First Look

Unlike what I’ve reviewed so far on this blog, Ether Vapor is its own unique doujin game that isn’t inspired by one particular game that I can notice or recall. It was developed by Edelweiss in 2007 for the Windows PC and received a remastered (and english) version in 2011 from Nyu Media that was placed one at least three different sites for purchase. The game is a mostly focused on looking good rather than playing well, which is very much shown in its “2.75D” perspective that shifts constantly — much to the annoyance of myself. Despite that, it remains entertaining to a degree and definitely full of action.

One can purchase Ether Vapor Remaster from its home website ethervapor.com, from Desura, or from Steam; all for merely $7.99. Honestly, I think it’s at least somewhat worth it. If you don’t, it should be fairly easy to find a free download.

Now, let’s begin.

Graphics/UI

By no measure is Ether Vapor an exceptional game as far as the graphics go, with much of the game consisting of some very generic designs for both enemies and backgrounds. Particularly, the backgrounds are the main offender. However, there are some very obvious exceptions to this. Such exceptions are: the Scene (stage) 4 boss that looks like a massive, mechanical amalgamation of a beetle, spider, crab, and person; the majority of Scene 4’s canyon, its mini-boss carrier ship, Scene 6’s entire background of spiralling into the boss’ lair in a Tron-esque tube, the Scene 6 boss itself, and the final boss battle as a whole.

The design of the game’s enemies and NPCs mostly reminds me more of Gundam than anything else, even being completed with a Japanese-style portrait and costume for the human characters. It’s a very simplistic sci-fi look that those who aren’t fans of realistic or “hard” sci-fi art will probably be relieved to see. Especially true since the gritty sci-fi style can get very stale and hard to look at considering the sheer amount of SHMUPS that use it. Thankfully, Ether Vapor has the good conscious to make the game mostly colorful in the same way that The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was to its previous-generation counterpart.

Now although the colors and general design are easy to look at, it gets pretty badly ruined by the bullets. They are very easily the weakest part, as they will often appear so tiny as to be nearly invisible and can blend in with the background easily enough to make you wonder what you just got hit by. Most bullets are pink, blue, green, and red of which 2 are frequently appearing background colors or closer. Combine this with how quickly they move and you have some extremely frustrating and even headache-inducing bullets both gameplay-wise and graphics-wise.

Now, I said that the game seems to resemble Gundam’s graphical design — this rings truer when you realize that 3 of the 7 bosses are mechs of a similar style. Funnily, they are all piloted by people who also look like they’d belong in that series. Well, both; one character pilots two different mechs on different levels. As for the character designs themselves, they’re okay I guess. There’s really not much that’s notable about any of them besides the black cyborg who happens to be a secondary character. Not that there are many in the first place. The reason he stands out? Literally no reason other than his robotic eye and skin color, where no other characters have either. He’s simply uniquely designed even if it doesn’t make him any more compelling. The uniforms most characters wear are either military uniforms or borderline plugsuits, which both could have been much better.

Enough of the bland character designs, however. The remaining enemy designs are mostly just some slightly impressive-looking ship designs that were obviously the passion of the artist for this piece. Each ship with a different firing pattern will have its own design, so they are mainly made around their shots rather than for the sake of variety, which I like. It ends up letting the stages flow quite organically without seeming tedious for the most part. I couldn’t find many discrepancies with the enemy designs overall, and each is easily identifiable instead of just slightly modified from the others with few exceptions. I simply wish that there was more color in the enemies, as most are simply steel-colored or reddish.

Now for the backgrounds: they are incredibly bland. I mean, it may make them easier to look at, but the majority are bland with the biggest offender being the first stage that is literally just the sky. It generally becomes less bland with each Scene, but one stage in particular was hard to look at because the player ship was so close to the ground that the fast-moving buildings of the city it takes place in could give an epileptic a seizure. They ended up giving me a headache from trying to distinguish the fly-by buildings from the bullets, causing multiple hits. It makes me almost wish that there were a no-background option. This same thing happens in Scene 5, but to a lesser extent due to the darkness and mostly similar colors compared to the bright blue/yellow contrasting the steel grey and grass green of the City scene. The heavily movement-based backgrounds simply don’t work very well with the fast, tiny bullet graphics that this game uses. The least bland stage is Scene 6, rivaled by 7’s final moments in space.

