Review – Castle of Shikigami II

Look, most people don’t come for bullet hell games for the vast and enriching storyline. The biggest exception I can think of are the Touhou games, and that entire series is so steeped in nuance and character sidequests that I think Netflix will give them an animated series next. This isn’t so say that danmaku games should be devoid of storyline: the lack of driving elements is what makes arcade shooters fun but forgettable. No, it’s important to have some kind of reason to keep coming back for more, even if it’s something as intangible as the end of the world. It’s a bit bizarre for Degica to be so slow in the releases of certain games, but here players are, finally able to play Castle of Shikigami II on Steam after nearly four years since the first came out on Steam and, more importantly, close to seventeen years since the game was initially releases. The question is: can players jump into this game in such a strange release window?

For those who are unaware, Castle of Shikigami are a series of supernatural bullet hell games that starts with something relatively tame by most standards and quickly evolves into total insanity. The first Castle of Shikigami game gives you a choice of characters who all are connected to a series of murders happening in Tokyo, and your player, be they villain or hero, will slowly unravel an occult mystery that is leading towards a doomsday prophecy.

The first game is pretty standard on multiple levels for gameplay elements – three different types of attacks, leveling up weapons, terribly difficult windows of survival – but thrived in storytelling. While it wasn’t the first to explore a narrative set against a bullet hell game, it was able to successfully create characters that people gravitated towards and remembered, causing players to develop theories about how the Kuga brothers actually factored into the events of the first game and beyond. It was exciting, and it only got better as the games evolved and progressed.

Oh, and dying a lot. It involved dying a whole lot.

So where does that put Castle of Shikigami II? Well, the song remains the same: several characters to choose from, bullet hell elements, and plenty of customization therein. There’s a fantastically insulting “beginner” mode where you get a whole bunch of handicaps to help you survive, but you can only go as far as act three: if you want to see where the game is going, you need to play on standard difficulty.

The story picks up from the end of the first Castle, this time with the plot twist being very open (the Castle is a real, interdimensional building) and it’s reappearance in the Tokyo skyline means that doomsday is coming unless it and the inhabitants within can be stopped. If you really want to delve into the lore, it’s a fascinating hodgepodge of half utterances and missing plot connections: you need to play through with multiple characters to at least get an idea of one half of the story. It’s an errand that I’d be more interested in if the rest of the games were available on Steam (but, as of this writing, Degica has neither confirmed nor denied future releases of the other Castle of Shikigami games).

Mechanically, Castle of Shikigami II is a marvel, and I mean that in the best way. The primary attack gives you the choice of unrelenting bullets in a standard fashion or charging up for an individualized, specialty attack, generally more powerful but also limited. You have bombs that can help clear the way in terms of both bullets and enemies, but they are limited and are only replenished as your score multiplier goes up. The use of the Tension Bonus System, a score and damaged based graze system, is fascinating in theory and practice.

Basically, the closer you are to getting hit, the higher the points you get as you shoot down enemies. Additionally, the TBS is the only way to really survive boss attacks, as the proximity to other projectiles drastically increases the damage that you can dole out, also significantly increasing your own bullet density. Much like Danmaku Unlimited 2, the margins of life and death are where the real joy and thrill of Castle of Shikigami II exist, as you weave between pixel-wide corridors to survive and to thrive.

This is a very early fight, as evident by being able to see characters and not just bullets.

But what about the fun of it all? Castle of Shikigami II has to bring a lot to the table in order to stand out and be appreciated as more than just a bullet hell game, and I think that gets delivered in terms of aesthetic and concept. This could have easily been a game set in the traditional sense of space fighters with alien ships and it still could have performed on the same technical level. However, Alfa Systems have crafted a world where the story is nonsense and utter insanity, the backdrop shifts from the streets of Shibuya to the biological interior of an alien ship and beyond and you are just a flying dude in a jean jacket spewing waves of blue diamonds from your…mouth?

Oh, and occasionally you summon an energy ghost to really show the true nature of destruction, or turn into a living bomb yourself. It’s got the same kind of energy you get from BlazBlue in terms of absolutely oddball decisions for protagonists, antagonists and everything inbetween, but it works because it takes itself completely seriously. I mean, the first major boss is clearly a lolita dressed woman wielding a scythe, and she is terrifying.

And yet I’m intrigued by what she’s saying.

If you’ve never played a bullet hell game before, Castle of Shikigami II is a really hard spot to come into, and that needs to be taken into extreme consideration. With multiple colors of projectiles, it takes a lot for the player to figure out what can be shot out of the sky, what can be dodged around and what you need to explode with a bomb before hell rains down upon you. Additionally, the level format evolves as you go on, changing from straightforward level real estate to shifting barriers that can kill you just as easily as the enemies can.

It’s not just a hang-in-the-back shooter, you need to be up and active in order to get through things: it’s the best and worst of Gradius meets Ikaruga, with the navigation of the former and the pinpoint timing of the latter. It took a lot, and I mean a lot, for me to even get into the damn castle, and everything beyond that was nigh impossible. But, thanks to the proper design, it keeps you coming back for more. The stages and acts are never particularly long, so you feel eager to dive in and try again immediately after death.

Cruel Angel Thesis intensifies.

Also, Castle of Shikigami II is doing fans a lot of service by acknowledging the time drops between the titles and also to keep things fresh. Outside of the standard story mode with the normal and “easy” difficulties, there’s the Dramatic Change mode, which is even better than it sounds. Basically, you craft a new storyline where you choose two characters, and you can actively toggle between them with a single button during the game, and it changes everything in the best way. You can literally figure out strategy by having two characters with totally different attack patterns and bomb designs and flatten your way through the best of all worlds by knowing where your own strengths and weaknesses are.

Naturally, I recommend playing a bit of the regular mode before jumping into this remix, but damn it’s a lot of fun. There’s also the Story Recollect, where you can take time after surviving the onslaught to go back and figure out exactly what each character discovered by re-reading the fully voiced dialogue moments without also needing to replay the firefight.

Fumiko knows what's up.

Fumiko knows what’s up.

I’m trash at bullet hell games, but I love to try and I love to fail. Castle of Shikigami II makes me feel like a glorious disaster, and it’s so much fun in the process. It’s got the heart and excitement of something visually-novel adjacent, and it’s got the chaos and erratic heartbeat moments of a proper danmaku. Take some time and dive in, but be warned: it’s hell, and a controller is not going to be your friend. Get ready to ride the keyboard, cowboy, we gotta save Tokyo.

Graphics: 7.0

Great portraits during exposition scenes, decent if muddy graphics for the shooting moments.

Gameplay: 8.0

Incredibly tight precision, standard dodging and shooting, near-misses ramp up the score and damage factors.

Sound: 7.5

Voicework was excellent, soundtrack itself was energetic but ultimately forgettable.

Fun Factor: 7.0

Incredibly stressful but satisfying, a great time for fans of Touhou and CAVE shooters.

Final Verdict: 7.5

Castle of Shikigami II is available now on Steam.

Reviewed on PC.

A copy of Castle of Shikigami II was provided by the publisher.