Did any of you play Aqua Kitty UDX? An enjoyable arcade style SHMUP, it was set it a world populated by anthropomorphic kitty cats who'd built submarines to explore the deep oceans. They'd battle cyborg sealife, and pirates too, as they sought out and drilled the undersea milk fields, seeking the dairy goodness trapped within.
It was a well presented and fun little shooter and now the sequel, Astro Aqua Kitty, is coming to Xbox. Already available on Switch, Playstation and Steam for over a year, this second entry in the series expands on its predecessor in every way. The small Defender style wrap-around levels of the original are gone, and in their place is a series of huge water filled caverns, linked together with branching corridors, where you can travel in any direction as you explore the 2D levels. There's side missions and secrets to discover, weapons and equipment to upgrade, blocked areas to find a way into, as well as different powers to unlock for your chosen pilot and engineer. Basically it's the previous game on steroids, fleshed out and grander, with an expanded world filled with nooks and crannies to explore.
Our story is rather thin, but humourous, and takes us on from the first game. Having exhausted the milk supplies of their home, the felines have taken to space to find more. Coming across a series of floating water filled asteroids, they quickly expand into them and begin the difficult job of mining for resources. Barely explored, and filled with dangerous biomechanical sea life, it's your job to pilot a ship though the caverns and tunnels of each location, helping where you can and ensuring that the milk keeps flowing!
But before you can head out to do that, you'll have to pick a crew. A pilot and an engineer are required and there are 4 of each type to choose from. Each has their own stats, some have more health but less speed, or more shields but less energy, or whatever but what really differentiates them from one and other is their ability set. Each of the 8 crew members have 4 skills they can learn through the game, with each ability ranging wildly in its uses and effects. Dropping turrets, creating holographic decoys, deploying toxic bubbles and many more are all available so picking a good duo of crew is a major choice in the beginning. You're also locked into it for the duration of the game, you can't change members later on, so pick ones you like because you'll need to start a new game to try a different combination. After this choice, there's a difficulty select and an option to enable permadeath, before we blast off to start the game proper.
Now I already said that the level design has been expanded from the first game, it's still a 2D sidescrolling SHMUP but, instead of the wrap around levels from Aqua, we now have large sprawling caverns where your little ship can move in any direction it wishes. Wide open caves are joined together with tunnels and paths, with save area checkpoints scattered throughout. You can freely explore as you see fit but eventually you'll find your path blocked by some sort of obstacle. This results in you beginning a search for a way to get past this blockage, sometimes you'll need a hacker to unlock a sealed door. Other times you'll need to locate stolen energy cells to power up the mechanical doors, or an engineer to cut through fallen wreckage. Occasionally though, a bigger undertaking is needed and you'll need to do something grander like locating driller pilots and protecting them as they mine a new path through the solid rock or harvest plants to create enough batteries to power the lab doors. There's enough variety to keep things interesting and even though they mostly fall into the "find X to get past Y" category, the style and reasons are different enough to stop it feeling repetitive. Exploring the blank corners of the map is rewarded too and you'll feel drawn to search each area thoroughly. There's always something to do or find with optional side quests to fulfill, secret chests with weapons and equipment inside to find and also some mild puzzles to solve. It gives each level a large feeling but things never get too overwhelming and you never feel lost.
And of course, this is a SHMUP, so things wouldn't be complete without something to shoot at and also something that shoots back.
Like in other areas, combat will be instantly recognisable to those familiar with Aqua Kitty in that you have the same dual weapon style it uses. At any time you can have a "main" weapon and "secondary" weapon equipped, each controlled by different buttons. You begin with the standard in many shooters like this, the weak "pew pew" Lazer cannon but it isn't long till you amass quite the arsenal. Bought from shops, found in treasure chests or looted from the occasional enemy, armour piercing laser beams, shotgun type plasma launchers, rail guns, homing missiles and more can be slotted onto your craft but all work on the same principle. They all require energy to fire. Depicted by a blue bar located just below your health, each shot you make will drain it with an amount depending on the power of the weapon you're using. Weaker weapons take a tiny amount, while more damaging ones can totally drain the bar in a few shots, leaving you helpless till it slowly recharges. This set up gives some tactical choice to your weapon selection, do you go for weak weapons that you can spam all over the place or use more damaging ones that require careful aiming? Do you have one of each and use them in different situations or do you carry many weapons to swap in and out for every situation? Whatever choice you make, there's equipment that can back you up and you can have 4 active at anytime. Just like weapons though, there's many to find and all have a different effect. It gives the proceedings a light RPG feel as you compare pieces of equipment to see which has the best effect and bonus stats. They even have levels similar to loot in a game like Diablo, requiring you to collect enough experience to reach a high enough to equip it.
And there's only one way to get experience.
The levels are packed with swarms of biomechanical aquatic creatures, all well designed and portrayed with beautiful detailed sprite work. Nautiloids, tank like crabs, razor toothed piranha, spiky fined angel fish and a million others make an appearance through the game and each has, as you'd imagine, it's own unique attacks. They also range in size from tiny intricate sprites to huge bosses that take up much of the screen and are a major highlight to battle with. As you progress, more types of enemies, in bigger swarms begin to appear and some interesting combinations start to show up. Attacks begin to compliment each other, upping the difficulty and requiring quicker reactions, and better weapons, to deal with them. Overall combat is satisfying as can be, dodging attacks while judging if you're close enough to hit the opponent, and managing your health and energy is at first simple enough but by mid game (especially on high difficulty) you'll be experiencing a decent challenge.
Lastly, I'd like to bring up something you'll probably notice really early on in your playthrough. The sprite work. It is GORGEOUS and rather detailed, even on the many tiny sprites used all over. The tiny cats, in their little spacesuits and different equipment are charming. The bases they've built have little features that really adds to the world building and you can see details of interest in every little area. The rock like walls of the caverns too, while basic are used to great effect with the caves feeling expansive or cramped as needed. They even use light to great effect with darkness increasing the deeper into the asteroids you go, only for things to brighten when the neon like glow of enemies make an appearance. These too are SO well done with each creature, even the small ones, being instantly recognisable as a mecha version of its real life counterpart. The larger creatures, like the tank like crabs or giant pirate controlled machine bosses, are a joy to watch and filled with features that I found myself stopping just to look at.
Ultimately, for fans of the original, buying this sequel should be a no brainer. Hell, for SHMUP fans in general it's a very good purchase and should provide a lot of fun for its low price. Beautiful sprite work is combined with plenty of weapons, an upgrading RPG style loot system and large open levels to create a game that builds on its predecessor in every way. The energy system for weapons requires you to think instead of constantly firing and the enemies work together to great effect. Boss fights are big and showy too, with the game containing all the ingredients to be a worthy addition to any scrolling shooter fans collection. Different pilots and engineers to pick from gives replayabilty, as does seeking out all the secrets in each level, granting more for that low pick-up price. One I'd definitely recommend to anyone looking for a fun little shooter!
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review
Final Score: 8/10
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