Now, I would take this as a massive negative to the game, but thankfully one thing saves it: the perspectives. The 2.75D perspective shifts mix up the backgrounds and overall display of the game so that none of it gets too stale. Particularly, Scenes 1, 4, 6, and 7 benefit greatly from this. Scene 6 can get somewhat confusing with these, but it gave me a slight flashback to Hellsinker’s trippy dark sci-fi setting. Given that I love Hellsinker so much, it stands to reason that I’d like it. Unfortunately, the perspective changes can also greatly detriment the style, but that’s more for gameplay. The most impressive parts where the perspective shifts is during the missile dodging scenes where the ship auto-dodges huge barrages of missiles and you get to target and destroy them with lock-ons. These scenes only appear about twice, but are very enjoyable and not overused. The most the shift is used is probably in Scene 4 during the Carrier Ship segment. Lock-ons and perspective changes happen frequently as you circle around and bombard the ship from all sides until you finally go into the incredibly clumsy back-to-front view to finish its engines off. Luckily, that last part is less frustrating since just moving in a circle around the edges of the screen will allow you to go unscathed. The game mostly introduces the perspective changes gradually, giving a top-down for most of stage 1 and left-right for stage 2, then switching between the two in stage 3 before going batshit in stage 4+. It also attempts to use back-forward and diagonal views, but I found these to be painful to play through if otherwise cinematic.

Finally, the UI is nothing to really brag about. It’s very minimalistic with there only really being a score counter in the top left, the shield (life) counter in the bottom left, a weapon selector in that corner, and the charge bar above that. Otherwise, the rest of the screen is just the game. I quite like this, but I would still prefer if they incorporated these into the player’s model so that you don’t have to take your eyes off of it so often. Luckily, sound cues are helpful to avoid distracting the player. You can generally play without looking at the UI very often, so one should not worry about it at all. It’s not invasive and portrays everything you’ll need to play, so it ends up being a very good UI for this particular type of game.

So the graphical fidelity of Ether Vapor isn’t particularly noteworthy (which is bad for “cinematic games”), but it’s at least average. Very hit-and-miss, with some major screw-ups that offset all the good little things. If I had to give a numerical score, I’d say a solid and even 50/100. If it had larger, more visible bullets, more detailed or at least beautiful backgrounds, and less headache-inducing top-down scrolling, I would be much happier. There should also be less or at least more well-done experimental camera angles to keep me from suddenly dying. I definitely enjoyed how the missile segments looked, and they definitely bump the overall experience up to make up for all of the problems.

 

Plot

Ether Vapor’s plot is nothing special; it’s your basic “AI has gone wild, go blow it up” plot. The premise of the game is basically that the nation of Caldera has this super-intelligent AI named ADVISOR that makes all of their military strategy decisions, but it went haywire and gained a consciousness. This would be a good thing if it had a merciful consciousness, but ADVISOR is only concerned with crushing everything in Caldera’s path. Thus, a resistance formed between the remaining nations that aren’t Caldera that tried to beat them up and destroy ADVISOR. They failed miserably. Then you come in. As the titular Sci-fi Shonen Male Protagonist, it’s your job to save everybody’s asses with your overpowered tiny gunship that is little more than a glass cannon fighter. Spoilers beyond this point, by the way.

As the laws of SHMUPs dictates, your tiny ship is able to take down giant ships with the mere power of uncanny dodging, despite the fact that a sufficiently advanced nation with the largest aerial military in the world should have weapons capable of homing and god forbid lightspeed lasers. I’m being facetious, but the military might of Caldera just seems really underplayed. Not to mention that the supposedly powerful tech they have is actually just a series of moderately threatening flying tanks surrounded by flying cannon fodder that happens to be surprisingly deadly. More on that in the gameplay section.

Just as well, we’ve definitely got to have that female love interest who you initially are critical of since she’s a foreigner, trust her anyways, and get to the end with before she betrays you. Well Mr. Shonen Protagonist isn’t having any of that, so he beats up her ship and tells her to stop fighting, accomplishing literally nothing besides a minor distraction from the goal. It’s not even that surprising, you could see the twist coming the moment you meet the wench! Really, could you be any less creative? Sure it works, but it didn’t really accomplish anything. I could have gone through the entire game without her and be happier, honestly. The only time she’s actually pretty useful is on the stage 4 boss, which is counteracted in stage 6 when she betrays you. I know it makes sense, but it’s also a major pain to actually work with since she’s significantly harder than every boss before. She’s not even the main boss of the stage, just the phase before the real boss! Then to top off all that bullshit, she comes back to the protagonist in the end and the two engage in a wholly unnecessary and forced romance that doesn’t matter at all and only serves to detract from my enjoyment. You know, maybe I would have been more content with crashing into the ocean and starving to death.

