Mischief Maker 12/5/2010 

To people who say that Shmups are a moribund genre that ran out of ideas a decade ago, I present you with Sora. Itís a new game that mixes the fast-paced action of a 3D dash brawler like Zone of the Enders 2 with the tighter controls, greater situational awareness, and much greater danger level of a 2D shmup. Plus playing Sora gives you a video game hipster hat trick since itís a niche genre game AND an indie AND an import!

Sora is the 3rd game in the Suguri line by Japanese indie developer Orange Juice. Suguri takes place on an uninhabitable Earth devastated by war and environmental catastrophe. The greatest scientific minds decide the best way to clean up the planet is by turning the girl Suguri into a high-speed heavily armed flying combat cyborg dressed for a trip to the mall. If that plan doesnít make sense to you, thatís why youíre not one of the greatest scientific minds of the future. Years later, after Suguri managed to clean up most of the planet, an alien colony ship with an army of robots and its own combat cyborg teenagers arrive to claim the Earth for themselves. So Suguri grabs her aquifer-purifying laser rifle and lead-abating bazooka and brings the war to them.

Suguri in action!
Gameplay-wise, Suguri is a horizontal shmup with a character who can fire in all directions and automatically locks on to enemies. Instead of weaving through patterns of bullets, Suguri can fly through energy shots harmlessly using her dash move. While dashing, Suguri leaves jetson-esque rings in her wake and any enemy attacks that go through these rings charge up her hyper attack meter. AND dashing enhances her normal shots by either changing the shots into a stronger form or canceling attack animations allowing her to alternate firing and dashing to increase her firing rate. The downside to the dashing that that it increases Suguriís heat meter, which acts as a damage multiplier and Suguri canít dash through solid projectiles like missiles. Blundering into a missile while your heat is at 300% can take out a sixth of your lifebar in one hit, and you only get one life.

These mechanics, along with Suguriís speed-rewarding scoring system, makes for a fast and furious game of risk verses reward as you dash attack your way through armies of robots before taking on an equally powerful enemy cyborg, all the while your speed putting you in greater and greater danger.

Unfortunately, while Suguri has its fans and I respect it for its innovation, it was too rough in execution for me to get into the game. Fast moving formations of popcorn enemies can turn the lock-on into a liability unless youíre firing from the right position at the right time, many of the levels experiment with ideas that just donít work with this gameís mechanics, (like fighting through cramped and twisting tunnels against an enemy that can fire through walls), weapon balance is all over the map, and the blurry ugly graphics make the game a very bitter pill to swallow.

Orange Juice followed up with Acceleration of Suguri, and its X-edition expansion pack, a 2-player VS. fighter featuring Suguri, the cyborg bosses from first game, and a mysterious unlockable character named Sora battling in a circular arena using a slightly altered version of the original gameís mechanics. Itís a surprisingly good game with netplay, but like Street Fighter, a wash as a singleplayer experience.

Cut to August of 2010 -- Orange Juice releases Sora, a direct sequel to Suguri. It's a prequel, taking place at the end of the war that left the Earth in ruins. It is a refinement and improvement over the original Suguri in every way.

The most noticeable improvement Sora brings to the table is the graphics. Gone are the fuzzy flame-spitting tinker-toy enemies replaced by dark and crisply-drawn combat robots with glowmaps that look like theyíre made to fight. Energy attacks are now drawn in sexy bloomy bolts that look even more striking against ubiquitous dark clouds in the background. While Sora and the enemy cyborgs are still look like teenagers, theyíre no longer throwing exploding maracas or showing up to a warzone in a baby-T and jeans. In fact, one of the bosses is downright creepy as her arms were amputated and replaced with interfaces for her giant robot suit. Cloudphobia is still safe in its place as the prettiest indie shmup on the PC, but Sora is definitely a treat for the eyes.

Gameplay-wise, Orange Juice has learned from its experience in the multiplayer arena. Overpowered weapons have been toned down (eg. Spread shot) while useless weapons have been pumped up (the Bazooka is now devastating). Like in AoS, the sword is now a mainstay weapon, with the awkward 2-button approach replaced by a single button. Dash attacks now build up way more heat than Suguri, increasing the price of abusing them.

Level design has improved greatly. Popcorn enemies no longer fire a single volley and disappear if you canít get them fast enough; theyíre perfectly happy to hang around and pepper you with fire until you take them down. Bad stage ideas like the twisty corridor have been scrapped while good stage ideas like the battleships have been expanded. AND! the damage chain gauge pauses between enemy waves, making it completely possible to boost your score by chaining the entire stage.

It's even the first game in the series where you can change the awkward keyboard arrangement (however clumsily) by plugging Virtual Key Codes into the external_option file. My only real complaint about this game is that it unlocks additional weapons based on total gameplay time.

Where To Get It?

Suguri, Acceleration of Suguri and AoSX have been translated, localized, and distributed for PC by Danglin Rockin Android.

At the moment, Sora is only available in the original Japanese so itís a bit of an adventure acquiring yourself a copy and getting it to run.

You can get the Sora demo here (direct link). Unless youíre willing to change the language for non-unicode programs on windows to Japanese, youíll need Microsoft Applocale to run it

If you want to buy, you have 2 options: Go through an importer, or direct download through Melonbooks. Melonbooks is not in English, but fortunately the developer of the indie shmup Exception (also worth checking out) was good enough to publish a graphical guide for non-japanese speakers to purchase his game off that site. As of this publishing, the site has not done any radical and the instructions will guide you to a successful DL of Sora. Have a blank disc handy for backup.

Sora in action!
If youíre looking for something fresh and fun that tests your skills while pumping the blood, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Sora. Itís my personal shmup of the year for 2010 (yes, I am including Alltynex 2nd in that assessment).

Mischief Maker