Review: Risk System (Nintendo Switch)

8 mins read
Review by Harvard L.

There’s that rare beautiful moment when playing a scrolling shooter where the speed and the tension fade away, and the player is suspended in a perfect state of flow. I get this feeling on the rare occasions that I make it past Stage 2 on Gradius, I get it on most manic shooters like DoDonPachi, and I get it from Newt Industries’ Risk System, for its entire duration.

Risk System doesn’t describe itself like a bullet hell game, despite having two core mechanics reminiscent of that genre – the first is a graze system which rewards players for flying near bullets, which charges the second, which is a screen-clearing smart bomb (called a Barrier Breaker in this game) that grants a brief moment of reprieve. The difference is, with Risk System, there are rarely more than ten bullets on screen at a time. The challenge doesn’t come from the sheer volume of bullets, but rather the temptation to get a little closer to a bullet pattern to graze it. It’s right there in the title.

Newt Industries has built Risk System to account for accessibility, but in a way that preserves the scrolling shooter’s penchant for enormous difficulty. Shooting is automatic whenever there’s an enemy in front, so the player is free to focus their attention on moving around, vertically barrel-rolling to avoid enemy fire, and activating the Barrier Breaker. Players also get three life points, which can be earned back if enemies are destroyed while grazing a bullet. Out of these simple mechanics, the game’s six levels create an incredible sense of challenge, with creatively designed enemies and bosses that are carefully ordered to require quick thinking and reflexes to surpass.

The grazing system shines best in the game’s boss battles, which all have attack patterns that necessitate careful balancing of risky and conservative playstyles. Bosses often have invulnerable periods where they fly into the background but still keep firing at the player, and in these moments the Barrier Breaker is the only way to meaningfully damage them. Some also have attack patterns that can’t be conventionally dodged, but move slowly enough that the player can charge a full Barrier Breaker and then fly through while invulnerable. It can be tempting to fly closer to an attack to charge Barrier Breaker faster, but that naturally creates more opportunities to get hit. Often I beat a boss by the skin of my teeth, but was keen to try again to see if there were any exploitable weaknesses that I’d missed on my first attempt.

Six stages may seem short at first, but the time taken to really practice and master each of the sections is time well spent. I really can’t exaggerate – Risk System is one of the hardest SHMUP’s I’ve played in recent memory. Owing to the combination of careful design and the risk-reward gameplay, I found myself dying so often that I’d often spend more than half an hour just trying to get past one boss or even one flight level. Nearly every boss could be described as a brick wall for the unprepared. There are no checkpoints, but also no continues; the player must defeat the entire stage with one life, but no matter how many times they fail, they’re never forced to start from the very beginning. This is a welcome departure from the arcade-style design that’s so common with scrolling shooters: by being able to immediately retry a level that defeated the player, it’s easier to practice and master the mechanics necessary to advance.

I also appreciated the way the story subtly shifts depending on how well the player performs in a level – the narrative follows Alys, the last surviving pilot after her team is taken over by a mind-controlling virus that has turned mankind’s weapons against itself. While the narrative itself isn’t incredibly deep, Newt Industries creates a dynamic where the protagonist is fighting people she used to fight alongside, leading to meaningful character interactions before and after the bosses.

The idea of a narrative adapting to player performance is an interesting design space to explore, but to be honest, after beating a boss I was on way too much of an adrenaline high to pay attention to what the characters were saying. I think the SHMUP is just not a great video game genre to deliver narrative in – and the best examples are when the story is kept implicit through the enemy and environment designs like in R-Type. Lots of cool plot moments do happen in Risk System, but often I found I was reading about them in the past tense; only after unlocking a story detail after beating a level did I realise what I was doing within that level itself.

The visual design deserves a lot of praise, drawing deserved comparisons to classic 90’s anime like Gundam Wing or Bubblegum Crisis. The combinations of bright colours, organic machines and enormous lasers all adds to the excitement factor, and it means Risk Factor is a game that’s just as cool to watch as it is to play. One can imagine that this would have been the game that everyone would have been crowding around at the arcade. I did find that some visual effects like the flashing effects of the Barrier Breaker made it hard to see the bullets around me, and the player and bullet hitboxes aren’t as clear cut as what I’d expect from a modern SHMUP, but these never posed too large of an issue.

Risk System is something of a connoisseur’s shoot-em-up, with intelligently designed enemies and bosses that reward careful practice and precise movements. The demanding level of difficulty might cause some initial frustrations, but a determined attitude and a calculated approach to risk will help players emerge victoriously. After a few hours of playing, I was able to effortlessly take down bosses that I’d previously thought of as impossible, and that’s always a great feeling to have.

– Harvard L.

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