Rockin' Android is an interesting group. They're dedicating all their time and effort to localizing PC doujin shooters. All their efforts are a collaboration with Sony Online Entertainment, so Sony's backing the release of doujin titles in the US, which bodes well for us all. Their first major release on the PSN was a trilogy, a collection of three shooters by a little-known doujin group called Platine Dispositif. Though they aren't nearly as popular as the fan-favorite Touhou series, a fan of ZUN's doujin shooters could do worse for a shmup fix. The games included in the set have relatively high production values, interesting (though entirely unexplained) mechanics, and difficulty to spare.
The first game in the trilogy takes place in 1757, predating the later two games by around a century. In true shmup tradition, you'll learn the most about the story by reading the backstory included in the instructions. The steampunk-esque setting focuses on an evil empire of sorts which murdered the protagonist's family. In response, her and a doll-wielding inventor set out on a bullet-filled quest to destroy them.
Hitogata Happa starts out with a stage that's bound to not only put off casuals, but confuse them entirely. You only control a single doll, who has limited abilities: a standard forward rapid-fire shot, the ability to slow down bullets, and an ultra powerful bomb that requires the player to collide with an enemy to make best use of, sacrificing a life in the process. The mana meter is what controls the doll's special ability, such as Leaf's ability to slow down bullets for a limited period of time (designed by the bullets turning orange). The meter is filled by collecting gems which are left behind by destroyed enemies, while the bomb meter fills just by hitting enemies with shots.
The Flow gauge dictates when a bomb becomes available for use. In most cases, it activates upon a doll's collision with an enemy. The charge speed depends on the doll, as well as the ability each possesses.
Although you'd likely never realize this until learning by practice, Hitogata Happa uses another scoring mechanic referred to as ZOC (Zone of Control), which is activated when the player sprite enters near-invisible circles surrounding enemy ships.
Once activated, the circle slows down any bullets that enter it, and the player gains additional gems(and extra points) from these bullets by destroying the enemy linked to it. It's similar to Castle Shikigami's risk/reward Tension Bullet System, but not as clearly implemented.
The first stage is very misleading, because you only control Leaf. It's immediately before the second stage when the meat of Hitogata Happa comes into play. Between stages, Kreutzer allows Rosa to purchase dolls from her, at varying gem costs. Each controls entirely different. More powerful dolls have higher costs, and the cost increases with each successive purchase. The player can essentially purchase as many lives as they want, if they have enough gems to afford it.
Although there is a wide variety of playstyles, the dolls' actual usefulness varies depending on the situation. While one has a decimating narrow-focus laser, another can shoot auto lock-on missiles with a wide, destructive radius, similar to Raycrisis' lock-on mechanic. Another doll uses a Raiden-esque curving laser that hits every enemy in its path, while another uses multi-directional shots (variable like in Gleylancer and MUSHA), and a third has close-range sword attacks; very high damage, extremely short range. While I favored using the missile and laser dolls, they can all be applied to the right situation. The current doll remains static, but the player can change the next doll in the line-up at any time. Hitogata Happa takes a lot of time and effort to get into, but it can prove rewarding, and it sure has challenge to spare.
The game has four difficulties; Easy, Normal, Hard, and 'Impossible', which utterly fills the screen with enemy firepower at any given moment. During the final (sixth) stage on Normal mode, the screen is deluged with unending volleys of bullets, so Impossible mode must live up to its name by that point.
Hitogata Happa is the only vertical-oriented shmup of the three, and arguably the most difficult, as the dolls have fairly large hitboxes, and the bullet patterns offer little room for error in finding a way through. Although there is no mid-stage continue option, the game lets the player continue from the start of the last stage they reached. However, all dolls must be repurchased from the end of the previous stage, and replays can only be saved without using a continue. What little text the game has is voice acted in Japanese between stages, and well translated.
Overall, Hitogata Happa is a good shmup if you absolutely positively need a fix, but it's very bland. It has repetitive backgrounds, with little to nothing going on in them, and the music will make you want to put the sound on mute.
The second of the trilogy, though Gundemonium pretty much moves into its own world, and is the first half of a two-part series. Unlike Hitogata Happa, Gundemonium and its sequel GundeadliGne are purely horizontal shmups. The player still can make a lot of customization choices, except now, they're all done at the start of the game. Gundemonium: Recollection, the one included with the Rockin' Android pack, is actually a remake of the original Gundemonium, which substantially more characters and features, making the initial release totally obsolete.
