Now Available on Steam
Developed by Leikir Studio
You are the goddess Iria, daughter to the ruler of a realm of otherworldly order and an inheritor of immense power. With their dimension succumbing to the chaos around her, it's up to Iria to strike down evil where it stands and prove herself a rightful successor. Isbarah plunges the player into a hellish world of ruined landscapes and foul gods, a realm once overseen by order now divided by rebellious guardians. It's a plot that may feel familiar to many on its own, but combined with the uniquely painted backgrounds of Heavenly and Hellish qualities, the rocking original score and fiercely fast-paced action Isbarah stands out in a class of Bullet Hell of its own.
Despite the classic platformer and shooter looks players will be surprised to find that Isbarah is a game that relies solely on mouse and keyboard, and while that may be jarring to some at first they will soon discover that this is not your conventional Bullet Hell and that the free-form dodging requires the precision of a mouse. Being more a classic shmup aficionado this threw me off at first, but as soon as I was linking dodges in fancy formations around complex patterns of bullets the fluidity of the controls became clear. This is not meant to be a game where you attack or oppress, but where you defend and persevere by employing quick reflexes and periods of endurance until your opponent deteriorates to a weakened state for the final strike.
Each of the arena-like stages feature a different villainous boss to fight amongst variously themed surroundings of moving platforms and obstacles, of which you hop across and duck beneath while dodging the incoming barrages of bullets. In the first wave of chaotic dodging you'll notice three large cannons floating amidst the battle, and given the fact that you have no bullets to shoot of your own the goal is to power each of the cannons once to fire upon and weaken the boss. A feeling of rewarding danger and a bit of added strategy come from the fact that your access to these important cannons is usually cut off by the gunfire of your enemy, and hastily trying to reach one could mean your life.
Things begin to get slightly more complicated with the addition of the slow motion and barrier power-ups and your fingers become even busier than before. Slow motion does just what you'd imagine, letting you take the time to fine tune your dodges and escape from danger at just the right moments. Barriers provide not only standing space from platforms but hold the ability to block enemy bullets, which becomes crucial when you're dealing with entire walls of almost undodgeable projectiles coming your way. Action in turn becomes more than just a ballet of bullets, but a battle of wits.
The boss designs bring the game to life with a range of stylish personalities ranging from the elegantly gothic to the brutal and grotesque. Designless, a darkened mass of evil eyeballs and gnarled teeth escapes from its foreboding realm whereas Walter, a sly and smooth talking sunglasses wearing skeleton burns a once peaceful forest for his mysterious Lord. The level of personality and flair put into each foe, though marred by some rough translations in their dialogue, are matched only by the intensity of their bullet patterns.
There is no room for mistakes, no room for second guessing or trial and error, Isbarah is pure arcade skill distilled into challenging displays of refined hand-eye coordination. It's likely to cause a bit of rage for those not prepared and even as someone who feels confident in their bullet dodging skills I found myself quickly dropping to the lowest difficulty a short way through. As frustrating as that sounds it plays right into the replayable arcade nature and the player will soon lose themselves in multiple plays, slamming that retry button and shooting for a slightly higher score each time.
Clocking in at eighteen individual battles and more hours than I'd like to admit devoted to retrying the three different difficulties and pushing myself over and over, Isbarah is a content rich game with the kind of replayability you'd expect from an arcade classic. A Bullet Hell with outlandishly wicked artwork and an over-the-top metal soundtrack is a hard concept to pass up on and outside of the masochistic difficulty provided, this is remarkably unique as well as an easily recommendable take on the shooter formula for those who aren't afraid of a serious challenge.