Graceful Explosion Machine Review
These past 4 months have been some of the strongest for the videogames industry in recent memory, maybe even ever. In what is usually reserved for the winter holiday months, this influx of titles is nothing short of staggering in their breath, diversity, quality and maybe most importantly, their time commitments. From promising new IP such as Horizon, to the soon to be niche cult favorite’s in Nier: Automata, to the landmark achievement of Link’s new tale in the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, we’ve had no shortage of options of what to play, but instead are now plagued by a shortage of time that many of these epics require us to surrender in order to appreciate their majesty. This is a perfect time for a game like Nintendo Switch’s Graceful Explosion Machine to – pardon the pun – explode onto the scene.
The first venture from Vertex Pop – a small studio run out of my hometown of Toronto – Graceful Explosion Machine’s colorful take on the classic Shoot-em-up (Shmup) genre is a fast, fluid, and fun indie title that nails the gameplay of the best of its contemporaries, but makes severe miscalculations with regards to its core game design that prevents it from being a true classic.
At its heart Graceful Explosion Machine is your standard Shmup. You control The GEM Fighter, the most advanced single pilot ship in the universe. Lost in the middle of space, it is your job to explore an array of Gem-infested alien planets in order to gain the energy resources to help you get back home. The entire story is packed in efficiently into two brief cutscenes that bookend the almost 40 levels split between 4 planets you will explore over the course of your 5 plus hours in the depths of dangerous space.
No danger is too great for your little yellow (space) submarine though. After a brief couple of tutorial levels, you will be outfitted with all you need to take on the alien menace that resides on each planet. These come in the form of 4 distinct types of weapons: Blaster, Energy Sword, Sniper Beam, and Missiles. The Blaster shoots forward-facing projectiles at enemies, the Energy Sword emits an AOE that takes care of enemies closing in from either side, the Sniper Beam releases a slow and narrow, but powerful, burst of energy that can take out large stationary threats, and the Missiles fire a wide spread of small concussive blasts that can create space while taking out an onslaught of foes. Each of these armaments are affixed to a corresponding face button and along with the trigger buttons, which control the direction of the ship (L Trigger) and let your ship dash through enemies, (R Trigger), you will have more than enough options to get you through the thick of things. It all comes down to your abilities as the player.
What makes Graceful Explosion Machine a joy to play is the interplay between these different tools at your disposal. You can’t just focus on one type of weapon because each is tied to a cooldown meter of sorts. For example the Blaster – what is essentially your default weapon – will overheat if you fire too long, while your other 3 weapons’ usage is governed by an energy pool that is powered by gems dropped from enemies. Each weapon’s effectiveness is also tailored to the decimation of a different species of enemy so if you were planning on going all in with one weapon Rambo styles, you aren’t going to get far.
The Blaster is effective on taking out one-hit grunts with ease while Missiles are effective to mop up enemies in the distance that are triggered to explode once hit. There’s a risk/reward decision regarding what weapon to use at what time. Wasting precious energy with a Sniper Beam on a solitary, powerful enemy in front of you might rob you of the ability to use your Energy Sword to take out the swarm quickly encroaching you from above and behind. Nothing is more exciting than facing a seemingly unwinnable situation with the screen littered with dozens of enemies only to maximize the utility of your weapon inputs and come out on winning side. It’s this effectiveness that is the ultimate goal as the game employs a score-based system that is rewarded by the careful execution and chaining of attacks and its one that will sink its hooks into if you let it. Unfortunately the game doesn’t do a good job setting itself up for success in this regard.
Grace Explosion Machine might have its gameplay down pat with silky smooth controls and its simple but deep systems, but it is let down by a huge oversight: it’s game design philosophies. The biggest issue is with its level design and how it implements said level design. Each one is comprised of 3 stages, which are completed by wiping out enough waves of enemies before you get hit 3 times. During these stages the more enemy kills you chain together without getting hit or taking to much time between kills, the higher your multiplier will be and this multiplier carries over to each of these stages. If you lose the multiplier – and you will often – the game will tempt you to restart and go for a more fluid run, as gunning for an S rank is the ultimate goal. The problem with this system is that even though the game graciously restarts you from the beginning of a stage upon death – each level grants you 2 lives – you will in turn lose your entire score up until that point. This is absolutely frustrating seeing as accumulating a high score is the main draw here and the only other reward for completing a level is unlocking another level. You may ask, “Well isn’t that the main point of any level-based videogame?” You would be correct in most cases, except what’s presented here is a string of uninspired levels that rarely feel distinguishable from one another, save for a few new enemy types that pop up every so often. This is even more disappointing once you realize that each world houses the same exact level design and structure only outfitted with a different color skin for the background.
It was brutal anytime I would scrape into the final stage of a level with a single remaining hit point only to be obliterated close to 10 minutes into my run and either have to restart from the beginning or continue for the sake of finishing the level. I don’t remember the last game I played where completing a level felt like going through the motions. For a game that’s built around the idea of score-attack hunting, its level-based structure is completely antithetical to the gameplay that is presented. It’s a shame because the final level of each world turns things around with a solitary stage that requires the player to accumulate enough kills to open the Gem gate. It is exactly what the game should have been going for from the start. If only they had implemented their level design with a mission–based structure similar to a games like Gradius or R-Type or had even gone for a more rogue-like action game with upgradeable weapons alongside harder enemies, the excellent gameplay on display would have shone brightly. Instead Vertex Pop went very barebones and middle of the road and unfortunately a lot of the successes that this game could have been championed for become lost to the fact that there’s barely anything resembling a carrot on the end of a stick.
The game’s presentation is solid and pleasing for the most part. On the Switch’s small screen, the cute and colorful 2D sprites and mayhem explode off the screen and are easy on the eyes, but upon closer inspection – or blown up on the big screen – the art design is reminiscent of that of a glossy looking flash game. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t the most inspired looking game. The music and sound design are also decent if not particularly memorable, but the most disappointing element has to be the much-ballyhooed HD Rumble implementation. It wasn’t until a couple hours into playing the game that I even remembered that the game supported the feature and that should tell you as much as you need to know. To be fair, when I did pay closer attention, I found a subtle difference in vibration across the use of each of the 4 different types of weapons, but it was nothing to write home about and frankly didn’t help to lift HD Rumble out of gimmick status.
3 out of 5
At a time where games are as daunting as they are engrossing, a game like Graceful Explosion Machine might just be the ticket for those looking to get right into the action with something to just pick up and play. It’s always fun to blow shit up and with the frame of mind, the game delivers in spades, benefited with great gameplay mechanics and the rush you’ll get from mastering them to achieve a high score. Unfortunately the game does it’s best to hide its best qualities with an uninspired and lazy level design that doesn’t reward the player enough to keep going for that next hit as often as you would hope for. There’s a great game buried deep in the source code of Graceful Explosion Machine, but for now we’ll have to settle with a solid blueprint. Here’s hoping the talented team a Vertex Pop can fully deliver on their sophomore effort. If not, at least the ship they created is super adorbz.