Ever since finally getting my hands on a PC Engine Duo (or, as it was known in the US, the TurboDuo), I’ve been on a bit of a shmup kick. The system is known for its absolute glut of space shooters, after all, so why not dive in and see what it actually had to offer?
After playing bullet hells on and off for god knows how long, it’s kind of nice to go back to simpler retro shmups. Sure, they’re often just as difficult (if not more so), but there’s something just a bit more…relaxing…about fighting enemy waves with precise bullets vs weaving through walls of shiny projectiles.
Although I’ve been spending months diving into the PC Engine library, the game that found its way into my hands today is originally from a completely different system: the Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you will). A title that never released in the West on its original hardware, making its US debut via the Wii Virtual Console, and now receiving a new port to all three modern consoles.
Developed by Masaya Games and published by Ratalaika Games, Gleylancer was released on October 15th, 2021, for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. The PS4 version was played for this review, via PS5 backward compatibility.
In the year 2025, humans have gone to war against an alien race. We follow Lucia, a young fighter pilot in this war. Her father was recently captured by the aliens, and Lucia is desperate to save him. So desperate, in fact, that she goes against all orders from her superiors and steals a prototype space ship, the “Gleylancer,” to go find him.
Shmups aren’t know for their stories, and the ones that actually attempt plots often end up either forgettable or laughable. Gleylancer‘s story isn’t going to win any awards (far from it, really), but I can at least commend the developers for trying here. It’s basic, bordering on cliché, but what is here actually provides a bit of character development for the (small) cast and some emotional-ish moments.
Basically, the cutscenes are worth watching, but don’t expect anything deep.
But if you’re a shmup fan, you’re likely not here for the story. It’s all about the gameplay, and what mechanics make it stand out from the absolute glut of similar games coming out in the early 90s.
At its core, Gleylancer is a fairly standard side-scrolling shmup. You auto-scroll through eleven levels, dodging enemies and bullets, and laying down enough return fire to destroy everything in your path. Oh, and this is one of those “one-hit kill” kind of retro games, so make sure you’re keeping track of the bullets coming your way, or you’re going back to a checkpoint. Also don’t touch the walls, those are one-hit kills too.
The spin Gleylancer puts on the formula is in the form of the options floating around your ship. Throughout levels, you can pick up different weapons that become options, with the ability to hold two of them. While your main ship can only fire straight forward, these options can fire in eight directions, letting you cover all your angles. And the enemies will come from every angle.
Before the game starts, you have the choice on how these options will work. You can have them move in the same or opposite direction of your ship, fire in sweeping arcs above and below you, or even put them in a rudimentary auto-target mode (which the game warns doesn’t always work 100%). Depending on the settings you select pre-game, you can also change between these modes in the middle of a level.
I opted for the “opposite direction” setting for most of my playthroughs, which made controlling the options feel like playing Rolling Gunner. In this mode (and most others), one of your controller buttons allows you to lock the direction of your options in place while you’re holding it down, rather than having them constantly rolling with your movement. In practice, I ended up holding down the lock button the majority of the time, only lifting it real quick when I needed to reposition the options.
Between that and the constant need to hold the fire button, I played through the entire game with my thumb flat on the face buttons the full time…not a very comfortable position, really. This remake has a number of quality of life options, so I would have appreciated something that made the lock button work in the opposite way – have the options locked by default, and press the button to unlock and reposition them.
Speaking of quality of life options, this port contains a few that are becoming common in modern retro ports. Namely, save states and a rewind function. This is the part where I admit that I abused the hell out of the rewind function to complete a run of this game. Hey, I enjoy shmups, but I never said I was good at them.
Unless you’re playing as a purist, you’ll probably enjoy having access to a rewind button too, as Gleylancer wears its classic retro difficulty on its sleeve…after the first few stages. As mentioned, this is a one-hit kill game, so one wrong move is going to cost you progress. However, the checkpoint system here is relatively generous; they aren’t marked for you in game, but each stage has multiple checkpoints, so you won’t have to worry about losing too much progress (unless you get a full game over).
There’s also the fact that I made it to stage four without getting a game over. On my first playthrough. And this was before I was aware there was a rewind function. That’s a third of the way through the game, something I’ve never done in another shmup.
And that’s when the game realized I was having too easy of a time and immediately kicked my ass on the stage four boss.
The difficulty here can be…inconsistent. I flew through the first four stages, got crushed at said stage four boss, had to start relying on the rewind function through the middle of the game, before a sudden difficulty drop around stage 9 or 10 and then a respike at the final boss. Hell, I cleared two-thirds of the bosses without taking a hit, let alone using the rewind function. And I’m not trying to brag here – I’ve already admitted I’m not exactly great at this genre.
Despite the inconsistency, though, I was having a good time playing through the game. If anything, having the first few stages be relatively easy drew me into the game more, since they let me get hooked and learn how the game worked before it decided to start curb-stomping me.
More Than Grey
Being a retro space shooter originating from a 16-bit console, one can predict what it’s going to look like. Lots of black backgrounds with some stars or planets on occasion. Maybe flying through some kind of factory. Lots of small not-super-detailed ships as cannon fodder, with some impressive-looking boss designs here and there.
Gleylancer hits all the expectations when it comes to appearance and then some. There’s a welcome variety to the environments you’ll be navigating through, ranging from the typical void of space to mechanical facilities and one stage that has you flying along a stunning sunset. If anything, the first half of the first stage of the game is the worst design you’ll see. The background is a very busy asteroid field, which makes spotting bullets incredibly difficult.
I’m also a sucker for 90s anime character design, so I personally loved the cutscenes.
This port also comes with the expected customization options for presentation, as well. A few choices of background image, some screen size and pixel format options, and (of course) a CRT shader to emulate those classic scan lines. I’ve never been one for messing with presentation options much, but there’s enough here to tweak the game a bit for modern sensibilities.
Musically, Gleylancer is one of those situations where the soundtrack went in one ear and right out the other for me. There wasn’t much remarkable about the score here, and none of it stuck with me. It’s inoffensive, but not really notable.
Simple Will Suffice
Overall, Gleylancer isn’t some kind of boundary pushing or standard setting entry in the shmup genre. And it doesn’t have to be. What it does, it does well. The difficulty curve is a bit wonky, but even at its hardest it never feels impossible. Putting the options to use was a ton of fun, even if my method of using them ended up a bit…uncomfortable for my thumb.
At its budget price ($6.99 at the time of writing), this game is an absolute no-brainer for shmup fans. I would argue that it’s a great option for genre newcomers as well, with its relatively easy opening levels before the difficulty really ramps up. As I continue my exploration of retro shmups, I’m glad this one fell into my hands.
Review copy provided by Ratalaika Games for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.