Unafraid to mix things up considerably, Psikyo’s established shmup formula was thrown out the window for this game, leaving many fans baffled when first introduced to it back in 1997. Loathed by many, but still revered by some, SOL DIVIDE -Sword Of Darkness- is now making a comeback in 2018 on Nintendo Switch. So is it a worthwhile addition to your ever-growing digital Switch arcade library?
Don’t be fooled by the looks: this is not a shmup… for the most part at least. Yes, you do freely fly around the screen, you do have a projectile fire button and you can even dispatch a few of the smaller enemies with it, but the main focus of the game is all about getting in close, unleashing melee combos to fill up your magic meter and managing a variety of spells to properly survive the boss fights. Since you're also able to ‘level up’ your characters by expanding their total HP bar, it won't shock you to learn Sol Divide is a mix of traditional side-scrolling shmup antics, fighting game brawling and light RPG elements, resulting in a rather unique blend indeed.
All is not well in the land of Shamain. Emperor Ifter has gone power mad and declared war on all neighbouring nations, naturally bringing destruction to the homeland of the three playable characters. First there's Kashon, the Prince of Neraphai and the hawk-people - he might not have very strong projectiles, but makes up for it by packing the biggest punches from the playable roster. Then there's Tyora, a Wizard from Rangforce and Guardian of its temple. She has the weakest/fastest melee attacks, but more than makes up for that with very strong magic projectiles. Last, but certainly not least, is the betrayed Knight of Silverna, Vorg - he's mister average on all stats, but he is the only one not fighting to save the land (opting instead for a personal vendetta against Ifter). Quite a lot of lore to digest right there, something not expected (but welcomed) from a Psikyo arcade game.
Gameplay-wise, Sol Divide plays similar to a regular horizontal scrolling shmup. You have an attack button for projectiles and another for melee attacks. Combos are done by repeatedly hitting the melee attack button and a direction. Pressing both attack buttons (or the extra button enabled by Zerodiv’s emulation wrapper) casts a spell. There are eight different spells you can learn throughout your quest: 'Fire', 'Freeze', 'Thunder', 'Meteor', 'Slow', 'Wind' and 'Fire Body'. There is one extra character-exclusive spell ('Phoenix' for Kashon, 'Summon' for Tyora and 'Nightmare' for Vorg) making for a total of 11 distinct ways to wreak havoc on the screen. Spells cost mana to cast (the second bar below your HP one), you can refill it by way of melee attacks or pickups from fallen enemies. You can quickly use ‘L’ and ‘R’ to select the spells from a list on top of the screen, an improvement over the original arcade single button cycling and a legacy of the PlayStation/Saturn home ports.
The art style is yet another departure for Psikyo: The entire game is presented with CGI pre-rendered models turned into sprites and backgrounds (think Donkey Kong Country) and is yet again another dividing factor for Psikyo fans. Some will stand that the classics sprite work will always look superior, while others would enjoy the then state-of-the-art looks of the game. It is true that this style loses some of the iconic colours and brightness of the 16-bit era games, but it certainly doesn't look bad or ill-suited for the whole fantasy setting. Music is suitably epic enough. Levels are short affairs, with a few smaller enemies popping up mostly so you can grab some power-ups followed by a formation of enemies that must be dealt with via melee strikes. End of level bosses take up a big chunk of the screen, are insanely hard and certainly provide some memorable battles. Unique prologue levels and branching paths offer replay value and playing it along with a like-minded friend will improve the whole experience.
Zerodiv’s emulation wrapper is once again on par with HAMSTER’s offering with plenty of customisation options such as different filters, as well as freely enabling you to further personalise the experience by messing about with the original arcade DIP switches. As such you can make the game as easy or as hard as you desire, but be warned: even with infinite continues, restarting will take you back to the beginning of the current stage, removing all your collected items and giving you a stats penalty. It's there to ensure you don’t keep on inserting virtual tokens, but you do get to keep your current level. This one packs a challenge if you ever want to see it through to the end.
Sol Divide tricks you into believing this is yet another Psikyo shmup, but it turns out to be something refreshingly different. The developer took this one in a unique direction that makes it stand out from the rest of its library, so you'll either love it or hate it, just like fans when it was originally released. It certainly isn’t the very best offering from the company, but it still manages to do what it does with the usual Psikyo flair. At the end of the day, why wouldn’t you want to have another digital arcade option on your Switch where you get to fight a giant two-headed snake while a Star Wars-style Sandcrawler stands tall on the background? If you want a unique offering from a revered Japanese developer, look no further.