The other characters aren’t much better; they’re hardly even characters. There’s one black cyborg guy who you meet twice, then he follows you in the final stage only to be immediately shot down by the unnecessary female love interest. At the end of that, he then sacrifices himself to destroy ADVISOR. Both of our protagonists acknowledge that it is entirely their fault. The male’s for not destroying the girl’s ship sooner and the girl for doing the betraying. Other than that, he just ends up being related to Mr. Shonen Protagonist because he was business partners with his dad or something and helped build the ship you’re currently piloting. All well and good, but maybe it’d be better if he had maybe had this epiphany when you fought him in stage 2? Just a thought. You may have noticed that I’m not using character names. That’s because they don’t matter and aren’t memorable. There are also so few of them that I can identify each one by their role. For example: Arbitrary Loli. That’s a character, and she only appears for one boss and then dies. I don’t even know why they included her or why she had to be a literal child. The only purpose she served was to set up some blatant foreshadowing that revealed that some machines can be directly hooked up to a user’s brain and its destruction kills them. Her mech is the only one that does this, though Mr. Shonen Protagonist’s is implied to. It could be called a Chekhov’s Gun, but that is completely blown out of the water when the guy blatantly states that maybe his ship is the same way! I mean you could have at least made him think this later when his ship activated its asspull mechanism and went into Overdrive.

So the characters are bland, 2-Dimensional, and frankly shit. What else? Aside from everything have deliciously little plot significance and not being deep or unique enough to pull me into the world, it has a massive asspull at the end. Granted, it does have a Chekhov’s Gunship for a final boss, but the way you fight it is pretty unnecessary. Basically, the first boss named APITEX teleports away after you beat it, and is then revealed at the end of the game to actually be ADVISOR’S new and improved battle form. You attempt to blow the damn thing up, but your weapons prove futile. You can tell from the size of the health bar and how much damage you do that our protagonist is likely to go Super Saiyan in this fight. He does, and there is absolutely no foreshadowing whatsoever for it besides that one trope. Even he points this out by saying, “Nobody told me that [Ship Name]” had an overdrive mode!

That’s correct, Mr. Shonen Protagonist, nobody ever even alluded to that. Honestly, does every damn shonen-style plot need this? No, the fight could have gone perfectly well without it. The only reason for it is to artificially make the fight seem more suspenseful, allow the love interest to rescue the protagonist after he crashes, and to give an extra unlockable. I won’t disagree that it’s aesthetically cool, but that doesn’t make up for the asspulling. I mean, you could have at least mentioned this to us beforehand, game!

So it’s bad. It’s really bad. It’s actually very rare that I find a game which would benefit from ditching its plot. And this isn’t even a case of just some poor decisions that make it bad. This is a case of under-par execution coupled with an incredibly boring, average premise with progression that is so painfully cliched that it makes me thank god for the skip button existing. The progression here is literally detrimental to the rest of the game. And what’s worse is that the entire thing is fundamentally flawed! It set itself up for failure just by having this plot and setting coinciding. I’ve honestly just about had it with games having throw-away plots that they don’t need in the first place. I’m glad Remastered mode exists to automatically skip the cutscenes, but it doesn’t really fix the actual problem. Crimzon Clover didn’t have a readily apparent plot and it was a fantastic game! Hellsinker was a master at the whole idea. Akashicverse literally canonically doesn’t even have a plot yet but it remains my second-favorite SHMUP of all time. I should probably stop ranting about how awful this all is, so if I had to give it a numerical score, it would be 30/100. At least if it didn’t have one I’d be forced to give it a 50.

 

Gameplay

The biggest part of most games is Gameplay, especially so for SHMUPs who are mostly gameplay experiments. The main goal of most of them is to just test out a new way of doing things, which I’ve always loved about it. Ether Vapor is the same way, which I do love. Its main mechanic is the ability to switch between 3 different weapons: A straight-fire minigun, a splay-fire dual machine gun, and lock-on missiles. The first is pretty straightforward: press Z for high damage, narrow range, rapid fire. If you hold down fire to charge, it turns into an armor-piercing ball of energy. The second (X key) is more complex: the two guns fire at an angle within two blue cones that appear on both sides of your ship. The angle can be changed by holding down V and moving, but I didn’t find much of a use for it. I usually just used the lock-ons for opponents out of range. This attack does about the same damage as the minigun, but it has a wider range and is thus very good for stages. Its charge is also the most useful: a shield. That lasts for about a second. The third weapon is your lock-on missiles (with C) which are very cool and decently strong but ultimately fall flat on anything but out-of-range bosses because they take little over half a second to start firing. Despite being a barrage of missiles, they can only target one enemy at a time, making them really bad at stages. They don’t have a charged shot. You’ll often find yourself using all three weapons equally, so they did a good job balancing them. I just can’t help but think that they’re a little bland. There weren’t many opportunities to actually use the second weapon’s angle changing and missiles were disappointingly un-flashy.

