“Bullet Hell” has always struck me as a bit of an outlier in the world of game genres. Essentially an evolved form of “Shoot ‘em Up”, unlocked after a certain enemy projectile threshold is reached, Bullet Hell games deliver on the imposing challenge promised by their genre name; nigh-endless waves of bullets, fast-moving enemies, tight limits on lives and continues; these are games not so much to be enjoyed as endured, badges of honour to be earned by mastering the pixel-perfect positioning needed for success. It’s interesting that From Software’s Souls series has been the focus of the online discourse around game difficulty for so long, when, in comparison to the iron rigidity of bullet hell games, they’re comparably breezy, both in terms of flexibility and execution.
All of this to say: the Bullet Hell genre is not a particularly approachable one, nor has it ever been. So what would a Bullet Hell title designed from the ground up with accessibility in mind look like? That’s where Space War Battle Cadet DX (SWBCDX) comes in. The debut title from four-man Dundee studio Two Tailed Fox, it aims to bring Bullet Hell to the masses through a combination of smart design decisions and accessibility options.
The Colours Out of Space
Mechanically, as with most Bullet Hell titles, SWBCDX is rather simple. You control a ship, dragging it around using your phone’s touch screen, while it auto-fires constantly the whole time. The core hook arrives when the first waves of enemies do; they come in one of two colours, and can only be damaged by your ship when its colour matches theirs. In addition, your ship can absorb enemy projectiles that match its colour, building up a super meter while avoiding damage at the same time. Thus, an Ikaruga-esque colour-switching mechanic comes into play; the player can tap their craft to switch between its two colours, and it’s the mastery and rapid execution of this core skill that represents the bulk of SWBCDX’s challenge.
And a challenge it certainly is; while this is, as mentioned above, a more accessible, beginner-friendly take on Bullet Hell, it’s still undoubtedly a few circles deep. You’ll need to be constantly aware of your position and colour, and keep an eagle’s watch on the edges of the screen to scope out the next enemy wave before it’s too close for you to react. And that’s just in the early levels; as things advance, you’ll need reflexes worthy of a trained fighter pilot to switch and dodge through the seemingly endless barrages that the game’s enemies, and its fiendish bosses, throw at you.
A Helping Hand
SWBCDX doesn’t throw you to the wolves entirely, however; There are some smart design decisions here that give you a fighting chance, at least. Chief among these is the way in which time slows down when you’re not touching the screen, bathing the battlefield in a grey mist and giving you time to take things in before making your next move. It’s a clever way of giving players a breather in the midst of a hectic sequence without relying on a cumbersome traditional pause button, and it works particularly well with the game’s colour-switching mechanic; rapid switching feels less demanding when you can take a second to evaluate the situation before making your decision.
Beyond this, the game also has accessibility features in another sense of the word. At the start of the game, and at any time on the menu screen, players can choose which two colours they want the game to use. This is a nice bit of personalisation for the average player, but for those with vision problems, such as colour blindness, it represents the difference between them being able to play the game, and them being unable to due to their condition. This feature, along with the fact that the entire game can, and should, be played with just one finger, open SWBCDX up to the largest number of players possible, something that’s particularly great to see in a traditionally hardcore genre like Bullet Hell.
Running the Gauntlet
These features even opened the game up to me, a complete novice in the Bullet Hell space. After getting the hang of the methodical, one-finger approach the game demands, I found myself blasting and switching like a pro. Or at least, not completely embarrassing myself in the opening Cloud City missions, as was the case initially. After a bit of story context for each mission, which manages to infuse the game with a B-movie cyberpunk charm through the use of terms like ‘Zero’ in place of ‘destroy’, things got going right away, with a tough but fair opening stage.
Mission 2 upped the ante, opening with a from-behind flying section that saw me switching colours to pass through laser grids unscathed, before seamlessly transitioning back into the core top-down shooting gameplay. This alternate play mode is very cool to see in a genre usually so steeped in tradition, and there are more like it on the horizon according to Two Tailed Fox. Mission 2 also featured a multi-phase boss battle known, ominously, as ‘The Fixer’. And fix me it did; many, many times.
Because, in addition to just completing each mission normally, SWBCDX also features medals for the player to earn by completing the mission under different conditions. These push the player towards mastery of the game by giving an additional incentive to destroy every enemy in a mission and take no damage, and inspired in me the same perfectionist urges that Cuphead, another modern take on the Shoot ‘em Up genre, managed to inspire back in 2017. I found myself repeating the first two missions many times, each attempt teaching me how to handle specific sections better. I noticed this particularly when facing The Fixer, as I was able to, over the course of different attempts, develop a safe strategy that finally allowed me to claim the ‘No Damage’ medal for mission 2 after around 40 minutes of trying.
The Final Frontier?
That SWBCDX was able to get me to invest so deeply in perfecting its stages is testament to the tight, addictive design loop that Two Tailed Fox have crafted here. It feels great both to control and listen to, with a stellar soundtrack backing up every neon-glazed shootout. And with more content and seasonal events to come, including the currently-active Spooktober mission, it will only get better with time. Take a shot with Space War Battle Cadet DX and you will, undoubtedly, end up landing among the stars.
You can check out the game for yourself on Google Play here.