The Ver'mith, an autonomous combat unit, unaware that their creators have long since deceased, were waging war against the Tilde, an alliance of various peacekeepers. The Tilde created Triggerhearts Ė human-like fighting machines with a variety of upgrades such as flight capability and weaponry. The decision to make the units female stemmed from the discovery that female versions possessed higher anti-impact capabilities. Apparently.
Since the Tilde were giving the Verímith a beating, the Verímith fleet jumped into a wormhole to escape. Two Triggerhearts, Exelica and Crueltear, were also sucked into the same hole. When they popped out again, they were on their own, near Earth, and so did their best to blend into modern society with the help of an old man called Skilltor. Which presumably meant taking off their giant booster boots and giant backpacks. And putting on a few more clothes. And Exelica got a pet cat called Omelette. Really. As traditional shooter stories go, this one is relatively padded out, so stick with it. A bit later on, the wormhole opened again and dumped the Verímith fleet out, presumably with no idea that time had passed and they happily set about taking over the Earth. So, with boots and backpacks re-donned, itís the Triggerhearts to the rescue.
Triggerheart Exelica is available on XBLA as well as the Dreamcast version reviewed here, and with a PS2 version on the imminent horizon, itís one of the more obtainable shooters. Thatís not to say itís immediately accessible though. When it comes to gameplay hooks in shooters, developer Warashi has taken the term literally and in this case has provided the ďAnchor UnitĒ. Whilst some shooters can be hammered through using the ďshoot everything that movesĒ mentality, whilst ignoring whatever hook has been shoe-horned in there to increase the depth, Triggerheart Exelica is different. Shooting will work for a while, but with progress comes adversity and after a few levels the screen is swamped with closely packed enemies that refuse to die. The only way to make it through to the end is to understand how to use the Anchor Unit and to work it hard.
Apart from the main shot and the bomb, a third fire button releases the Anchor Unit. Against ground units (which includes most of the bosses), this locks the firing direction straight at them, so you could end up above an enemy firing down the screen. However, airborne units arenít so tough and are instead captured. In a tight spot, they can be held as a shield to soak up bullets or even just used to barge straight through enemies, destroying them. The time it takes to capture each craft varies according to its size, but so does the payoff in terms of how long it can survive being damaged to destruction. Quick thinking is needed to decide if thereís time to grab a large craft. These on-the-fly choices provide a fascinating gameplay element and ensure variety with each play-through, without the need for strict path-following or screen placement.
Where the fun really gets going though is when you try swinging captured ships around a bit before releasing them again. Suddenly thereís a whole new dimension, with thrown enemies obliterating everything in their path. If you have time and the necessary skill to swing them around to a high enough release speed, they will even take out nearby enemies just via the shock-wave emanating from the initial destruction. This is what makes Triggerheart Exelica such a great experience. Itís not easy to chuck the enemies around accurately and thereíll be trouble if the amount of time to build up the swing speed is overestimated, but if the risks pay off and it goes to plan, the pure scale of decimation that ensues once the ship is catapulted away is beautiful to behold. With it comes a sense of power and itís addictive. Itís a pretty baffling system at first glance, even to the hardened shmup fan, but give Triggerheart a chance, because once youíve got it nailed, it will thrill to the core.
For the more traditional weaponry, Exelica has a spread shot, and normally moves at medium speed or slightly slower when locked on to a ground based unit. Crueltear has a narrow beam shot, but moves at high speed whether locked on or not. Choosing which one to use at the start doesnít make too much difference in reality though. It is useful having the extra linear firepower of Crueltear if thereís something bearing down on you, but Exelicaís spread shot can be useful for continuous boss attack without being in the line of fire from whatever massive death ray is being unleashed.
Amidst all the destruction, thereís another risk/reward layer. Enemies shot or bullets blocked release yellow score bonuses which must be collected. Letting go of the shot button will suck them all in, but if they can be left drifting down the screen for a bit, they level up from 1 through 5 with correspondingly higher scores to be notched up. If itís depth you want, then depth you will have. These score bonuses are also linked into a ranking system, called V.B.A.S. (Variable Boss Attack System). The more score bonuses you collect, the harder the bosses become. Unlike many other shootersí subtle ranking systems, itís fairly easy to keep track of, because collection-count is displayed at all times. Thank you Warashi!
Another aspect to be thankful of is that, whilst the graphics are fairly uninspired, they are superbly clear. Even in the most heated of battles, all the bullets and bonuses can be spotted easily, which is highly commendable. Beginners and shooter fanatics alike will really appreciate this.
Given the additional story mode, slightly tougher arrange mode and even some tunes that go well with the action, this is a decent package and one of the more essential shooters, but if the Dreamcast prices make you baulk, the XBLA version is superb value, with the added bonus of online scoreboards and graphics spruced up for the HD. Either way, smashing a path through an armada with a giant captured spaceship is an experience that everyone should try. Big grins and satisfaction guaranteed.