This is the one hundred fifteenth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. This particular post is also an honorary entry in the Keeping Score series about games and their soundtracks. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

A new random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is on an approach vector, absorbing energy by flying really close to the blog’s defense systems. It’s RISK SYSTEM, by RISK SYSTEM (AKA Newt Industries), and its tagline in the bundle reads:

High speed kinetic action. Danger is the best offense!

“The best offense” is my middle name.

Risk System is a shoot ’em up (affectionately called “shmup”), a venerable genre about a single spaceship blowing up a whole lot of other spaceships. Shmups were birthed in arcades in the 1980s, and have had a long niche following since. We’ve seen a few shmups in this series so far, and when I wrote about the first, Zenodyne R, I discussed the history of the genre, so I’ll point you there if you want some background. Where Zenodyne R opts for a specific retro aesthetic, aping games for the Sega Genesis console, Risk System is a bit more modern. In place of rapidly flashing sprites, it has rapidly flashing particle effects, or perhaps sprites that are trying to look like particle effects, with a lot of transparency and hazy edges. The seisure/epilepsy warning upon launching the game is not kidding: there are a ton of flashing lights in here, so be careful if you are susceptible to that. But the result looks really cool in motion, as halos flicker and energy blasts zip across the screen. As is often the case, it’s hard to capture this in static screenshots, but fortunately the page has a bunch of animated gifs to show it off.

It’s a good thing that all the bullets and hazards look this cool, because the central mechanic in Risk System is that the player’s ship gains power when flying very close to them. Do so, and the ship’s own fire becomes supercharged, dealing a lot more damage to foes, and enemies destroyed with this supercharged fire drop health pickups. The ship can take three hits before going down, and health pickups only restore a fraction of one hit, but they do add up, offsetting some of the inherent danger in such risky flying. More importantly, flying near bullets charges up the Barrier Breaker super weapon, which can damage everything on the screen, even things that can’t be hit by regular fire because they’re lurking in the background or hiding behind a shield. The Barrier Breaker also makes the player’s ship invincible for the single second it takes to fire, which is more important than it sounds. Many sections of the game are designed with this in mind, throwing up a deadly ring of lasers or a full-screen blast that can only be avoided by charging up and firing the Barrier Breaker at the right time.

This probably sounds quite frantic, but I was surprised at how welcoming Risk System is to new players. Shmups often lean into extreme difficulty designed for genre veterans, but Risk System does a good job catering to any skill level. Just the fact that it’s possible to heal from damage helps a lot, but players can also retry missions or bosses as many times as necessary, and a checkpoint is saved at the start of each new mission so there’s no need to go through the full campaign all in one sitting. The ship doesn’t move that fast, so play feels more like strategic positioning than split-second reaction, and there’s time to learn the rhythms of a mission and get comfortable with charging and using the Barrier Breaker. Risk System is also the only shmup I’ve played that has auto-fire enabled by default, and it was something of a revelation. Like most shmups, there’s no downside to firing the ship’s main weapon, and without auto-fire I’d probably have held the fire button down all the time. But auto-fire doesn’t just make the ship fire constantly, it fires only when there’s an enemy in the sights. This was really helpful feedback, because I didn’t have to look at the enemies as I focused on maneuvering. I knew that if my ship was firing, I must be lined up to eliminate some baddies.

The audio and visual feedback is generally fantastic. There’s a lot of spectacle happening on the screen, but I always knew when I was close enough to enemy fire to charge my Barrier Breaker because a green halo appeared around my ship along with a pleasing, blippy sound effect. Also, if there were enemies in my line of fire, then my standard, weak shots got a palpable burst of force, seeming to leap away from my ship and tear through smaller enemies with ease. A fully charged Barrier Breaker announces itself with a big burst of light that fades to a constant glow around the ship until it’s fired. All of this makes Risk System feel great to control. My only complaints about feedback concerns the lock-on attacks some enemies use, which must be dodged with a special barrel roll maneuver. For these, both the audio and visual indications of when to time the dodge were hard to discern, and I learned them more by trial and error.

Still, after the first few missions I was ready to heap praise on Risk System as a great introductory shmup, with some depth to its mechanics but without the punishing difficulty so often found in the genre. Now that I’ve finished it… well, that’s still mostly true. But the later missions get tough. I finished the five-mission campaign, but the final boss took me many, many attempts, and had a few frustrating sections that were hard to figure out how to counter. One thing that annoyed me is that getting hit stops the Barrier Breaker from charging for a few seconds. For some of the more complicated boss battles, this can start a failure spiral, because quickly charging the Breaker and then using it to move through a wall of lasers is critical. When that rhythm gets disrupted, one hit can quickly turn into three hits and death. I did enjoy the boss challenges though, they felt almost like puzzles to work out. Also, spectacle is always part of the appeal of shmups, and nowhere is there more spectacle than when facing one of these giant adversaries.

