Sometimes, and I can't be alone in this, I'll be playing the latest releases on the shiny next-gen consoles, breezing through a raft of enemies, either with a ridiculous gun, a 600-horsepower monster, or, conventionally, using the powers and skills accrued through the game, and I'll stop to think. This is fine: all of the above works, a good time will be had by all, and as games are much more cinematic today, you're guaranteed a decent story and/or production values. However, for many people who cut their teeth on 8 and 16-bit consoles, the verb “breezing” is sacrilege. In their view, videogames just shouldn't be so easy, despite the fact that the medium is more mass-market than ever before. If true connoisseurs of videogame difficulty feel scorned by its disappearance, perhaps they might find Fruitbat Factory's latest release, Sora, a blessing.
A continuation of the weird and wonderful 100% Orange Juice series, Sora is a masochist's dream, offering insane difficulty that will translate to a lot of playtime for players who seek to beat the game. Not unusual for Fruitbat Factory, Sora is hard to describe, but the most indelicate way of doing so is this: it's an aerial shoot-'em-up where you play as a small girl called Sora (I say “small” instead of “young” as the game is anime-styled) who flies through the skies at incredible speed, looking to take down aircraft and other small girls with her laser projectiles and on-demand bombs. These battles take place as part of a wider war, which Sora is employed in due to her incredible powers. As such, Sora makes no real sense whatsoever, but who cares? The plot and set-up is portentous and mental in the best way, as it has the potential to give us some excellent gameplay.
That is the success of Sora, the actual gameplay: it's a fast and frenetic affair, as projectiles fly from all directions at you, yet heavy emphasis is placed upon dodging. A key aspect of the gameplay is the dash ability, which shoots you across the screen at a heavy rate. The game encourages you to spam this power in order to avoid bullets; dash, then shoot when there's a window of opportunity, which is a tried and true format of gameplay that works well here. However, Sora keeps you on your toes with the “heat gauge” – the more you use your dash, the quicker this fills up (to a maximum of 300%), and the higher it is, the more damage that enemies can inflict upon you. The obvious answer might be to use the dash sparingly, but you need to avoid the hail of bullets; so, as such, Sora becomes like a choreographed dance in which you have to dash, shoot, find a place to recover, dash, shoot, etc etc – doing so carefully to keep yourself alive. This makes for incredibly tense (but equally gratifying) gameplay that demands that you always bring your A-game into battle.
Make no mistake, though: Sora is diamond hard. Reminiscent of retro videogames, this title will absolutely not allow you to waltz through levels like your name is Strauss; instead, the game punishes you, demanding that you learn how to play the game the hard way. Expect to die a lot through the early stretches of the game, as you need to thoroughly get used to this game and its rules before you can expect to make any sort of headway within.
Like the gameplay, the graphical presentation of Sora is extremely sharp. It takes place on a 2D plane, yet the enemies are rendered in 3D. Yet, your own character, Sora, appears hand-drawn in 2D in OrangeJuice's familiar anime style. The differing art style isn't just for show; it defines the idea of division, making the theme of “us vs them” more visually pronounced. That aside, Sora is a pretty game, not necessarily bursting with colour, but so well-designed that it exudes beauty.
A nod must also be given to the game's soundtrack, as it uses surprisingly good techno material to punctuate the heart-pounding aerial assaults. It may seem an obvious, trite choice to use fast, frenetic tracks for a like-minded game, but sometimes the obvious design option is the completely correct one to make. As such, the music adds a new level of energy to the game that makes the game that little more tense, and the effort of dodging lasers a little more harrowing.
In noting the game's positives, there was something I observed about the game that I wanted to leave to the end, as it's no criticism of the product itself, but otherwise impossible to ignore. From the sounds of this review; with its techno soundtrack, high-speed movement, and difficulty reminiscent of retro titles, it may seem that Sora is an upbeat, happy affair. Quite the opposite: the game's lack of true colour mirrors the lugubrious tone of the game in which the titular character has to fight in a war she potentially doesn't want to be in. The game is of Fruitbat Factory's usual high standard, but it is in no way a jolly, laugh-a-minute affair, such as the likes of 200% Mixed Juice was. Again, this is by no means a criticism or a positive, but don't go into this game expecting a light-hearted affair, as the darkened mood of the game is likely to linger in the mind.
Hard as a rock, but thoughtfully designed and absolutely joyous to play, Sora is difficult, and will kick your ass, but will leave you screaming for more. As a shmup, it will provide ample challenge for everybody, but even if you find it teeth-grindingly tricky in the early goings, the high production values and the interesting framing device will keep your interest rapt.
Sora (Reviewed on Windows)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
It's big, mad, and difficult, but it looks and sounds great. Do not let this title shoot past you.