Steam is lousy with shmups. Shoot-em-ups. Bullet hells. Call them what you will. Most are as forgettable as any other. Unless they’re made by Cave, a developer that puts some kind of magic pixie shmup dust in their games. Otherwise, if you’ve seen one shmup, you’ve seen them all.
But I keep coming back to Caladrius Blaze.
It doesn’t have the visual character and charm of my Cave favorites, Bug Princess or Deathsmiles. But it does have a weird (i.e. Japanese) conceit of characters getting their clothes torn off as they take damage. During boss fights, certain thresholds of torn clothing are called “shame breaks”. Did I mention many of the characters are buxom anime chicks? Did I even need to? This is definitely the shmup for Anita Sarkeesian to use if she wants to make a video decrying the representation of women in Japanese bullet hells.
The gameplay appeal of Caladrius Blaze is its variety and progression within each match. Plenty of shmups let you choose different ships when you start playing (this one even lets you change ships before each level). But the choosing isn’t done when you pick your ship in Caladrius Blaze. The eight different ships, each piloted by a different character with shoddily tailored couture, each have three different powers. Each power has its own replenishing fuel cell, which encourages you to use them all. This isn’t just a “hold down the fire button” shmup. It’s a “hold down the first button and decide when to use your three powers” shmup. And between each level, you decide which powers to upgrade, which is partly a matter of managing your score multiplier. Your ship changes as you go. It’s like a character build. It’s not too intricate, but it creates decisions where most shmups tell you to just hit A to continue.
Graphically, it’s what you’d expect. Lots of stuff onscreen, medium res only, typically space shippy aesthetics, but who cares since the point is to tune it out and navigate the bullets and pick-ups. It’s as if the possibility of emerging sideboob — there is no actual nudity in Caladrius Blaze — is giggling coyly off to the side of the screen where you can’t see it because you’re playing a shmup where your eyes are locked into the negative space between the bullets. The titillating clothes ripping is literally peripheral. The middle part that matters is a shmup with considerable variety and meaningful choices as the game progresses.