There’s nothing quite like the feeling of dodging waves of bullets while gunning down enemies as an overpowered badass. It’s one of the biggest appeals of the bullet hell/shoot ‘em up genre, and one that RefRain -prism memories- is working hard to satisfy.
Originally released in Japan back in 2009, before a fully updated version followed in 2011, RefRain -prism memories- is the second instalment in the Project Blank series by developers RebRank. Now, an English translation is finally available on Steam, bringing the gameplay and its narrative to old and new players alike.
The game’s story is very much in the background, and follows the bullet hell tradition of being a bit weird. After you boot the thing up and log in as your chosen character, you’ll find yourself on their personalized desktop. A pending message in the inbox welcomes you to the M.R.S. Data Centre, which is all the story you’re getting for now.
As you progress, you’ll unlock new messages, which is achieved by completing sections of the game and explains what each character is fighting for. The information is often rather vague but can be pieced together with the couple of endings (for finishing on different difficulties) to give a full picture of what’s going on.
It’s okay if the bitty story leaves you feeling a bit perplexed, as the focus is clearly centred on the gameplay. While dodging enemy fire you can move freely on the screen, but can only shoot forwards. The girl you choose changes up the spread of fire for the standard attack, as well as their specific homing bullets, such as Tee’s short range with orbiting guns, and Mew’s bullets merging into a laser. The three archetypes used are quite common shoot ‘em up tropes, but that doesn’t stop them from feeling original due to the variety between all of their attacks.
What makes RefRain -prism memories- unique is that you are in charge of building your power-ups, and figuring out the best time to use them. This mechanic effectively creates a more personal gameplay experience than other bullet hells that simply tend to give out items or have standard bomb attacks. Racking up kills fills a meter up to 6 times, allowing you to choose between a single bomb per meter or firing multiple times in quick succession for a powerful fullscreen attack. A separate bar can also be filled by collecting the points dropped by defeated enemies, so you can destroy enemy bullets for a short period of time. Needless to say, it’s really rewarding to experiment with combining moves, and their timing, while working out how to inflict the maximum amount of damage.
Most of the enemies you’ll face are rather dull in design, with circles and triangles just being given a cybernetic coat of paint. The bosses are a little more interesting (especially with their anime girl entrances) but are still nothing spectacular. The basic theme continues into the background art, as it mostly sticks to blues and browns and is rather uninspiring.
The upside is that the choice of simplistic enemy and background designs helps the screen to never feel overly cluttered. Given how faded your own fire is, there’s also never any confusion as to which bullets are going to hurt. In fact, it’s often worth spending more time on the boss fights than necessary just to see everything spiral, loop, and twirl in its beautiful, deadly, dance.
RefRain -prism memories- has a great level of challenge from its 4 difficulty modes (Easy, Normal, Advanced, and Extreme), with each adding even more bullets into the assortment of patterns. Newcomers to the genre may struggle a little given the limited number of lives before a game over, but should feel encouraged as they learn what to expect next and find better angles to blast through enemies. Meanwhile, old hats to bullet hells are going to appreciate the chance to test their dodging skills against the game’s different difficulties, while discovering the best strategies for combat.
To complete the game you must survive 5 stages (or 4 on Easy mode) that get progressively more challenging as you go. The amount of levels does sound a bit low, although it’s a length that many bullet hell veterans are used to. What is a shame is the lack of different modes to choose from, other than the difficulty settings. This issue is particularly apparent with the lack of local multiplayer, or an online leaderboard to check your skills against others. It is an unnecessary extra, but one that has become a standard addition to bullet hell games. It would have been fun to have been able to blast through the cyber enemies with a friend.
RefRain -prim memories- is a fun bullet hell shooter with an interesting attack system that allows for some strategy within its gameplay. A few added features could have taken the title to a higher level of experience, such as more detailed art work, or a multiplayer option. That being said, though, some of the negatives work in the game’s favour, putting the focus firmly on avoiding the beautiful patterns and gunning down everything in sight.
This review is based off a PC copy of the game, which we were provided with.