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ESP Ra. De Psi

The Limits of Human Potential

Throughout the eons of cognitive development, a wide variety of theories have been proposed, discarded, debunked, and built upon. It now seems that there is a direct link between the cooking of food, shrinking of teeth, and development of larger brains. For an entire generation the belief persisted that we can only access 10 percent of our brain’s potential, despite the fact that damaging any part of the brain results in limited cognitive function. And in more modern times, the ideas of Parapsychology (The belief that brains have latent abilities like ESP) and Moist Robot Hypothesis (the theory that Brains are Computers that can be programmed) were studied by Governments for potential military application.

By the late 80’s these theories escaped the halls of of academia and the filings in classified documents to drift through the currents of popular culture, ending up in novels like Firestarter, Anime such as Akira, and yes, even videogames. Being the newest and most immersive form of entertainment, games have the potential to explore this concept in ways that other mediums cannot, as these are often player-centric affairs’, offering a backdrop for you to tell your story. How would you fare in a world of psychic powers and the technology that this unlocks? Can you go the extra mile and unlock a level of focus and concentration necessary to take your brain to another level?

ESP Ra. De Psi allows you to test yourself, focusing on how you feel as a player thrown into a brutal and unforgiving world with rules you won’t immediately understand. It’s possible that you will start out completely overwhelmed even on the more forgiving modes and difficulties. Yet as you fight through your misgivings and frustrations you will notice your concentration and focus growing sharper, your reflexes becoming nimble, and in the end, you will be dodging bullets like a natural psychic.

Allegory of the Cave (Shooter)

I was never a stranger to Shmups. One of my first games was the NES version of Defender 2, and from there I graduated to games like Life Force and Axelay. While I enjoyed them, they were never my favorite genre. This was not helped by the fact that I didn’t move on as a gamer past the SNES and Genesis era, missing out on some of the most legendary shooters like Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun. I had heard about them, but without having their systems in the household I never had the opportunity to give them a spin.

Time marched on. During Junior College you could always count on a few Xbox 360’s going in the Student Union, and while Halo 3 was usually the feature presentation, every Friday afternoon you could count on a raucous group of gents huddled around the a screen playing obscure Japanese Shooters. This was my first encounter with Cave, a company renowned for so-called “Bullet Hells”, and to according to their playerbase, there was no going back once you gave them a try. High scores became their mantra, and like Plato’s Allegory in reverse they stepped into Cave’s catalogue of shooters and never emerged.

Years passed; The Switch came out, I got the Collector’s Bug, and when I saw this game pop up on PlayAsia, I quietly filed it away in my “keep an eye on it” drawer and moved on with my day. Anyone familiar with the fanaticism of Cave’s fans and the Shmup community in general could have told me this was a bad idea, and by the time I remembered to buy it was too late. It was off to EBay, where I winced as I put down 99 Dollars to add this one to my collection. I began to second-guess the purchase; Could a game you can theoretically complete in less than an hour be worth that much money?

The game arrived, and I stepped into the Cave…

Remember, Execute, Forget

The world of Esp Ra. De is a rough one. Development of Psychic power continues unabated, leading to breakthroughs in technology and the development of psychic soldiers. This spirals into a war between factions, with the most powerful among them being the Yaksa Group. As Yaksa begins to build it’s army of psychics and augmented weaponry, three people with their own personal reasons for opposing them step forward to put a stop to their machinations. Bonus Points for taking place on Christmas Day!

Selecting your character, each combatant has different strengths and weaknesses. Yusuke is fast and damaging but has a straight, slow and narrow firing range. He also seems to be the only character that can fire both his power shots and standard shots simultaneously. JB-5th moves normal speed with moderate damage, but his shots have a shotgun-style spread capable of wiping out large swaths of enemies. Then there’s Irori, who is the slowest of the three but has rapid and screen-wide shots as well as the ability to angle her power shots. She also has an incredibly annoying voiceover.

From there, you’ll begin in one of the games first three stages, dependent on who you picked, and shoot your way through them before tackling the last 2 Stages culminating in a final encounter with Mrs. Garra, the leader of Yaksa. It’s a fast, frantic, and exhilarating experience that takes you through a variety of environments such as a school campus, a shopping district, and a docking area on the coast. Christmas d├ęcor is abound to remind you of the period, and the stages are full of detail and life. Roofs break away revealing hidden tanks and soldiers. Trains roll onward underneath often carrying enemies. There is a lot to look at. At least there would be if you weren’t busy dodging the absolute swarm of projectiles being hurled your way.