Risk System doesn’t leave the hardcore shmup players out in the cold, either. Players are graded on their performance in each mission, and can only reach the “true” ending by getting a rating of A or higher on all of them. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to return to earlier missions just to retry them, players must start the campaign over. But, upon completing a mission, they may choose to play it again for a higher grade before moving on. So it’s not too hard to play through once, then start over and aim for a high rating on each mission. I tried this and managed to get an A grade on the first mission, and was surprised to find new dialog at the end of the mission in response. But I didn’t have the patience to try for high rating on every mission, especially because it wasn’t clear exactly what the requirements for an A grade are. I know that taking less damage and defeating enemies efficiently helps, but does dying to a boss (which lets players respawn at the boss, rather than having to redo the whole mission) disqualify an A grade? Without knowing, I was afraid of wasting a lot of time. Besides, there’s no way I could defeat the final boss without dying at least a few times.

I mentioned dialog above. In Risk System the dialog before and after missions is fully voiced, but not particularly well written or acted. That’s hardly surprising, since the stories in shmups are usually terrible. But I actually liked the larger narrative here. It doesn’t overexplain things, leaving enough mystery to keep me intrigued. The premise is simple: warp gate technology has had a huge impact on interstellar society, until some sort of parasite came through the gates, taking over people’s minds and turning them to its sinister purpose. Players assume the role of the one pilot who has been immune to the parasite’s influence, flying an old prototype ship that’s built with pre-gate technology. A simple and effective reason for players to be flying a relatively under-powered ship against incredible odds. The bosses are all former allies, corrupted by the parasite, but none are introduced beforehand. A few lines of dialog are all we get, so we’re left to infer the relationships between the characters. I also liked that most of the cast is female, in an inversion of the usual gender breakdown in games. But be warned that the standard ending doesn’t explain much of the mystery. I assume that’s reserved for the “true” ending, which is heavily implied to come with an extra mission as well.

Overall I really enjoyed Risk System. I’m not well versed in the shmup genre, but this is my favorite one to appear in the bundle so far, welcoming to relative newbies like me without sacrificing depth in its action. The concept of risky flying near deadly bullets is executed so well that I learned to do it almost without realizing it. Risk System also looks and sounds fantastic, as long as you can handle a lot of flashing lights. If you’ve ever been interested in trying shmups but were intimidated by all the hardcore ones out there, Risk System is a great place to start. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $9.99, with Deluxe Edition bonuses if you pay at least $12.99. If you did get it in the bundle, those Deluxe Edition goodies are included: a digital art book, some promotional trailers, and the original soundtrack in digital format. Speaking of which…

The Score:

The original soundtrack for Risk System consists of 17 tracks, spanning just under a half hour. It’s credited to “Chris Ekins and Various”, but the 128kbps mp3 files have no tags, so I’m not sure who that “various” refers to. There isn’t any digital cover art either, although I was able to find some here. Those who are looking for detailed credits will be disappointed.

Most of the tracks are lo-fi techno, with energetic, fuzzed-out basslines. It’s not chiptune, but it kind of reminds me of chiptune, as if Chris Ekins was covering chiptune pieces using a more advanced software synthesizer. They’re all original compositions, of course, most around one or two minutes long, designed to be looped during the game. On the soundtrack, each cuts abruptly into the next, although this is less jarring than I expected. A few shorter pieces appear, presumably accompanying specific story scenes in the game. The music works nicely in the game, an appropriate accompaniment to the fast-paced action, with the music for the boss battles especially getting the blood pumping. On their own, the pieces are less interesting, but nice enough.

A few tracks, however, break this mold. These pieces up the fidelity, and introduce recognizable instruments like guitars, piano and electric bass (or at least, convincing facsimiles of these). Some of them even have vocals, presumably performed by the “various”. In “Broken Light”, the singing is heavily processed, through some form of vocoder, and it’s a relatively small part of the track. On “Traces” and “I Take Hold”, however, vocals take center stage, although the latter still applies some processing effects. Neither of these is sung in English (I think it’s Japanese? Although maybe “I Take Hold” is actually heavily clipped English?), so I’m not sure what they’re about, but I like them. I remember “Traces” from the ending sequence of the game, but I’m not sure where “I Take Hold” appears; perhaps it’s reserved for the “true” ending?

Interestingly, there’s a second version of “Broken Light” on the soundtrack, called “Broken Light Mimicry”, which is kind of like a cover done in the more lo-fi electronic style of the rest of the soundtrack. I wasn’t expecting to get such a direct comparison between the two music styles on offer, but it’s fascinating to listen to these two versions. There’s a direct mapping from instruments to synthesizer sounds, and a shift from a recognizable (though likely programmed) drum kit to drum machine percussion. I don’t actually remember where these pieces appear in the game, but they definitely hold up to independent listens. All in all, it’s a nice collection of tunes, and a welcome bonus to find along with the game in the bundle.