Ghost Blade HD Review

By Sam Quirke,
Things used to be so simple. Before the age of epic open-world adventures and professional e-sports teams, games were just about shooting or jumping your way to the finish line. Insert coin, get as far as you can and hope you end up with a decent high score that you can leave behind on the screen to make other players jealous. The games were short and you could consider yourself lucky if the developers even made an attempt at a story. In the "bullet hell" sub-genre of scrolling shooters popular in the mid-nineties, you could only barely tell where the enemies were thanks to all of the kaleidoscopic projectiles and explosions, finding yourself out of lives and coins without really understanding what on earth just happened. That was part of the fun, right? Now, the gaming world has moved on — in a good way, for the most part. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of gamers who like the idea of a short, sharp blast of simple gameplay and a chance to get their name up in lights on the leaderboard. Ghost Blade HD is a game that targets that nostalgia specifically, and does so pretty successfully.

Ghost Blade HD Review


Let's get the narrative out of the way. There is one, technically. In the far future, you're tasked with taking down a corrupted AI called "Evil Shira", who plans to build up an attack force to threaten the existence of the entire universe, apparently. This is about as far as the narrative goes both in the official press and the game's help pages. Of course, it's completely irrelevant, but it's almost a knowing joke to have included a paragraph's worth of story regardless. What it boils down to is pretty obvious if you've seen even a single screenshot: shoot everything in sight until you reach the boss of the level, rinse and repeat. Try not to die in the process.

The game's main campaign only has five levels and will take no more than 20 minutes to complete, assuming you make it to the end. During the course of your flight you can pick up some extremely basic power-ups that increase the intensity of your shots. You'll get these within seconds of a new game or a new life, so they are basically irrelevant. This is a shame, because a little more scarcity would have made losing a life just a little more nerve-wracking. Each life comes with three bombs and keeping up a good score will earn you more. These take out a circular swathe of enemies and bullets, providing invaluable breathing space.

As you would expect you will be shooting upwards continuously in order to decimate the opponent, but there's also a little nuance here in the form of Focus. Normally your cone of fire is quite wide, allowing you to hit several enemies at once. By holding down the Focus button as you shoot, you'll bring all of that firepower into a direct, intense line aiming straight ahead. This is crucial for taking down larger enemies but it also reduces your ship's manoeuvrability considerably. Focus brings a layer of complexity to your strategy that is very much welcomed, as you'll need to decide when it's best to be able to move freely and when to risk slowing down and concentrating on a target. Each of the three ships has a slightly different orientation for their shooting cone, both in and out of Focus, so it’s worth trying them all out.

You'll rack up points by picking up stars, which appear when you destroy an enemy. This also adds an entertaining layer of tension and release, because certain types of bullets heading towards you will also turn into stars if the originating enemy is destroyed. You'll spend tense seconds firing at an enemy unleashing hell, hoping that the bullets pummeling you will turn into stars before they turn you into a sad little explosion.

Ghost Blade HD Review


All in all, the gameplay is accessible and refreshingly straightforward. Some things can be initially frustrating until you get used to it, such as there being no real indication that you've been hit or are about to explode. Eventually though you get the impression that it's just about avoiding an intense burst of fire directly on your ship. If you get caught in one and you don't have a bomb, it'll probably mean your life. It feels a little strange in an age where your HUD is normally a complicated constellation of statistics and indicators, but once you get used to the idea it's actually quite nice to just focus on firing forward and staying out of trouble.

The game has three difficulty modes and honestly they all feel a little too easy. I am embarrassingly bad at older arcade games and shmups in particular, and yet I found myself reaching the end of the hardest mode after just a few attempts. I can only imagine that players who pride themselves on their vertical-scrolling prowess might be a little underwhelmed. It's important not to dwell on this too much, though. This is an arcade throwback after all, and it was never about whether you could get to the end or not; it was about getting your name on the leaderboards. Ghost Blade pays perfect homage to this by including both local and online leaderboards, which you’ll enter at the end of your run.

