Vampire Rage

A game by tricktale for Xbox 360, originally released in 2010.
In the past few decades of popular media, the undead have certainly grown in popularity. Numerous movies, comic books, television programs, video games, and even books (!!) have given us their own take on the phenomena of vampires, zombies, ghosts, and the like. However, it seems that in the realm of video games, the vampire hasn’t been getting his fair share of the action.

Video games of late have tended to stick with the endless horde of adorable mindless zombies. And to a degree, this makes sense. Zombies are humanoid in appearance, and they are as large in number as they are lacking in brainpower. As such, zombies make for great cannon fodder. In terms of things that are fun to kill and leave you with no remorse, they rank right up there with giant bugs, robots-gone-bad, and nondescript soldiers from nations other than your own.

Due to this, we’re up to our gorgeous, slender necks in zombie games, but we have only a handful of new games featuring the sexiest of the undead: vampires. Imagine if you tried to make a list of the must-play vampire games that came out over the past 10 years… OK, now imagine that list without any Castlevania games. Yeesh. But UK-based developer Tricktale is here to change that trend with the release of Vampire Rage on the Xbox Live Indie Games channel.

This game won’t have you sucking the life out of Nazi soldiers in your combat thong like some other vampire games. No, this is a vertically-scrolling shmup. That’s right, you’re flying through the skies seeking to avenge the murder of your lost love, fueled with rage over her death. You’ll fight through 4 highly-detailed worlds, destroying enemies, dodging and deflecting bullets, and taking down fiendish bosses.

As with many shmups, there’s not a whole lot going on in the way of controls… but that doesn't mean that the game is without a few layers of strategy behind your attacks. First off, you have a button to shoot, a button to swing your sword, and the left trigger to slow your movement. That’s it.

However, simply pressing the SHOOT button sends projectiles up in a spread pattern, with some flying straight forward and others spreading out to the left and right. But, if you continue to hold the button, the spread shot will ceease and you'll instead fire a series of wide dome-shaped projectiles that move straight forward, angling a bit to the left or right along with your movement.

So, right away, you have two strategies for taking down enemies. Either you continuously tap the button to keep your wide range, but low powered projectiles on the screen, or you dig in and let off a concentrated blast. Once you get used to the gameplay, you’ll find that it’s best to alternate between the two fire types depending on the types of enemies onscreen at the time. Smaller weaker enemies tend to be faster and more spread out, so the wide pattern is the best way to take them down. Strong ground-based enemies need a more straight-on approach, and large segmented enemies require that each segment be destroyed individually, so these types of enemies are best fought with the concentrated blast. Using the concentrated fire slows your movement as well, making it easier for you to line up precision shots.

Your second weapon is a sword. It can hit nearby enemies, killing weaker ones instantly, and it can deflect bullets. So, you say, it’s basically like a shield; it’s only useful in a tight spot. While it certainly is that, it’s far from being so simple…

Many of the gameplay nuances in Vampire Rage stem from the use of the bullet deflection mechanic. When you swing your sword, it will spin around you 3 times, cutting a wide swath, and deflecting any bullets that it comes in contact with. Those bullets will stop for a moment, change color, and travel in the opposite direction. Anything hit by those bullets will take damage, and any enemies killed using the bullet deflection technique will earn you additional points. You’ll even get a nice menacing victory yell from your character.

This technique works when you have a small number of bullets in your immediate vicinity, and helps you to deal some extra damage to enemies and bosses without having to engage them directly, provided that you position yourself properly. However, if you can manage to deflect a very large number of bullets, you will instead trigger the creation of a bomb.

During this time, the screen will blur and the colors will bleed together. You’ll have a few seconds to use the right an analogue stick to position the point of detonation, anywhere on the screen. When it explodes, it kills anything within its large range, and absorbs enemy bullets.

The sword takes a few seconds to recharge between uses, which keeps you from spamming the attack. Plus, the attack itself is fairly lengthy, and you cannot shoot while your sword is spinning. Still, it’s a definite lifesaver.