There’s also two unlockable ships Mr. Shonen Protagonist can pilot: the Overdrive Ship you get by beating the game once is completely pointless and gives you absolutely no benefit whatsoever besides looking slightly cooler. You’d think it would give you higher damage output, but no. It kind of just shoots lasers instead of bullets. It also obstructs the screen more. Not much to say about it. You get the last one by beating Boss Rush mode, which you get for beating the game. It actually has something quite interesting about it! Ship B’s weapons are: slow-moving forward missiles, spinning barrier options, and faster missiles.

The slow-moving missiles for Ship B’s primary weapon are actually fairly good, but usually can only match Ship A’s damage output. Their charge shot makes the missiles combine and move a lot faster, creating a much larger and more damaging explosion. Oh yeah, and the explosions stay on screen for a moment. It fills in both a boss-fighting and stage-clearing role very well. The spinning options weapon makes your missile options spin around you and create a damaging barrier that can block shots and hurt anything they touch. Charging them makes them spin faster, do more damage, and make you half-invulnerable for a second or two. Think of the orbitals from The Binding of Isaac. The third weapon is just the missiles again, but this time they fire and reach their target a lot faster. They’re just straight up better than Ship A’s and are your main weapon for damaging bosses quickly.

Now one thing that plagues all of these ships and the game as a whole is hitboxes. Let me tell you just how awful they are. So everything in this game uses purely circular hitboxes. Thus, I will call them hitcircles from here on out. The ships all have utterly huge hitcircles that encompass the visible cockpit and then some. I think it’s mostly unnecessary and makes squeezing through fire virtually impossible. It also doesn’t help that there’s no way to see the hitcircle outside of enabling them in the options menu. If you do that, you then start to see why you’ve been getting hit by nothing so much. You see, in addition to the large player hitcircle, the enemies all have their own that can hurt the player. That’s right, this game has collision damage! Not a smart idea for a game that is 3D and constantly shifting the perspective to make sure you can’t perceive depth correctly. It’s also a major pain that enemies have a nasty tendency to attempt to fly into you from your blind spots where you can’t destroy them beforehand! You may think “Just use missiles!” but no. The missiles’ lock on is completely broken and almost never hits what you want it to. This means that most of the hits you take are not going to be from bullets, but from enemy collisions.

That brings me to bullets. While some bullets are good and have accurate hitcircles, others are very oblong and suffer from what I call Caterpillar Syndrome. This is where a projectile in a game that uses geometric hitboxes that is long has to have multiple lined-up geometric shapes to represent its threat instead of a single polygon. In Ether Vapor’s case, the oblong bullets have many tiny hitcircles along its length. All the way down. The hitcircles end up covering more area than the sprite and become twice as dangerous for it, while you have no idea of how that thing just hit you. Bullets like these should also watch out for covering too much of the bullet in a hitbox. Some players may think that only the most frontal part of an oblong projectile will hurt them while the back should be safe to pass through. This all will end up confusing the player and making the game harder than it should be. In Ether Vapor’s case, this makes the player seemingly get hit by nothing. In a SHMUP, that is one of the worst things that can happen.

Speaking of getting hit by nothing, this is exacerbated by the inconsistent patterns and speeds of projectiles. Some projectiles are literally so fast that it’s almost impossible to dodge them once they’ve been fired, so you’re forced to memorize where they’ll hit. Running through a stage the first time will usually end up in you being surprised by the mere existence of a projectile that flies towards you so fast that you can barely register it’s there before you lose part of your shield. The Stage 5 boss is particularly guilty of this with one attack that forces you to make two strafes between supersonic blasts while being barraged by another pattern of bullets that nearly blend in with the background. In most games, lasers will give away their path of firing before doing so, enabling you to dodge them and not get sucker-punched. This game doesn’t do that, the laser instead fire and advance relatively quickly and then have the gall to move around the screen in a way that forces you to use your X-weapon’s charge shield to survive. I really don’t like them, but the game at least uses the lasers artistically in a few stages. So in other words, projectiles are way too damn fast, enemies ramming you is annoying, and hitcircles are too large. Another problem I mentioned in Graphics/UI is that they often blend into the background even if you have Hitbox Visibility turned on.