I might have just scraped through Hard mode with a couple of lives left, but I ended up with a pretty pitiful score because I rarely kept a combo multiplier alive for more than a few seconds. Ghost Blade turns its short length and relative ease into a strength where it could have been a weakness. After all, you’re much more likely to come back multiple times and try and improve your position if the game is short and straightforward. There are other modes in the game as well; you can play local co-op, practice specific levels, or try out the Score Attack. This gives you infinite lives but challenges you to get the highest score possible on a single level with a boss battle at the finish. It’s a fun diversion even if it is ultimately the same gameplay experience as the main campaign.

Ghost Blade HD Review


Visually, the game is again an homage to the mid-nineties Japanese classics. The ships are generic stereotypes of the era, and honestly you’d be hard pressed to recall any of them at the end of a run, due to the crazy neon fireworks show of bullets constantly harassing your retinas. This is visually arresting in its own way, but there is no attempt to attune to modern visual standards. If you’re susceptible to headaches due to bright flashing lights, I would seriously recommend that you avoid this game. The screen is oriented as a vertical slice in the middle third of your screen, with painted backgrounds on either side behind your score, your lives left and your current bomb supply.

The screen orientation can be customised in a number of ways depending on your setup, and background designs can be changed as well. You can even lower the brightness of the game’s background elements so that your targets and their bullets are more visible. These options, along with completely customisable button mapping, are nice touches for genre aficionados. Scantily clad anime women of course make an appearance as improbably attired pilots. Unfortunately, these look like they were sketched by a fourteen year old and seem jarring against an otherwise reasonably well-drawn backdrop. We could have lived without them.

The audio in the game shines as a perfect recreation of the kind of thumping synth you’d expect walking into your local arcade twenty years ago. The tracks are slightly more nuanced and rounded thanks to modern instrumentation, and thus more tolerable in longer sessions than they would have been back in the day. Sound effects are suitably minimalist and cheesy as well. There’s a nice boss riff that plays at the end of every level to let you know what’s coming up, which is sure to get stuck in your head.

Ghost Blade HD Review


The achievement list mirrors the game as a whole. You won’t have much trouble completing the first two thirds, but reaching total completion will take considerably more skill. There’s achievements for trying out each ship and game mode, as well as for completing the game on each difficulty level. There are some slightly trickier level-specific achievements, but most challenging will be getting a 599x combo on Hard mode and one billion points in Score Attack. There seems to be a few issues with the achievement descriptions, perhaps due to poor localisation. Two achievements talk about 'a no miss' or ‘missing a ship’ which actually means ‘losing a life’ rather than failing to hit an enemy, and at the time of writing I still don’t know what finishing the game with ‘one credit’ means, because it didn’t unlock with one life or one continue left at the end. On the whole, though, it’s a decent and appropriate list that rewards persistence.

Summary

Ghost Blade HD is exactly what it appears to be: a bullet hell shmup emulating the pinnacle of the genre in the mid-nineties. It's visually chaotic and over before you know it, but this is to be expected from an homage to a much loved niche. Some display customisation options, 2-player local co-op and a slightly easier Easy mode give the more casual gamer a chance to at least see out the game's short campaign, but ultimately Ghost Blade knows and delivers to its core audience: arcade addicts looking for a hit of nostalgia.
7 / 10
Ghost Blade HD
Positives
  • Unashamedly old-school in looks and execution
  • Great retro soundtrack
  • Straightforward fun in single-player and co-op
  • Online leaderboards add a reason to return
Negatives
  • Sometimes visually overwhelming
  • A little on the short side, despite replay value
Ethics
The reviewer spent 4 hours burning his retinas in order to earn 32 of the game's 38 achievements. An Xbox One digital code was provided for the purposes of this review.
Sam Quirke
Written by Sam Quirke
Sam has been a Newshound since 2016. He loves gaming on all devices and in all genres. He remains a stubborn Assassin's Creed and Pokémon fan.