Some game developers have a signature style that makes their titles instantly recognizeable from afar, and Cave is most definitely one of those companies. The trademark mix of manic 2D arcade shoot em’  up action combined with quirky, anime-inspred plots has made Cave one of the most respected names in “bullet hell” shooters. Despite being widely popular in Japan, they are mainly known only in selective circles here in North America, with console releases sparse. Akai Katana first saw a release in Japanese arcades in 2010 and has now made the port to the Xbox 360 with Rising Star Games handling the publishing honors. The budget price and pure enjoyment the game provides make this game one of the best “hidden gem” releases of 2012.

The plot in Akai Katana is steeped in industrial age lore and concerns the power struggle between a tyrannical empire and a rebellious faction to control a precious mineral called Guiding Ore. This rare resource can be fashioned into a “Guiding Katana,” which grants soldiers unique abilities in the fight against their enemies. If these are used to spill human blood, they become even more powerful as “Blood Katanas,” and their destructive powers become nearly limitless. As one would expect, being given such powers means that they can be misused. Emperor Basho, the power-hungry ruler of a small country, seizes control of this power and attempts to wage war and expand the territory of his country. His army, the Ten Suns, harnesses the power of the Blood Katanas and sets out to dominate the land.

The rebellion is born out of members of the Ten Suns army who disagree with Emperor Basho’s plans and oppose the blood of widespread casualties that would be on their hands. Leading this charge is Kikyou Saionji, none other than Emperor Basho’s son, and his squadron of rebels set out to acquire their own Blood Katanas and strike back against the empire. Their overall goal, however, is to awaken a greater power that will end the empire for good, though this would involve possibly sacrificing their lives for the greater good. The theme of inter-family conflict, power struggles and self-sacrifice are common in the anime genre, and they give Akai Katana a serviceable, but convoluted, plot.

In a genre where coherent storylines are often an afterthought, Akai Katana comes out above average. The theme of political conflict and some of the human drama provides a sense of cohesion when the plot is followed closely, so there is substance here for those who seek it out. However, the scattershot way the story is told and advanced through dialogue and brief cutscenes will likely go right over the heads of gamers who just want to get into the action. This is not to say that the story is overly complex, it’s just not elegantly told. Instead, it often comes off as being superfluous in a game where surviving waves of bullets and blasting enemies is the key attraction.

As with their other games like Deathsmiles and Progear, Cave has delivered on their reputation of delivering manic, over-the-top and insanely difficulty arcade shoot em’ ups. Akai Katana is a 2D side-scrolling shooter in which you take control of three characters who pilot an aircraft that is used to shoot down enemies. As you kill enemies and absorb their energy, you can summon your “phantom” which increases your attack strength and can help you better repel enemy bullets and get through the more difficult firefights. Each character has a different phantom but their differences are mainly cosmetic. The main point of the game is to kill as many enemies as possible, while using your phantom powers to survive as long as you can.

In Akai Katana, you are given the option of three game types. The version optimized for the Xbox 360 is called “Slash Mode” and this gives you the full widescreen aspect ratio and the ability to apply Katanas to your ship to make it stronger,  “Original” which is more true to the arcade port and “Climax” mode which ramps up the difficulty. The mode that provides the most balance is Slash mode as it incorporates the strengths of the arcade original with the augments exclusive to the console. One of the key elements in this gameplay mode is to use your phantom to play in both defensive and attack mode, and switching between them employs strategies similar to those found in Ikaruga.

The term “bullet hell” is often applied to games of this type, and it is a very apt way of describing Akai Katana. The game plays similar to other shooters in the genre, however you are frequently assaulted with screen-filling waves of bullets that provide an almost insurmountable challenge at times. As powerful as your ship is, it can’t survive the bullets forever, however you are given some lifelines to use. You have bombs that can destroy everything on the screen, however they are always in short supply, and the aforementioned ability to play in defensive mode does help you repel some attacks. In most cases, getting through the bullets is threading the eye of the needle, and it is by far the most challenging aspect of this game.