Now other than this, what good I can say is that the speed at which your ship and enemies move is actually nearly perfect and only sometimes causes issues. There doesn’t even need to be a slow-down button, either. Another thing is that I really enjoy the more actually cinematic scenes where the game abandons the usual rules of gameplay to look cool, or just executes the style and controls fairly well. These are the missile chase scenes, the boss intros, most of stage 4, the battle with ADVISOR where you weave through a maze of lasers, the APITEX intro where you shoot each other with barrages of missiles in a back-to-front view while closing in, and stage 6 where you mostly just shift perspectives to look at the cool background while passively destroying enemies.

One other cool thing I’d like to see in more games happens after you die or beat the game. When you first start up the game, you get 3 continues and 2 shields. If you do badly or beat the game, this actually increases. You can eventually get up to starting with the maximum number of shields and getting 10+ continues! This can allow even newbies to eventually beat the game with enough effort, which I like. You can also adjust at which point (haha, pun) you get an extra shield at, but it doesn’t really matter since your shields are expendable and the point threshold is really high.

So the gameplay of Ether Vapor isn’t particularly fantastic and not even entirely innovative, but it still holds up and keeps my interest. It’s the type you’d recommend to those just getting into SHMUPs, but more hardcore fans will find it to be lacking. Those who like Radiant Silvergun will agree. If I had to give a numerical score, I’d say 59/100. Good, almost above average, but still requiring polish. What really saves it is how well-done the weapons are and how they used the camera. Particularly, stage 4 will show you the apex of the gameplay design.

 

Levels

Considering this is a linear SHMUP, levels are a pretty big part of the game. In fact, this is one of those areas that can make or break the entire structure of the game itself. It’s so fundamentally important to the genre that I can’t think of a single example of a SHMUP not using linear levels and very few even daring to deviate from the typical structure of six levels consisting of enemy waves, a miniboss, enemy waves, and a boss that get progressively harder. Ether Vapor has decided that it wants to at least do something with this formula, so it decides to almost completely abandon minibosses and have an extra stage. This doesn’t make it much better. The exclusion of minibosses in all but stages 4 and two (which are the same, actually, minus the carrier ship) subtracts from the game by removing content and replacing it with longer stages while the extra stage serves to give the final boss more apparent importance and extends game length. It comes as a surprise, since you’re set up to think that ADVISOR is the final boss, but then the game reveals that the first boss APITEX wasn’t destroyed and is actually the final boss, which then proceeds to kick your face in with the force of a thousand suns. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Next is a broad view at each stage, ignoring the cutscenes.

So the game starts you out of Stage 1: Stratosphere where the player will learn the basics of play. Here, they are allowed to explore their different weapons on the enemies due to how utterly easy they are. There are very few actual hard enemies, so you won’t need to do much here. It also is the first stage to introduce the missile chase sequences where you move the cursor around the screen and target missiles, then intercept and destroy them. You can’t die in the sequence and even get a bonus score for destroying missiles. This stage features one of the best themes in the soundtrack, so do listen closely. It also has a very pleasing background and a relatively easy yet functionally important boss: APITEX. The player will then dive down through the clouds and enter the next stage.

Stage 2 is Ocean, and it involves much of the same thing you saw in the previous stage, but slightly harder. This also gives you a quick taste of enemies that appear in the foreground and background. It is also one of the more annoying stages in the game thanks to the foreground/background attacks I mentioned earlier. It is also one of the only two stages that has a miniboss named Libellulium who is easily defeated by staying near the bottom right corner of the screen and firing your lock-on missiles. He appears 3 times in the game; next in stage 4 as its miniboss and once in stage 6 as an enemy. Your biggest threat here is ramming enemies. The boss is the first occurrence of the black cyborg guy. His mech has a couple almost impossible to dodge or at least very hard patterns, but the rest of the fight is easy enough to let you just move around randomly while firing missiles to win. It has a satisfactory theme.

The next stage is 3: The City. This is the absolute most annoying stage in the game. Why? The enemies have a very nasty habit of ramming you from below, firing suicide bullets, and zoning the player into spaces filled with bullets that are incredibly hard to squeeze through. I have found that it’s impossible to pacifist this stage without getting hit, at least for myself. You’ll be using all of your weapons here, but many parts require the charged X shot (the barrier) in order to block the many lasers and stupidly fast shots that will speed towards you. All of this, on top of a headache inducing background and a similarly annoying boss make this my least favorite stage in the game. Speaking of the boss, it has an attack that is literally impossible to dodge with Ship B because its charged X barrier can’t prevent the boss’ lasers from hitting the player in a pattern where you need to use it not to get hit, normally. I really can’t express how much this stage infuriates me, and I dread it every time I play the game.

