorations attached. It’s up to you if it’s worth overlooking all the ugliness for the sake of a good game that isn’t particularly world-changing.