A review of Ketsui - Kizuna Jigoku Tachi [Cave 2003, PCB]
By drboom ~ March 15th, 2009

Ketsui - Kizuna Jigoku Tachi (lit. "Determination - Cutting the bonds of Hell"), for all that is said about its brilliant nature nowadays, was not very well received by the public when it debuted in early 2003. It was lauded as being too difficult and too stark, too military for the average player, and the price of the pcb, as has been reported many times before, plumeted. Luckily for Cave, hardcore players in Japan were quite taken by Ketsui and kept playing it, working the system and perfecting its simple but demanding scoring mechanic. As word spread, dedicated Cave fanatics and hardcore players all over the world started snatching up the PCBs on the second hand market and its value soared, but more importantly, its acknowledgement as Cave's secret best shooter was begun.

Controls

The controls are very pretty simple, with A being shot when tapped and lock shot when held, B being bomb and C being auto-fire, which is the same for both the Tiger Schwert (AH-Y72, type A) and Panzer Jager (FH-X4, type B). The Tiger Schwert is the slower of the two, but has a wide spread shot while the Panzer Jager has a straight and narrow shot but faster speed, though both ships have the same speed when using lock shot. When you enter into lock shot by holding A, your pods (up to four total with power-ups) lock onto a target and your ship fires a central beam which extends for roughtly 3/5ths of the screen. Most players choose to use C to 'pop' smaller enemies and then hold A (as in A + C) to use lock shot and increase your chip counter and this is where the game's excellent and demanding scoring system comes in to play.

Scoring

Rather than delve into a more complex scoring or chaining system after Dodonpachi Dai-Ou-Jou, Cave simplifed it even further. Instead of building up a hit meter which could be brought crashing down quickly as in the Guwange and DDP titles, Cave decided to utilize a proximity-based scoring system. Simply put, the closer you are to a ship when you destroy it, the higher your multiplier amount, ranging from 1x-5x. When you destroy an enemy while tapping A or holding down C, a 'chip' pops up witha value of 1-5, which contributes to your overall multiplier. If you then hold down A, a timer starts under the chip amount on the left side of the screen. All enemies you kill while the timer is active, will give up chips of that amount. You also get more chips per destroyed enemy when using lock shot, but you decrease your stage counter (the number under the overall multiplier). It is a simple scoring system to understand, but as is the case with most successful titles, it is at once easy to understand, but difficult to master. In fact, new world record scores are still being set six years after its release.

Stages

The game is composed of 5 stages which are named in the game, rather than refered to by number, as 'Interception,' Suburb,' 'Canal Fleet, 'Defensive Line' and 'EVAC Industry,' There are also two second loops available for those who meet the stringent requirements after completing the first - the Tsuujou loop and the Ura loop. In order to access to the Tsuujou loop, you must limit the number of bombs and lives expended to 6 total, while the Ura loop demands total perfection - that you no-bomb, no-miss the first loop, a staggeringly difficult feat for sure. When the Ura loop is triggered, a message appears on a black screen in red text announcing, 'Welcome to Special Round' before it begins. It must have been an awesome experience to see it for the first time as there is no music playing after you finsh the first loop and no indication that you are headed to a second loop - until the red text begins to appear.

In both of the second loops, the first loop scoring mechanic is done away with and the enemies now release suicide bullets once destroyed. In the Tsuujou loop, the suicide bullets are pink and can be sealed if the player is close enough and the enemy firepower is same as the first loop, whereas in the Ura loop, the suicide bullets are now blue and of greater number and the enemies have increased firepower. It is only in the Ura loop that players may challenge the game's true last boss, Evaccania DOOM, after completing the second loop. It's a maddeningly brutal fight with completely new bullet patterns and immense difficulty. But, within that fight is a certain beauty that does not come readily to STG's. The bullet spreads are intense, but cascade fluidly over the screen, drawing out rare beauty in a very intense moment.

The stages are composed in typical Cave fashion, with a mid-boss on each stage and an end-boss at the completion of each stage. Stages 1-3 are fairly accessible to the casual player and serve as a good introduction to the last 2 stages, where the difficulty ramps up considerably and your expertise in maintaining the 5-chip multiplier is put to the test. The graphics are stark and industrial, more akin to Battle Garegga than the more fantasy-themed games like ESPGaluda and Mushihimesama. The stages are also very impressive graphically, with complex bosses and unique scrolling paths. For instance, in the later half of stage 5, after you fight your way into EVAC, you descend into the substructure, pause and then scroll forward towards the end, all the while fighting enemies with brutal power. The feel of the stages only seem to solidify the serious nature of the challenge of the game. Just completing the first loop is a task in and of itself, but scoring well in it is so rewarding and exciting with the agressive nature of the 5-chip mechanic, that it is hard to imagine playing without a thought to scoring.

