Scrolling shooters are one of the most straightforward genres available. Not only do they rarely evolve beyond “shoot all the things”, but they’re usually arranged in a literal straight, constantly advancing line. So it almost feels novel that Graceful Explosion Machine, which handles like a scrolling shooter, instead embodies the multi-directional endurance focus of a twin-stick shooter. It almost feels novel, but it doesn’t, because it’s still stuck in the same destruction-only evolutionary niche as most of its contemporaries. Thus, as sharply constructed as it is, the flaws that are present are impossible to ignore, since there’s nothing else to distract from them.
The main draw of the game is the interplay of the titular ship’s four weapons: a weak, general-purpose blaster, a close-range, rotational energy sword, a massive “sniper laser”, and a cluster of homing missiles. The latter three draw on a limited power source that’s replenished with pick-ups from downed enemies, while the blaster is instead prone to overheating. All of this, plus the variety of enemy types, forces the player to mix up their combat approach if they want to survive and maintain their time-sensitive score multiplier. It’s a genuinely well-planned and entertaining system, although it admittedly takes a while to find an appropriate specialty for the missiles, and even then, they’re by far the least useful armament.
Augmenting the ship’s offensive capabilities is a dash maneuver that zooms through swarms of enemies (but not their bullets) unscathed, and the most powerful technique of all: reversing your horizontal direction. Graceful Explosion Machine (GEM) is an excellent title, because it’s not just the name of the controllable ship; it also perfectly describes the game itself. “Graceful” is the only way to express how the vehicle weaves in, out, and around entire armadas as it replaces them with noisy particle effects – doubly so in the hands of a skilled player who can chain together huge combos by picking off stragglers and priority targets with perfectly timed strikes.
It’s a testament to how instinctively entertaining the gameplay is, and how effortlessly it controls, that it remains fun for all eight hours of its running time despite how single-minded it is. Unnecessary repetition is a video game pet peeve of mine, and GEM repeats like an all-“Hey Jude” radio station, but it still held my attention to the end. It helps that the developers at Vertex Pop clearly understood that their product is pretty silly, and thus never let it take itself seriously (the cartoon punching sound effect that accompanies taking a hit being my favorite example of that). Still, I drew a line at the game’s extra “challenge modes”, which are merely harder and/or longer versions of existing levels.
What GEM doesn’t understand is that a game can be used for dumb fun without being dumb itself. As a result, there are a handful of senseless decisions clouding its design. While it initially appears to have a solid difficulty level that’s easy to play but hard to play well, that notion is tarnished upon the realization that death resets your score to zero rather than subtracting a chunk of it. This results in odd situations where a player that dies and respawns a third of the way into a level will get a better score than one who completes 90% before perishing.
Furthermore, while I appreciate how stylish the game’s geometric appearance is, I’d prefer a style that didn’t blend together so much even more, particularly since half of those geometric shapes are lethal. It’s possible this problem could be solved by excising some unnecessary details. For example, there’s no reason why the blaster needs to gain a smoke effect as it overheats when it already has a meter displaying its status. Giving the player’s vessel a slightly different art style to differentiate it was a wise choice, however. Additionally, the game’s ability to overcome its own repetition is hampered somewhat by its soundtrack, which, while competent, seems to be largely built off a single theme, which quickly becomes tiresome.
With its goofy name, inconsequential story, sugar-coated color palette, and variety of firepower spewing in all directions, GEM often feels like a single-player version of Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime without the massive innovation. That comparison is neither complimentary nor insulting, because while Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is a great game, its cooperative and creative elements were a major part of its excellence. Conversely, the exclusion of multiplayer is a huge sore spot for GEM. The game is practically begging to be experienced with a friend, and there’s neither a gameplay limitation nor a story focus excusing its omission. Perhaps such a mode would be too hectic, but anyone who’s played Geometry Wars knows that that’s more likely to work in its favor.
Maybe the lack of a cooperative component in Graceful Explosion Machine is indicative of a competitive spirit more than anything. It is very much a game for the high score chaser – it may be intrinsically enjoyable for a short while, but the only thing it has to offer beyond that is the promise of a good letter grade and a high place on the leaderboards. There’s a competitive market for arcade shoot ’em ups like this, so while there are definitely better options out there, there are also many worse ones. For what it’s worth, this one is most deserving of the “graceful” descriptor.
This review is based on the PC version, which we were provided with.