Psyvariar. Ignored by the masses. Championed by the few. Most that try it appreciate it for the great shooter it is. A niche title in a niche genre, its only mainstream element being the platform of its home release, the PS2. Now we have the sequel Psyvariar 2: The Will to Fabricate, released on the Dreamcast - a console that was niche even during its peak. The number of people playing this direct arcade port is going to be even smaller than that of those playing the original. A lot of people are going to be missing out.
In this vertical, traditional shooter, you play either Kei or her fellow pilot, Yuhei. She is only 22 and he is even younger at 21, but their extensive training and unnaturally high spiritual ability make them ideal candidates to fly the mechas against the marauding horde. As you progress through the areas, your Neutrino gauge plays a vital role. Much, like the original Psyvariar, when this gauge maxes out, you are awarded a brief period of invincibility while you “level up”, which can be used to quickly refill the gauge or to escape from a tight spot. The gauge fills in two ways: shooting enemy craft and “Buzzing”. Rather than fleeing from enemies, you can “Buzz” the edges of your mecha against both their craft and their bullets. If you are levelling up quick enough, you can run amok, bullet chasing as long as you dare. Once dialled, this forms a large part of the hook of Psyvariar, and what a hook it is. It begs for you to keep going, ignoring common sense that says your gauge isn’t refilling quick enough. When finally stepping out of the maelstrom at the last second, you are left gagging for another go, quickly hunting down more buzz and shooting opportunities to get that gauge maxed-out again. There is a huge sense of elation when you first get it right, and it just gets better once adrenaline and pounding heart beats are added to the cocktail.
Your choice of pilot at the start of Psyvariar 2 heavily alters the gameplay, adding more variety and scope for play style over the original. Kei pilots the ‘Maitreya’ mecha; her Neutrino gauge builds quickly if your shots are frequent and on target, but buzz has less of an effect. When her gauge does fill, her invincible level up time is short-lived. Conversely, Yuhei controls the ‘Five Ascetics’ mecha which feeds off the buzz rather than the shots and has a slightly longer invincible time. Those of you that found the buzz emphasis in the first game off-putting will find the shooter style of Kei much more appealing. This choice of play styles successfully opens up the game to a wider audience.
The game explores the rich depths of the original and tunnels fiercely downwards in search of even greater treasures. Not only does the fill rate of your Neutrino gauge slow during boss battles, it now varies during the seven main stages themselves, the rate being depicted by colour change. The devil’s own idea, it makes keeping an eye on your gauge imperative and seizing the moments when faster rates like green, cyan or even blue present themselves even more vital. Luckily, you have some sway over the change, be it letting rip at one particular target or picking off certain colours of enemies. In a genius move, similar to the varying difficulty levels in Border Down, your skill (or lack of it) intelligently affects the game. Just when you think you are reaching the maximum number of level ups available on a stage, a good performance on the previous stage moves you up to a harder mode, or your average performance activates an easier one. The harder mode provides more frantic and challenging action, but also more opportunity for levelling up and higher scores. If you aren’t coping well, the next level will become easier. This is quite a contrast to the original game, wherein your progress to certain stages was restricted based on performance. In addition, it is well worth selecting the harder modes from the main menu for a more breathtaking challenge.
Since the game is an almost exact arcade port, there is very little concession to the home player. The Tate modes are intact and the nifty ability to turn continues off forces you to learn the game. Rankings are only visible after the attract mode or at game over, and there is no replay mode this time round. However, you aren’t going to miss this, because you will find yourself stabbing Start for “just one more go”. Controls are going to be initially alien to anyone used to the option of holding the spin button in the PS2 original. Spin increases the buzz speed, since you scrape bullets more often due to the rotation. The spin button previously slowed the craft speed but, this time, spinning does not affect mecha speed. However, it has to be initiated with a deft flick of the stick or pad in two opposing directions. As long as you keep moving, the spin continues, but as soon as you stop, the spin is lost, along with the chance to level up quickly enough. So you can either cower at the base of the screen, pulling back to keep the spin or set off like a man possessed, rampaging around the screen in search of shot targets and buzz, throwing caution to the wind in search of that higher state. It really does not take long to get comfortable with this setup and levels the playing field since everyone has to use the same technique.
The game goes all out to impress on the graphics and sound fronts, vastly improving upon the functional graphics of the PS2 original. The delicate 3D craft models sweep over pre-rendered backgrounds, giving the 2D gameplay an increased sense of depth, only slowing down for effect during vast explosions. The shot patterns, so essential to the gameplay itself, are mesmerising and beautiful with their swirling colours and varied shapes and sizes. Sometimes fast, sometimes very slow and dense, they are matched in variety by the music, from the slow, ambient undertones accompanying the opening drawings, to the hard house and soaring trance of areas three and four. The game visuals are even more lush in the Dreamcast’s VGA mode. The shot patterns, whilst being great to look at, are also fair, so a well-planned route will see you through unscathed. Panic or lack of concentration will be punished, but you won’t get frustrated: you just learn from the mistakes and move on.
This all gels together perfectly to form a very accomplished experience, set to rival the best shooters out there. The stages are no larger than they were in the first instalment, but this does not matter. It’s what you get out of each stage that counts. The game can be played on so many different levels, rewarding whatever ability you have and pushing you to improve.
Psyvariar 2 is the gaming equivalent of an opium den. Abandon yourself to it, because you aren’t coming out for some time.