The player can choose between Eryth (who was Fourtuner in Hitogata Happa, and also appeared in the Wonderswan action-RPG Dicing Knight), a more powerful player better suited for advanced use, and Earl, who's more customizable, but not as powerful as Eryth. There are four playable formats for Earl, or they can just be mixed up to the player's liking. The normal shots range from a five-way with a wide radius but weak fire power, narrower (but more powerful) lasers, and drills that pierce through enemies to hit ones behind them. Mana attacks are charged up by collecting gems distributed from downed enemies, and can be used until the meter is depleted. These can be customized along with a bomb of choice. The default is a handy time-stop special, but this can be replaced with more offensive options. The bombs range from wide-range destruction, to more focused attacks with higher power; ideal for killing bosses rapidly. There's also a rank system called the "Phase" level, which raises when your gun overheats, and lowers when you get certain power-ups. Higher difficulties also mean higher scores, and the "Demonic Shift" feature will kick up the Phase to the highest level in exchange for some mana.
Immediately after choosing a character, the player is deluged with a lot of backstory that doesn't make a great deal of sense. Fortunately, it only takes one screen to get past that, and get straight to the action. Gundemonium's graphics are very colorful, detailed and have levels filled with large, easily evaded bullets. Almost every enemy in the game is either a robot or a robotic female character, usually designed to fit into one trope or another; maids, cat girls, rabbit girls, you name it. While the character moves rapidly by default, holding down the fire button slows her movement down greatly, so staying in one place and stubbornly firing away will get the player killed very fast.
Your character's sprite is huge, but as with most bullet hell shooters, the player's hitbox isn't as large as the character sprite; a small heart-shaped pendant necklace is Earl's weak point. Each hit takes away a heart, or a life, and once all three are gone, the game ends. More can be found from killing some mini-bosses, but they're few and far between. Also, many of these bosses are on a very strict timer, and some will leave the field within seconds if not killed very fast.The game allows the player to continue from the start of the last level reached, but at later levels, this still hardly makes it an easy trip. The music starts out catchy, but loses its appeal very fast. Few of the tracks have much depth or length to them; they use very repetitive melodies, and get old quick. It's still a fun trip, and not at all lacking for challenge.
Compared to many console shooters, Gundemonium is fully featured, with "Play Orders", which are essentially the equivalent to Achievements. There is also a third unlockable character obtained if you meet certain requirements. If you own the original doujin release (not the Rockin' Android one), you can also find a copy of the original Gundemonium included on the CD.
The last of the three shmups in the Gundemonium Trilogy is essentially a sequel to Gundemonium. It's also a great deal of fun, and requires the most strategy to get through. Among other firsts in the series, GundeadliGne offers two-player co-op.
Like Gundemonium Recollection, there are two main characters to choose from, each with their own style. Beginners should use the high powered Elixirel (who was the Lovers doll in Hitogata Happa), while the returning Eryth is faster, and recommended for players accustomed to bullet hell shooters. If the player chooses Eryth, then they get to decide between one of six available bombs. Each has its own use once the power-up meter, filled by collecting gems from downed enemies, maxes out. Some specialize in dealing out focused damage, others in wide-range spread shots, and others are strictly for defense. Like its predecessor, a third character, Nagi, can be unlocked by fulfilling certain requirements.
GundeadliGne is a horizontal shooter much like its predecessor, except the sequel has multi-directional gameplay. Sort of like Cave's Deathsmiles, you can fire both left and right, although rather than assigning a button to each direction, there is simply one button that makes you turn back and forth. Naturally, the variety of bosses and enemies frequently require the player to do just that. Some level segments scroll to the right, some to the left, while later levels have bullets and enemies coming at the player from all directions. As with the previous games, downed enemies leave behind lots of gems to power-up the player quicker. Ones killed with special attacks leave more behind, and can even be gathered automatically after the right attack. An especially useful attack tears through enemies, and causes the on-screen action to slow down for as long as it remains in play. Of course, its use is limited, but not as much as the doll-specific powerups.
The tradition of short-lived mini-bosses remain intact. The sooner they die, the better the rewards; such as frequent power ups and even health restores. The enemies' bullet patterns in GundeadliGne are among the game's wildest, and they waste no time in breaking out the insanity. After each stage, the player gets rewarded with more text to keep them informed on what's going on. There's no story content besides the between-stage exposition.
GundeadliGne's primary fault, as with the other games in the series, is the music. The tracks use little instrumentation of note, and grow repetitive very fast, and certainly won't distract from the action. Just like the other games, that's hardly a deal-breaker.