Next is my favorite: Stage 4: Valley. The stage starts off unimpressively with a simple few repetitive waves of enemies and the second battle with Libellulium. However, after this, you charge in after this really cool-looking carrier ship that you fight over the course of the rest of the stage. It begins with you pelting the thing with massive amounts of missiles to destroy several points on it, then it transitions into a short couple waves of enemies before you then have to go through a missile chase sequence that leads to pelting the ship with even more missiles. You eventually fly towards the thrusters and have to blow them up with more missiles in a back-forward view while it also shoots missiles at you. You then team up with the arbitrary female love interest to destroy the ship in a final shot and proceed into some underground factory where you fight the boss: Megarachne. Megarachne is, in my opinion, the most infuriatingly hard boss in the game. It’s actually about as hard as the final boss! What makes it particularly hard is the fact that the bottom 30% of the screen is impassable for some reason, leaving you with only 70% of the screen to actually dodge. You also have to do a ridiculous amount of multitasking and have great foresight or memorization in order to not get hit. You see, the boss uses about 5 options of its own to fire lasers at you, but it also fires its own massive laser and barrage of bullets. This all leads to making the fight a huge mess of broken hitboxes and overloading special effects that can easily lead you to become confused and get hit multiple times in a short span of time. It’s not a short fight either, but at least it has the best boss theme.

Next is stage 5: Factory. Yet another annoying stage like 3, this one includes many enemies that try to blend into the background and mainly come from the sides and top. Some come from below and can easily overlap your hitbox to ram you. Many enemies also use suicide bullets, with there actually being an entire enemy wave made of nothing but that type. There are a few unique waves that have some vaguely interesting enemies, but it still ends up feeling mostly overwhelming and kind of cheap. There is very little perspective changing in the stage and no miniboss, no real impressive part. It’s a very bland and hard stage. The boss is the final battle with that black cyborg guy who has a new mecha! Like Megarachne, this boss is hard, but not in an enjoyable way. It’s not as flashy as Megarachne and you don’t get help from the other fighter, plus there are many attacks that blend in with the background and that are way too fast to be reasonable. Granted, you can usually stay away from the attacks in the bottom right corner, though one should watch out for contact damage. After beating him with relative ease compared to Megarachne, he teams up with you for the next two stages.

Next is stage 6: Central. This stage probably has the best background of all of the stages besides maybe Valley. It also has the most perspective changes, viewing the game from almost every previously seen angle. The enemies aren’t particularly hard, you can easily just run through the whole sequence while mashing the fire buttons and survive just fine. You don’t really do much besides gawking at the scenery. You finally get to the core of this factory where ADVISOR lies, but you get betrayed as soon as you get there. The arbitrary female love interest shoots black guy in the back, destroying his thrusters and putting him out of the fight. Then, she says that she’d rather steal the AI and bring it back to her country than destroy it, so you two fight reluctantly in one of the most pointless battles I’ve ever seen in a SHMUP. Not to mention that less experienced players are going to be beaten to a pulp almost unfairly by how fast the patterns the boss uses are. I usually lose at least 3 bars of my shield to this bitch, and a couple continues at worst. For some reason, the protagonist then decides that it’s a good idea to spare her when both people can’t ignore ADVISOR becoming aggressive any more. They both team up to destroy the machine, and the battle against ADVISOR begins. Now, this is one of the few boss battles in the game I actually like, mainly because it has a unique style of moving where your ship auto-scrolls around the core while it fires a type of maze of lasers that you have to weave through while launching missiles into the core. It gradually speeds up and the lasers sometimes change patterns or move up and down, keeping the fight relatively fresh. It doesn’t amount to anything really challenging, but it’s not frustrating at all. To end the fight, black cyborg guy shoots ADVISOR with his most powerful beam. He can’t really move because somebody destroyed his thrusters, so he dies in the ensuing explosion while you both escape. This ends the stage.