One unexpected side effect of the so-called “HD Era” is that games are generally in a widescreen presentation, which creates a question for the designer. Do we create a letterboxed presentation to preserve the standard aspect ratio, or do we use all of that extra real estate for gameplay purposes? And thus, like Shoot 1UP, this game falls into the widescreen vertical shmup category. And the sword certainly comes in handy when you need to move from one side of the screen to the other to take down a large bullet-spitting target.

The widescreen HD presentation allows for a lot of detail in the backgrounds, which feature multiple levels of parallax. The background art enforces the dark tone of the game, showing overgrown areas full of bones and crumbling ruins, and scorched areas filled with rivers of lava. The enemy designs fit this aesthetic as well, and there are plenty of horns, spikes, and pincers to go around. The game is accompanied by a fittiinlgy moody soundtrack which was acquired through a royalty-free music service, which once again serves to illustrate that a developer need not have a large budget to add a bit of production value to their product.

Bosses are suitably large and creepy, and will require a strong grasp of the techniques at hand. You’ll need to dodge bullets, deflect bullets, and switch between fire types. Also, you’ll face multi-segmented bosses whose attack types will change based on which part you destroy first. So, like the shmups of old, you’ll play and you’ll die, and each death will be a lesson in what you need to do next time.

The game features two difficulty modes: Normal and Rage. Rage essentially adds a whole lot more bullets to the screen, so you’ll need some good dodging skills. However, the addition of bullets means that it’s also easier to create bombs, so the opportunities for large scores is much greater. You can also bring in a friend for some same-screen 2P co-op.

Things can get pretty hectic even in normal mode, as enemies explode into a blood spray when destroyed, and the blood orbs fly back to your character. The orbs are easily distinguishable from bullets, but it adds one more thing to the screen. In addition to the blood spray effect, the score for killing the enemy is displayed over the spot where it died, and they give off big white lights in the shape of crosses. After having lived for so many years where American game companies were afraid of having crosses in games, it’s interesting to play a 2D shmup where they’re so prominently and regularly featured.

At the end of each level, you’ll receive an award for the number of lives you have remaining, the number of enemies you killed with deflected bullets, and the number of bombs you created.

Tricktale is a UK-based developer. Vampire Rage was their first shmup, although they already have 2 sequels planned (as well as some things coming in a patch for the original game, such as D-pad support).

Tricktale’s only other credit prior to Vampire Rage is a twitch puzzle game known as PyroManic - Solo which was released on the Xbox Live Indie Games channel in 2009. In this game, you use the face buttons on the Xbox 360 controller to match the colors of fruits and other objects that fall from the top of the screen. If the objects fall too far down the screen, they can penetrate your shield and start a fire. If your shield is destroyed, then it’s game over.

The overall design is simplistic, but the visuals are crisp and bright, and there are lots of particles, lighting effects, and screen warping to add to the excitement, plus a techno soundtrack. The score is displayed on the back of the playfield, along with your current enemy-killing streak. This is also where other graphical cues appear, such as the hands of a clock spinning backward when you pick up a time-slowing powerup.

As you destroy enemies, a meter will fill along the left side of the screen. At 30%, you can perform a shield blast attack by holding down both triggers, which is great for clearing out a bunch of enemies that are about to break through your defenses. At 100%, you can initiate a “Gigga Beam” attack, which is a spinning rainbow-like beam that can destroy enemies of any color. It looks like a braided marshmallow candy stick that bulges and flares whenever it hits enemies. It can only shoot up through one vertical column (rather than the shield blast which can destroy enemies across all of them) so you’ll still have to line up your targets, but it lasts for several seconds.

There are several bonus drops as well, including coins which offer points, and various powerups such as a point multiplier, the ability to slow down time, a bomb that destroys everything on the screen, and a capsule that fills your power meter to the max. There’s even a tricky one that causes falling objects to change colors.

Between each wave is a bonus round. There are several different varieties, including ones where each object drops a color switcher, one where you simply have to repel huge lines of objects for a certain period of time, and a Pyro Maniac version where you have to use your flamethrower attack to stop tons of falling objects that fall very quickly, and can cause a number of fires in a short span of time.