Review: Isbarah

Isbarah nearly broke me. For hours I would glare through clenched teeth at the failure screen, after a swarm of glowing energy blasts rushed toward me from every side. It was maddening, a constant test of both my reflexes and my sanity. But I didn’t quit. I kept going, and after repeated defeats, the final attack connected and the enemy was down. This feeling of victory was immeasurable and it’s the perfect representation of my experience with Isbarah. It’s ungodly difficult, but never impossible. A bullet-hell platformer with style to burn, Isbarah will drive you insane with its neverending challenge, but thanks to some fluid and inventive mechanics, it’s a challenge worth enduring every step of the way.

Isbarah follows the young goddess Iria, daughter of the God of the universe. In a dimension where dreams can become reality, Iria learns of the Designed, manifested beings created by the dreams of humans. She also learns of the Designless, creatures who are unable to evolve beyond mere conception. When things get rough with the Designless, Iria must step in to stop them. However, the Designless’ restlessness isn’t without justification, as Iria learns that her father’s desire for order might be a bit too heavy-handed to evade corruption entirely. The story is relatively fascinating, as Iria is a great heroine, driven by righteousness, but also susceptible to change over time. The other characters have personality as well, so the world of Isbarah has plenty of style. I’m eager to see Iria more in the future.

Isbarah mixes platforming with the sensibilities of “bullet hell” games, specifically shooters like Ikaruga and the Touhou Project. Iria’s main abilities allow her to move and jump (with the ASD and space keys respectively), along with a fast dash that can be chained (with the right mouse button). Players can also draw barriers with the left mouse button, which not only allow for extra platforms, but can block incoming projectiles for a short time. Finally, Iria can slow down time, executed with the left Shift key. This gives players some extra leeway to dodge past projectiles or create a barrier just in time. The use of the mouse cursor is especially helpful, giving players tremendous precision in where you dash or draw a platform. While platforming with a mouse sounds like a recipe for disaster, Isbarah simply wouldn’t work any other way.

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That level of precision is absolutely essential with Isbarah. This is a bullet hell game through and through, and it’s a beast. Every stage is a duel against some kind of monster or enemy, requiring you to activate railguns to attack them. You must stay within the railgun’s radius to charge it, and if you activate all of the railguns, you have a single-screen standoff against the enemy. This segment is where the bullet hell sensibilities show their faces the clearest, as you need to avoid projectiles for a set period of time while staying in a contained area. Attack the enemy enough times and claim victory.

I won’t sugarcoat it: Isbarah is one of the most challenging games I’ve ever played. In tight tradition with bullet hell shooters like Ikaruga, your screen will nearly always be flooded with projectiles. While you have health that can be recovered by attacking enemies, along with continues, this is an absolute monster of a game. Every single stage is an endurance, even on the lowest difficulty, and you’ll need every reflex to be sharp as diamond to conquer even the early challenges. But the precision of the abilities moves the game away from being outright cheap. Threading the needle with a well-timed dash between a stream of fireballs is exhilarating, and despite the challenge, you still feel well-equipped enough to tackle the difficulty. It’s challenging, brutal even, but defeating a boss is undeniably rewarding.

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Sadly, the pitfalls of the bullet hell genre do rear their ugly heads. The difficulty isn’t the problem, though; it’s the dependence on memorization. Analyzing attack patterns can become tedious. Even with the more open-ended dodging maneuvers, you’re forced to wait to understand an enemy’s moves, which near-prevents victory on the first go. Isbarah practically requires you to play a stage a few times to have even a chance at victory, and while that’s true to the bullet hell tradition, it can make the game drag on in unappealing ways.

But Isbarah still has a lot of content packed in. Your score determines your ranking after each fight, but you’ll need to be on-the-mark at every opportunity to get the coveted 7/7 ranking. The other difficulties are almost inhumane in their challenge, but for a bullet hell game, that’s to be expected. It’s rich with complexity, always dishing out the rewarding vigor once you lay down the finishing blow against a boss that tormented you for hours. While the main story is a little sparse, your play time will be extended with extra challenges unlocked after each victory. Isbarah might have an entry point higher than Everest, but the amount of content you’ll find after mastering the mechanics will keep you on board for a good, long while.

The presentation is a bit hit-or-miss. Cutscenes are presented in a comic book style, with little animation and a few sloppy visual effects. The character models are quite well done, though, expressive and stylized at every turn. In-game, things improve significantly. Isbarah runs at a strong clip, an absolute must in the heat of a seemingly endless barrage of energy blasts. The visual effects are kicked up a notch during the climactic final stages of each attack, as the projectiles flood in like crazy, each with varying positions and patterns. The animations of the characters in-game do give off a stiffer aesthetic, but they don’t impede upon gameplay, especially when your hitbox (or “collision circle”) is clearly visible, making dodging blasts more manageable. This is all topped off with a killer metal soundtrack. Thrash mixed with power metal, Isbarah’s soundtrack is comparable to the guitar licks heard in Guilty Gear. It has some deficiencies, but Isbarah’s presentation is very appealing.

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Closing Comments:

Isbarah is an assault on your confidence, but it’s also an inventive and stylized spin on the bullet hell formula. While the bosses will kick your butt repeatedly, the fantastically fluid mechanics of dodging and creating barriers never feel undercooked. Despite an intimidating difficulty, you always feel well-equipped. But the focus on memorizing patterns makes the platforming feel more limited than it should, adding a bit of tedium to an otherwise free-form experience. The presentation is generally slick and energized, giving flair to the grizzly challenge. Isbarah’s content is also comprehensive and rich, so bullet hell fanatics will find a ton to love. I can’t say this enough: Isbarah is hard, but it’s not cheap. You will fall down over and over, but you’ll always have enough energy to get back up again until that climatic final blow is struck. If you can take the heat of its difficulty, Isbarah is a unique twist on bullet hell shooters, one that turns repeated defeat into a captivating and surprisingly fun experience.