Now as it turns out, the APITEX you faced in stage 1 is actually the final boss, and a heavily armed version of ADVISOR! Well, stage 7: Cosmos is a stage entirely dedicated to it. You won’t have the help of your nearly useless wingman in this stage, but maybe that’s for the better. This stage starts with you going back into the stratosphere where APITEX intercepts you with a Macross Missile Massacre, and you do the same to it. Unfortunately, your missiles don’t do…well, anything. You enter into a fight with the massive thing where you futilely get slapped around by its lasers and it barely gets damaged by your current ship. Eventually, it gets the advantage and moves in to finish the ship off, but then a LITERAL DEUS EX MACHINA occurs where the ship goes into overdrive mode and can now reliably damage the boss. There was literally no reason to do this except for the rule of cool. So after you destroy APITEX, you both somehow get into outer-orbit space, the boss transforms into a giant pair of hands (creative, right?), and the true final battle starts. Now, you thought that Megarachne was frustrating? Well I hope you started with all nine shields here, because you’re going to need them. The boss consistently uses extremely fast patterns that you almost need to memorize in order to avoid, half the screen is occupied by the boss which also does contact damage, he can use bullet-spawning indestructible light orbs that also do contact damage and spin in triads, it can fire multiple crossing lasers at once that block your own shots; and even has an attack that originates in the foreground, covers over half the screen in an instant hitcircle, and requires that you know it can hurt you in the first place. Did you get all that? Because it uses all of these attacks back-to-back and in tandem with one another. Sure, it’s flashy and all, but this is still one of the worst final bosses I’ve ever fought in a video game. I mean, this thing is just borderline unfair most of the time. I understand the need for a challenging final boss, but this one is just frustrating and isn’t even that flashy. It only uses a couple different perspectives, and mostly limits your weapons to the missiles and barrier. Your new laser weapons are almost useless thanks to those indestructible shot-blocking orbs and lasers. This is like an utterly ruined, boring, infuriating version of Rex Cavalier from Hellsinker. Honestly, just go fight him if you want to see how a good mecha boss in a SHMUP is done.

So after you shoot this boss until it dies, your ship finally collapses from the stress of going into overdrive and crashes into the ocean. How it doesn’t burn up on re-entry is beyond me. A terrible ending ensues and the game ends.

Alright, so I’ve obviously pointed out how utterly flawed a large portion of the stages are. It doesn’t mean the whole of them are bad on average, but the bad stages so blatantly overshadow the good ones that I can’t help but make it out to be like this. If I had to give it a numerical value, I’d say 42/100. Yes, it’s below average, but I still enjoyed at least stages 4 and 6. 1, 2, and 7 at least had nice backgrounds, but the rest is just bad. The game could also use a total revamp of the enemy placement, including the revision of contact damage and pattern shape. I’d prefer if I had a lot more room to actually dodge and not constantly be squeezed between dozens of broken bullets and rammers while having a hitcircle the size of a truck. This concludes the level design, which I have to say was pretty disappointing overall.

 

Sound

I was actually pretty surprised that Ether Vapor didn’t have either grating or generic music. For the most part, that is. Now this actually works both for and against it: you see, while the music isn’t grating, it’s also not particularly interesting or aggressive enough. The music usually ends up being very tame and soft, too soft for the type of game this is. Honestly, it doesn’t sound much better than MIDI; not impressive. As for the genericness, it only reaches slightly above that mark. The MIDI sounds definitely damage it and make the whole thing sound more generic, but maybe that’s just because I don’t like almost any MIDI sound. The only instruments it really does well is the flute and piano, which are unfortunately only used in a few songs that also happen to be my favorite. The earlier songs, which are the best overall, actually remind me somewhat of Hellsinker’s (an infinitely better game) own soundtrack. This makes me greatly appreciate it, but what’s disappointing is that the quality greatly degrades and ends up being downright anticlimactic at the end of the game. Now since there are only 14 different songs in the game (one for each stage and boss, ignoring menu themes), I can actually rank them by how much I like them, here. So I will.

  1. Approach (Boss 1)
  2. Back Attack (Boss 6)
  3. Ray Cyclone (Boss 2)
  4. Dual Saber (Boss 3)
  5. Decisive Battle (Stage 7)
  6. Overdrive (Boss 7)
  7. Deep Layer (Stage 5)
  8.  Quarter Spiral (Stage 6)
  9. Daniel-On (Boss 5)
  10. Megarachne (Boss 4)
  11. Vapor Thrust (Stage 3)
  12. High Wind (Stage 1)
  13. Blue Ocean (Stage 2)  
  14. Huge Threat (Stage 4)

