Following the excellent Star Hunter DX, Raging Blasters, and Crimzon Clover - World EXplosion from Steam to the Switch eShop is Banana Bytes’ Sophstar, a vertically oriented bullet hell shoot-em-up with clearly delineated sprites set against simplistic rolling backgrounds. There are a whopping nine ships to choose from, all with different behaviours, pros, and cons, meaning it takes time and effort to figure out what works for you. Some have disappointing spread shots but killer secondary weapons, while others have access to a teleport that’s like playing Russian Roulette.
Each ship’s base features are fairly eccentric, too. You have several different speeds, moderated by two different firing modes and the 'L' and 'ZL' triggers, which slow you down to a crawl if desired. Teleports work on a quick recharge basis and can be used to get out of clinches, but you need a moment to prep it before you can use it, and this timing requires expert precision and knowledge in later stages. All said and done, the effort involved in finding your comfort zone will either be alluring or excessive, depending on your sensibilities.
The scoring system in Sophstar has been implemented with a good amount of care and knowledge, where diminishing point icons left behind by destroyed craft can be swept up early for greater returns. This requires a strategy known as 'point-blanking', where you spend much of your time in a risk-reward scenario in the top half of the screen.
The initial stage looks mundane and feels uninspired, but halfway through stage two things start to simmer. Depending on your chosen craft's base speed, you may need to start hitting one of those slow-down buttons to effectively needle through — and not accidentally crash into — the fire coming your way. This, of course, depends on the player’s skill level and play style, but the feature works if you can exploit it properly.
There are plenty of bosses and mid-bosses, too, and some are more interesting than others. While things don’t start to feel bullet hell-proper until around halfway through, stages six through eight present a legitimate test. For score hunters, the game is deep; for survivalists, you can accrue continues and gain plenty of life extenders.
Unique to Sophstar, the Cadet School mode is fantastic. This mode comprises of a series of 60 mini-missions where not firing for a prolonged period or racking up scores within a time limit can net higher ranks. Each mission is well-designed, great fun, and doubles as training for teleportation and speed control.
The music, sadly, isn’t quite there though. While inoffensive, the unaggressive ditties are altogether body-slammed by the likes of Andro Dunos 2 and Raging Blasters. And, despite its many original ideas, it's an experience that never feels wholly captivating. It can be confusing initially to know what to do with all the buttons, and for at least half of the game, you don’t really need to use them much, especially if you’re all-in for the score. Stage six's tunnel boss and stage seven's Radiant Silvergun-styled chicanes require pragmatic use of the brakes and teleportation features, but it would have been nice to have seen such inventive implementation early on.
That said, it's still a competently assembled title: smooth, clean, and enjoyable. What it lacks in gravity and bravado it makes up for in balanced scoring mechanics and an interesting teleportation twist. While its Cadet Mode is its brightest spark, the main campaign shoots for the stars but falls just short of reaching them.