Music

Ketsui's soundtrack is composed by Manabu Namiki, whose contributions to Cave, and the STG genre in general, are outstanding. In Dodonpachi Dai-Ou-Jou, he crafted an ethereal and haunting soundtrack with a driving boss-battle theme. In Ketsui, he gives the player a bit more of the same, but with a more aggressive sound, especially in the lead-in to stage 4, where a guitar-driven melody is punctuated by a deep, resonating bell, seemingly signifying that things are about to get serious. Each stage has a very distinct sound which seems to complement the level itself and match your progress throughout the game. The timing of the music to the stage layout is also exceptional, with the bridge in the stage's themes coming perfectly at the mid-boss each time. Whereas stage 4 is where the game's difficulty seems to increase to shrug off the more casual player, stage 1-3's music is enticing and lyrical, with simple melodies and almost relaxing/comforting tracks. Stage 5's theme seems to combine the more melodic qualities of the first few stages and the driving rhythm of the 4th into an epic piece reflecting the long and difficult nature of the last stage.

An Organic Bullet-Hell

For a stark and military shmup, the bullet spreads - like the music - are fairly organic and beautiful, at contrast with the gritty and brutal world depicted graphically inside the game. Popcorn enemies tend to release standard fare, but for larger enemies, mid-bosses and bosses, there are a dazzling array of shot types and bullet spreads, many of which cascade over each other and blossom around your ship in strikingly beautiful ways. And it is here, in the organic and beautiful bullet spreads combind with the stark, military and intense STG underneath and outstanding sountrack that Ketsui comes alive.

Review and Reflection

Ketsui is equal parts impressive and massively addicting once you are seduced by the nature of its scoring mechanic and the beauty of its visuals. It pushes you to be aggressive and rewards you for doing so. It also stays away from punishing you massively for a small failure at the scoring mechanic, like dropping your chain in any of the DDP titles. Players accustomed to older STG's such as Twin Cobra will recognize the need to anticipate the shots rather than wait for them and fans of more modern shooters will revel in the traditional Cave bullet-hell spreads which envelop your ship in deadly swarms of pink and blue. It's very different from anything else Cave has produced. It is a special treat for the hardcore players, possibly one meant for those who reveled in Toaplan's more difficult games and really liked an intense challenge and experience.

There are also many, many well-thoughtout sections in the game where timing and precision can offer large scoring bonuses, such as being able to milk the stage 1 boss by destroying its 4 engines/turrets for 5-chips, or destroying the mid-boss on stage 2 in the middle of the screen which releases more popcorn enemies in the following section than if you finished it off on either side, or on stage 3's mid-boss, where if you destroy the large, central battleship without using a bomb, you trigger the hidden 1up. There are a number of instances of this later in the game as well, such as being able to pop a popcorn enemy before finishing off the larger tanks in the first half of stage 4. All-throughout stage 5 the player is challenged to get more and more aggressive, but also to be more and more patient, as the timing required to post larger and larger scores becomes more and more dependent on skill and timing rather than just pure aggressive play.

It's hard not to walk away from playing Ketsui without feeling that Cave has created something very special, very rewarding and extremely deep. The unique experience of Ketsui has not been replicated with any of the later Cave offerings and fans are clamoring for the next chapter. One can only hope that Cave is listening.

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WR scores

The current world record for Ketsui's Ura loop with the Tiger Schwert is from player SPS - 521,317,387 and player GAN - 519,126,843 with the Panzer Jager. The second loop of the latter of the two is viewable on the Ketsui DS cartridge.

Superplay DVD

In 2006, a superplay DVD was released by Insanity Naked Hunter (INH), entitled 'The Second Apocalypse' composed of the then two world record runs with the Types A and B ships. It came packaged with an artbook and soundtrack of the game and has since become very collectable on the second hard market with sealed copies reaching as much as $300 on Yahoo! Japan.

If you cannot source the orginal release of the IHN DVD or a copy of Ketsui DS for the superplays, Mr. Monkey Man, a stellar Western player has posted some replays of exceptional quality on his website at http://www.mrmonkeyman.com which are available for download. There is also the amazing Imakichi superplay available for download at http://www.super-play.co.uk.

Future - XBOX 360 port, DS game and new superplay, Ketsui 2 likely a reality?

On October 23rd, 2008 the Nintendo DS game, 'Ketsui Death Label' debuted in Japan with 8 single-player modes available - Novice, Normal, Hard A,B and C, Very Hard and DOOM mode and 2 multiplayer modes - VS mode and training mode. There is also Extra mode which is unlocked after completeing Very Hard, which is a remake of the game's original stage 5 where you begin with only 2 lives and which ends in a battle against DOOM.

An XBOX 360 port is planned for 2009, entitled 'Ketsui Kizuna Jigoku Tachi EXTRA' which is rumored to be an arcade perfect port of the original. With all of the attention payed to Ketsui in 2008 and 2009, with the DS and XBOX 360 titles, rumors of a sequel to Ketsui abound and players all over the world who have been seduced by this brutal STG certainly wait with baited breath for its next chapter.



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