I didn’t expect one of the most challenging games I’ve played all year to be so gosh-darned cute, but that was the case when I played Vertex Pop’s Graceful Explosion Machine (GEM). The brightly colored side-scrolling shooter made some waves when it released on Nintendo Switch earlier this year, so I was familiar with the game on a base level before I started. After just a few levels I realized that GEM wasn’t like much of the genre, and it offered up some pretty refreshing tweaks to the formula.
The biggest change is that the side-scrolling environment loops around. This means instead of piloting through a level and dealing with strategically placed enemies, I was tasked with eliminating all of the on-screen foes that would randomly teleport into the stage. It took me sometime to get used to, especially using a button in order to flip the direction that the spaceship was headed in, but eventually I was pulling off some nifty evasions to keep my ship in one piece.
I eventually found that staying on the move was a good strategy, as it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the dozens of enemies that are on-screen at any given time. There are some ways to deal with sticky situations, though, as my ship was equipped with three bonus weapons on top of a speed burst that helped get me away from an area quickly. There’s a helpful missile attack that takes care of a few enemies at once, a sword that circles around the ship, and a laser-beam that can do massive damage to one target if the shot is lined up correctly.
There are drawbacks to using these special weapons. They each take up a decent chunk of energy to use, and that can only be regained by eliminating foes. There’s a catch, though, as players have to quickly pick up the energy before it disappears, and it turns every level into trying to balance the risks and reward of each opportunity.
These quick decisions determine whether or not a player will succeed or fail. Ships can only take three hits before they die during GEM‘s three-part levels, so every single hit drastically decreases the chances at a successful run. It is possible to earn extra health, but these opportunities are few and far between.
Attempting to find that right balance throughout GEM‘s several worlds is a satisfying challenge, but there were a few levels where I ended up being more frustrated than entertained. I eventually got over it, but the lack of difficulty settings means that I was facing off against a steady challenge from start to finish. There’s never any real down moments, as this is very much in the arcade mold of constantly throwing more at the player.
Graceful Explosion Machine PS4 Review - PSLS
There are some reasons to return to Graceful Explosion Machine after players finish its four worlds. The main one being the game’s scoring system. It was rare that I finished a level with higher than a B rating, so it’ll take some real determination to get respectable scores on all of the levels. There are also leaderboards, but since I didn’t have many friends playing the game at the time of review, I didn’t really get into that sort of bragging-based competition.
While I don’t see myself going for any high scores anytime soon, I did enjoy the challenge levels that unlock after finishing a world. These give the player a single life and challenge them to last as long as they can. It’s a true test for skill, and while I’m relatively certain I’ll never lose hours of my life to it like I did with Geometry Wars, I had a good time with it.
There are a lot of great ideas found within Graceful Explosion Machine, and I can’t wait to see how they’re build upon in future games. I never got the itch to better my scores after completing a level (some sort of unlockable structure would’ve helped), but I found myself enjoying the challenge that Vertex Pop had on offer more often than not. Occasionally it veers into being more frustrating than fun, but the joy of finally beating a level you failed several times before is worth those bouts of annoyance.
Graceful Explosion Machine PS4 review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.