Though the Nintendo Switch was criticized for not having many exclusive games at launch, April sees the release of a few more, including indie studio Vertex Pop’s Graceful Explosion Machine. This vibrant arcade side-scrolling shooter provides personality and an incredibly tight gameplay experience to a system still looking for standout games.
Players control a ship, which can be flipped 180 degrees to move around self-wrapping levels, and are armed with four different weapons. A blaster, which fires out the front of the ship. An energy sword, which causes damage in an area around the ship. A sniper beam, which is a strong line of energy that fires from the front of the ship. And missiles, which lock onto targets in every direction. All of these different powers are controlled by energy resources picked up from defeating enemies, except for one. The basic blaster is on a cooldown of its own, which recharges after a short delay when you stop firing it. This forces players to not rely on it and actually use the other abilities on offer. This is a sort of retraining from other games in this genre. Most games push the idea of saving these bigger abilities for when you absolutely need them, but in Graceful Explosion Machine it’s to your detriment. If you aren’t constantly giving it everything the ships got you wont survive, or at the very least won’t get a good score. The ship also has two boosts on their own cooldown. These boosts can be used to fly through enemies, but not enemy bullets. These boosts are incredibly helpful when you find yourself with no power or waiting on your blasters cooldown. Combat is very rewarding once you figure out just how all the abilities can work together in taking down enemies. Enemies that seem challenging at first will quickly be easy to take down once you develop a strategy for them.
Graceful Explosion Machine is broken up into four worlds featuring nine levels each, with a few additional tutorial missions. Levels can be completed in about three to five minutes, depending on how quickly you take everything down. After completing a level, players are scored using a combination of style points (which are awarded for killing enemies and mixing up the abilities in which you do it with) and kill multipliers, which is gained by killing enemies in quick succession. These scores are used to give a letter ranking, while providing the score for the next ranking up, and an optional placement on a global leaderboard. Challenge variations of each world’s last stage, which add and change enemy spawns are unlocked after completing each world. An additional challenge level is also unlocked that tasks players to play through every stage in a world in succession with only one life. These levels can take over 45 minutes to complete, which is in some way at odds with the rest of the arcade score attack feel of the rest of it.
When I previewed Graceful Explosion Machine at PAX East, I use the word felicitous to describe its visual and auditory experience. Having now played the full game I think it was the perfect word choice. Vibrant pastels adorn the player’s ship, levels, and enemies. The color choice does a great job of separating what is the player and their abilities from the enemies and their attacks. The designers made the player’s ship a different color from everything else in the game, and also added a sort of colorful doppler shift behind it while it moves around. This combination makes it incredibly easy to track where you’re moving amongst the chaos. Being able to read the situation at any given moment is integral to playing well and the colors make it incredibly easy to do so. Graceful Explosion Machine’s audio also does a great job letting you know what is going on. Satisfying chimes play when you hit a score multiplier and sad music hits when you run out of power for abilities help make sure that players get important information without them needing to look away from the battle in front of them. I will also say that the game looks incredible running in handheld mode. It’s also easier to see everything all at once in handheld mode which made it the preferred way for me to play.
Graceful Explosion Machine won’t be for everyone. It is an arcade game that is not afraid to beat you down over and over again. At first glance it looks overly busy and difficult, but it’s visuals are inviting and it’s easy to grasp the basics. Trying to get the S rank on every stage will be a great challenge for some, but just getting through the stages might be good enough for others. If you own a Switch and want something you can come back to every once in awhile until something else comes out, Graceful Explosion Machine fits that pretty well.
Graceful Explosion Machine was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with a download code provided by developer Vertex Pop