Graceful Explosion Machine

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Vertex Pop for PC, PS4, and Switch, originally released in 2017.
Graceful Explosion Machine is a colorful score-driven arena shooter featuring a spaceship hopping from planet to planet to eradicate enemy creatures within the confines of angular cave systems. Taking a page from games like Defender and Fantasy Zone, the player’s ship moves to the left and right across environments that loop horizontally, and a button press allows the ship to flip 180 degrees to take on enemies in the opposite direction.

After completing some short tutorial levels, the player gains access to his full arsenal, which consists of a weak rapid shot, an energy sword melee-style attack, a powerful but narrow laser beam, and swarms of heat seeking missiles. All of these weapons are immediately available at a button press, so there is no need to cycle through them. The game’s core strategy revolves around knowing when to use each of these weapon types, and which enemies are susceptible to which attacks.

Of the four weapons, the rapid fire shot is the only one that does not draw from the ship’s energy meter. It’s great for wiping out popcorn enemies and some medium strength foes, but it’s fairly useless against heavily defended enemies. Additionally, this weapon is prone to overheating, so the player can’t just hold down the FIRE button the whole time; instead, he must let off the trigger every so often to let it cool down. Overheating is indicated by the player’s bullets changing color, and eventually a reduced fire rate. If the gun overheats, it becomes temporarily unavailable while it cools.

Next up is the melee-style attack, which consists of a blue energy sword swipe that spins around the ship, dealing damage to anything in close proximity. This weapon is good against medium strength enemies, but is mostly used to get out of tight spots. When surrounded by weaker enemies, a quick tap of the button wipes out the closest ones, allowing you to create an opening and seek a safer place from which to attack. More importantly, this attack wipes out any projectiles within its range.

The laser beam is fairly straightforward. It takes a moment to come up to full power, after which it unleashes a powerful narrow beam in a straight line. This weapon is best reserved for only the toughest foes, preferably stationary ones given its tight focus and the fact that your movement slows while firing it. Some heavier enemies can be destroyed with a single blast, but others require a multiple hits. Prioritization is key here, as the player needs to clear nearby enemies to give himself room to fire the weapon, but many larger foes pose no threat at a distance, so the player can leave them alone and fight elsewhere.

Finally, there is the missile swarm, which requires some finesse to use properly. By default, holding the MISSILE button causes missiles to fire off in every direction, following a circular motion around the ship, which drains the energy meter quickly. But standing still and firing missiles everywhere isn’t the smartest use of this weapon. Instead, the player is able to direct missiles to be fired in a specific direction, and he can fire off dozens at once, Bangai-O-style, or let out a short burst. Short bursts are great at clearing out enemies that pose an immediate threat without draining your energy and leaving yourself defenseless. And, since enemies drop energy restoratives, it’s possible to blast through a group of enemies and immediately refill any lost energy.

One additional move available to the player is a dash, which sends the ship quickly forward for a moment, passing through enemy ships. This move is useful for quickly escaping danger, and for getting away when surrounded – as long as there’s a safe spot beyond the enemy swarm – but you still take damage when coming into contact with projectiles or lasers. Additionally, this maneuver can only be used twice in succession before it enters a cooldown period.

Enemies enter the arena from spawn points, making themselves known a moment before they appear. Once all of the enemies have been cleared, the player moves onto the next wave, and each level consists of three waves.

Taking damage is dangerous, as the ship can only survive three hits before it is destroyed, and health restorative drops are rare. Getting killed returns the player to the start of the wave to try again, but once he loses three lives, he must start the entire level from scratch. In the early going, this is a rarity, as players can easily manage to wrest themselves from danger, but later levels fill the screen with enemies of various types, and players who fail to eliminate them quickly and strategically may find themselves trapped.

The primary driver for gameplay is score. Killing enemies increases a combo meter, and taking damage or going more than a few seconds between kills causes the combo to reset. Mastering the controls, using weapons effectively to clear space, and knowing when to dive in for dropped energy crystals eventually makes it possible to extend a combo from the very first enemy all the way to the end of the final wave. This allows you to maximize your end-level ranking and your score, which may be shared via online leaderboards.

New enemy types are introduced slowly, appearing every few levels, but the old enemies stay in the mix. This means that you’ll be spending most of your time facing the same basic foes again and again – or tougher variants of the same enemies – with a few new ones appearing at a lower frequency. In addition, the angular caves are visually and structurally very similar to one another, offering very little gameplay variety from one level to the next. That said, there are some narrow passages, alcoves, and split paths that allow the player to employ some strategy when combating enemies.

There is a lot happening visually, with enemies constantly pouring in, being obliterated in diamond-shaped explosions, and leaving behind energy-restoring crystals. The HUD has a lot of information, including the blaster overheat indicator; the ship’s energy, health, and remaining lives; a Defender-style map at the top of the screen, which shows your position and that of your enemies; a score counter; a meter showing the remaining number of enemies once a certain threshold is met; and the combo meter, along with popups showing the immediate kill count. This can be a lot to take in, particularly given the flashy nature of the combat, but score-chasers will need to at least be mindful of the ship’s energy and the running combo, although audio cues do indicate specific combo milestones. In a nice touch, the ranking screen shows a screenshot of a highlight from your previous mission, usually showing you blasting a big group of enemies.

Enemies are brightly colored and visually distinct, making it easy to assess threats (provided they aren’t obscured by numerous explosions). Many foes are color-coded to correspond with the weapon that is most effective against them, with green popcorn enemies falling to your green rapid fire bullets, blue shelled foes destroyed quickly by your blue melee attack, and pink segmented serpents best dispatched by a flurry of pink missiles.

There are four planets in all, each with eight wave-based levels and a final tougher level that requires players to last through one gigantic wave. Completing all of the levels on each planet unlocks its challenge modes, which consist of a survival run through wave-based levels, as well as a tougher version of the planet’s final level.

Graceful Explosion Machine was developed by Vertex Pop, a studio based in Canada and operated by designer and programmer Mobeen Fikree, who previously developed We Are Doomed and Orbit1. Art and visual design for the game are credited to Gabby DaRienzo (A Mortician's Tale), and music and sound design are credited to Robby Duguay (We Are Doomed, Fate Tectonics).