All that is within you

Fortunately you are given all the keys to your success up front. Get used to your Shield Button; You are going to be using it often. Charging your shield taken energy that you will build up over the course of your battles, and it serves to protect you from enemy attacks. Upon releasing the button you will set off your Bomb, which will clear out a good chunk of enemies and do big damage to a boss or miniboss. As you destroy enemy forces they will drop green powerups that increase the potency of your attacks, and orange powerups that replenish your shield meter. Naturally dying not only expends a life, but makes you drop some of this power, so try not to.

Pairing with this is a unique scoring and combo system designed around an order of operations. Your goal is to Hit bigger enemies with your power shot once it is charged up, then kill them with you standard fire. Doing this give you a multiplier up to 16x that you can use to rack up your score as you kill smaller enemies. High scores will yield extra lives and continues that you will absolutely need. This is because your opponents are numerous, relentless, and nonstop. You are going to die in this game a lot. One thing that discouraged me in the beginning is that there was NO WAY to dodge some of these bullet patterns. That’s because 1)Your character sprite is NOT your hitbox; It’s actually around your character’s neck area. 2) They don’t expect you to dodge everything in a bullet hell, which is why I emphasized your shield and bomb.

The whole thing serves to put you in the zone. Dodging and blocking hailstroms of bullets and psychic blasts; Hitting big enemies with everything you have before unleashing hell on the hapless smaller forces supporting them; Strategically collecting powerups when you have a quick moment to do so. It’s an aerial dance supported by a strong cast of opposition units, full of psychics, soldiers, tanks, and aircraft. Minibosses are also frequent and serve as impressive set pieces ready to put you to the test, my favorite being a Cloaking Spider Tank and a couple of Battleships. Then there are the bosses; Skilled Psychics or Massive weapons of war designed to kill you will extreme prejudice. With multiple parts to them and the ability to target specific parts, these encounters are strategic highlights that will test if you are ready to move on to the next barrage of bullets.

Structures and Functions

From a design standpoint, there is a lot to appreciate. There are a variety of details in the destruction wrought by your one person war against the Yaksa Group. Bosses gush blood as they die, Pilots fall out of downed planes, and Helicraft launch from below into the sky to do battle with you. Character designs share inspiration with Shin Megami Tensei (This was an Atlus Game, so I suspect they also may share artists), a style I have always enjoyed. The world’s inspiration is also clear, drawing from late 80’s and early 90’s Anime to paint a picture of a world altered by psychic technology.

Aurally the game is a mixed bag. The soundtrack was serviceable, but lack any real earworm type tracks, and having even played it today I can only vaguely recall the Boss theme in my head. Sound effects are spot-on, with no detectable detachment from what is happening on the screen versus what was hitting my ears. Voicework is in Japanese, but was of high quality as well, with the noted exception of Irori, which I personally found to be almost intolerable. In short, nothing stands out, but it certainly does it’s job.

Once I figured the hitboxes out, I am happy to report that I had very few deaths resulting from faulty design. While there is some slowdown at times I honestly saw this as a blessing being a neophyte to bullethells. More experienced players may disagree. There is also a fairly long initial load when first booting up the game, but after that it’s quick. A final thing worth noting is that this is NOT an import that supports English Language, and so unless you can read Japanese, you are going to be very limited in regards to the full offerings this package has. There is an Arcade Plus mode, as well as some sort of room building Sim where you decorate a room based on mini challenges presented from the game’s stages. There also seems to be multiple difficulties to choose from, and a Super Easy Mode to help you dip your toes in. Most of the game’s myriad options continue to elude me.

Bending the Spoon

As I reflect on my time with Esp Ra. De. Psi, that 99 dollars that was spent on it’s purchase weighs heavily on me. Is this a fantastic game, and one of the best Shmups I have ever played? I think so. Can I recommend you buy it at the insane asking prices currently showing up in listings. Absolutely not. Of course, money is relative; 99 dollars to an executive is not the same as 99 dollars to a cashier. Still, there is no way that I can say with a straight face that someone should spend this kind of money on a Switch game when there are so many cheaper and more reasonably available bangers out there.

I am reminded of a quote from the Matrix. “Do not try to bend the spoon. That is impossible. Instead, try to see that there is no spoon, and the only thing that bends if You”. In the end, I bent to Esp Ra. De. Psi, training myself around it’s foibles and mechanics. And I am honestly happy that I took the time to learn it’s intricacies and have the means to experience it’s greatness. The interesting scoring mechanisms, tight and well-paced action, and addictive qualities rival even the apex shooter Ikaruga, and is worthy for any fan of the genre.