As you can see, the boss themes are definitely the worse half of the OST. The problem with them is that next to none of them actually feel climactic or tense like a boss theme should. The only ones that do are Megarachne and Daniel-On. Meanwhile, the other bosses have utterly terribly boring themes. The most tragic loss is that of the final boss, which is in no way impressive-sounding. Sure, it’s complex and long, but it doesn’t have much emotion behind it. It’s just kind of flat, and I don’t know why the piano and flute weren’t the dominant parts of it. Instead, it’s mostly just MIDI techno beats. The only themes that really use the better instruments are the top three. Those three are actually pretty good songs as far as doujin games go. It’s rare that you find a soundtrack where great potential was squandered with awful instruments, and Ether Vapor’s is a prime example. Keep in mind that I’m talking mainly of the remastered themes and not the original. The original themes have much less MIDI and generally benefit from it, but they still somehow end up sounding flat. The overall sound could have used a lot more bass, more harmony, some more intense and sharp notes, and a different soundfont.

The stages were significantly better, mainly because the tone of the music actually fit there. While you would want intense music on boss fights to enhance the player’s focus with adrenaline, the stages should be much more calming and break-like. The musical style fits them much better, so it ends up complimenting stages rather than bosses. They’re not all hits, but the top 5 songs are almost all stage themes with the exception being Megarachne.

Overall, I’d have to say that my experience listening to the soundtrack is disappointing. It’s really just more background music for a good half of the game, and the final stages are unfittingly bland. There was a lot here that could have been good, but the authors apparently decided not to take advantage of their strengths. This ultimately leads it to be conflicting opinions. On one hand, it’s too flat to be memorable. On the other, it’s complex enough and made with such potential that I have to commend it. What really brings it down is the soundfont. If I had to give it a numerical value, I’d say 56/100. I’m being generous, too.

 

Compatibility

Ether Vapor has surprisingly low system requirements, with it only needing half a gig of RAM, a Pentium 4 3.0Ghz processor, any graphics card with 3D capability and DirectX9, 100mb of space, and sound if you really want it. It’ll run on pretty much any modern computer and even those from about a decade ago. This is the remaster, too; the original might have even lower requirements. Additionally, it has a pretty high resolution that can reportedly go up to 1600×1200, though it really doesn’t matter how big the screen is at that point. It also supports anaglyph 3D if you’re into that sort of thing, but I couldn’t test it so I can’t recommend using it. It even has a page on GameDebate, for anyone who doubts their computer’s adequacy.

Now I’m not sure exactly what the framerate is in this game, but it looks to be about 40 just from a glance. It isn’t perfectly smooth but not 30fps jittery, either. I encountered absolutely no issues with this game running smoothly in any way, but those who (somehow) have less than a gig of RAM may be prone to slowdown. I encountered no crashes in my time of playing, but Windows 10 and up may not even be able to run it due to the difference in software. Then again, Windows platforms beyond 7 are known for incompatibility issues. I haven’t tested it in any other operating system.

Ether Vapor doesn’t seem to have any compatibility issues whatsoever, but it doesn’t have anything heavily optimized either. I suppose I should commend it for having such low requirements for a 3D “cinematic” SHMUP. If I had to assign a numerical value, I’d say 85/100. Very impressive.

 

Conclusion

Over the course of 6 sections, the game scored a cumulative 322/600 or an average of 54/100 with a standard deviation of 18.57 and population SD of 16.95, making it average. The strongest points are the Compatibility, Sound, and Gameplay, with Compatibility being the saving grace. Its worst points are the Plot and Levels, which end up being a huge blow to the overall experience. Considering that the Levels are one of the most important parts of the game, this should honestly be a lot lower.

Ether Vapor is honestly a very mixed bag that is only really good for those just getting into the SHMUP genre and want something slightly flashy. There are much better games out there, so please do look elsewhere. I have to note that the cost of the game is fitting of its quality, but I’d still prefer if it were free. You can also buy the soundtrack for about $5, but it’s not really worth it since the sound overall is only slightly above average and you can hear it on Youtube just by merely searching. As for Eldeweiss’ other games, I haven’t played them. I’ll probably check them out in the future, but this left a fairly bad impression on me. If you want to do it yourself, their website is edelweiss.skr.jp.

So in closing, I don’t really recommend this to any dedicated SHMUPer. It’s also not really very friendly to beginners, either, so it’s hard to recommend it to anybody, really. Now, the next review is defintiely going to be Marine Benefit and not some chaotic 2D sci-fi bullet hell. Totally. Now have some gameplay of my favorite stage from Ether VaporThe quality is pretty bad, so I’ll try to get some other footage later on. For those who want images, Google can provide plenty.

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