Under Defeat is the latest Japanese shmup to see a European release thanks to the fine fellows at Rising Star Games. Starting Life as a Japanese arcade game in 2005 by newcomers, Grev ltd, Under Defeat was an exciting military style vertical shoot-em-up that put you in the role of a helicopter pilot facing waves of enemies. Nothing too original, sure, but it stood out due to its excellent graphics, action packed gameplay and the slightly unusual way of moving your craft. The game received a home port on the Sega Dreamcast in 2006, but only in Japan. Six years later a full HD version was released on the Xbox 360, again, only in Japan. Luckily Rising Star games worked quickly to secure European publishing rights, and a mere nine months later it saw a full PAL release, dubbed the 'Deluxe edition', it contains all the DLC and patches, as well as a digital art book and soundtrack CD.
Forgoing the usual animé madness that usually fills Japanese shmups, Under Defeat sticks to a more current and realistic military theme. So instead of bionic insects, samurai ghosts and witches on broomsticks we have helicopters, tanks and gunships. It is certainly more 'Raiden' than 'Mushihime-sama Futari'. Like Raiden, it is a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up which requires you to destroy waves of ground and air based vehicles as you make your way upwards, towards the large boss at the end of the stage. Familiar territory indeed, but while the helicopter based shmup action on display may initially resemble a modern version of Tiger Heli or Twin Cobra, as soon as you begin manoeuvring your chopper around the screen, you immediately notice something is different. Unlike most vertical shmups, whereby your craft always faces up as you dodge and weave your way around the play area, in Under Defeat your craft tilts at an angle to the left and right, facing outwards, or inwards towards the enemies. By default, this is achieved by releasing the fire button and moving in the appropriate direction. Hold down the fire button and you stay locked in that position until you let go again. It takes some getting used to after years of playing the regular control system in other games, but after several botched attempts it starts to make sense. This Xbox 360 iteration has a brilliant alternative control method (one of a multitude of options) that allows you to use the left stick for movement and the right stick for aiming and firing (done simultaneously). This is a much more natural way to play for those of us used to the tight control system of twin stick shooters, and once used it is very hard to go back to any other way.
As with all shmups the plot is utterly irrelevant. Here it is something to do with a war between the incredibly generic sounding Empire and Union. Of course none of this can be taken seriously since the main pilot is a young girl with pink spikey hair. Visually the game is impressive. The original 2005 arcade version, included here, still looks great, especially as it is in HD. But the Xbox 360 'New Order Mode' (fancy talk for wide-screen mode) looks phenomenal. It is a rare treat to see an HD shmup in full wide-screen glory, rather than a thin strip in the middle of the screen (usually surrounded by terrible border artwork) and Under Defeat's wide stages are the perfect candidate for such treatment. The 3D models look great, from the chunky tanks which trundle convincingly across the landscape, felling trees in their path, to the huge sea based warships that take up several screens and are covered in aggressive gun turrets. Stages also look authentic, with forests and military bases making way for desert fortresses and snow capped mountains. The backgrounds are full of little details and contain many destructible items such as fuel tanks and ammo crates, which grant you more points should you spot and destroy them. Explosions are particularly striking and over-the-top, giving a real sense of impact and destruction. Tanks explode, leaving burnt out shells, helicopters spin to the ground in a ball of flames and gun turrets detonate in a huge pyrotechnics display. It isn't long before the battlefields are covered in thick black smoke from wrecked tanks, and craters from explosions.
Enemies come thick and fast, but luckily their patterns are easier to memorise and navigate than the on-screen cluster fuck usually encountered in the bullet hell shmups. That's not to say that Under Defeat is any easier than the wonderful retina destroying blasters by Cave. In fact I find it harder than both Mushihime-sama Futari and DoDonpachi Resurrection. With only three credits at your disposal it is a real triumph just to get past the third stage, but each time you progress a little further into the game it feels rewarding and drives you on to another attempt. Soundtrack wise, the game consists of the usual cheesey Japanese offerings of techno fused rock-pop found in this genre, but it is fairly suitable and inoffensive.
One of the main draws of the whole shmup genre is the scoring system. Many of Cave's offerings have elaborate scoring systems that I never really fully understand, even after multiple play-throughs. Under Defeat keeps things simpler in this respect, with a score system that is easy to grasp, and therefore easier to attempt to better the next time you play. I don't want to bore you with dull explanations of numbers, so instead the advice I offer (free of charge) is; destroy everything you see, shoot the non-hostile ground items such as boxes and oil drums, try not to die (obviously), and only use your smart bomb when absolutely necessary as you don't get any points for enemies destroyed with it. You also have an 'option' available. A green bar fills up when you release the fire button, once it reaches maximum a tiny craft appears in front of your ship and provides additional fire. Anything killed by this 'option' gives you big points, so it's a good strategy to stop firing when you can to build up its bar.
The game has a wealth of configuration options so players can fine tune the gameplay to their liking. From difficulty selection (note – easy mode really isn't) to screen and audio options (including an arranged soundtrack)and fine tuning of your preferred control method. It really does feel like a complete package.
It's an excellent shmup, and one that may hold more appear to European gamers than the overly Japanese games such as Akai Katana and DonDonpachi. As a full price release it was only ever going to attract the hardcore fans, but now that it can be purchased new for a measly sum (£16 at time of writing) it is worth a shot for any gamers who only have a passing interest in shoot-em-up games. Just be warned that only skilled gamers will ever see past the first half of the game.
- High octane, action packed shoot-em-up
- Challenging and rewarding gameplay
- Fantastic visuals (especially in new wide-screen mode)
- Complete Under Defeat package
- Manoeuvring your ship takes some getting used to
- Very, very difficult