[Bullet Dive is a series deconstructing the elements of shoot-em-ups. This STAGE originally appeared in video form. The script is made available here. ]

Rayforce is a quiet treasure.

While it initially appears to be a flashy expansion on Xevious’ bomb gimmick, Rayforce uses it to tell an entirely visual story that works within the limits of the format. Impressively, it also expands the visual space while having the player operate only across a 2D axis. To do this Rayforce plays to its two strengths:

Scale + Depth

Both of these are born out of Rayforce’s technological ambitions. It uses the large number of sprites it can display to create a sense of a wide ranging conflict. Large groups of enemies populate the screen, attacking from below, or fighting with each other. Detailed, dense backgrounds provide a sense of proportion.

Rayforce’s backgrounds are visually dense and contain several layers of depth.

This is combined with its sprite scaling technology to create a virtual Z-axis, deepening the visual space. Enemy structures and boss parts below you can be locked onto, and the delayed impact time communicates the distance. The materiality of the spaces below you are emphasized, allowing you to disconnect platforms from their supports, or even defeat a boss by knocking out its hold on the stage.

And while most shooters are satisfied with 2 or 3 layers of parallax, Rayforce has several, which enemies and obstacles continually move in and out of, and can being tracked by your lasers through.

While games frequently signal enemy approaches in the background, they rarely acknowledge the transitional space between visual planes. Here targets sweep upwards towards you, allowing you to methodically lock onto and eliminate them before they become immediate dangers. Locking onto large groups is even formally rewarded, providing the best opportunities to score points.

This upward sweep of enemies works in parallel to the other axes of motion.

The wide camera sweeps past the Moon that draws attention to the Earth —

— into the hollowed out Moon —

— towards the conflict above Earth —

— and through the atmosphere to dive into Earth itself.

What you may have noticed here is that Rayforce constantly hints at the locations that are next. In addition it transitions seamlessly between them. There are no fades to black, or generic star fields between stages, but one continuous descent. It emphasizes that the depth of the space that exists beyond your current surroundings.

It’s a journey from foreign parts back to Earth, a homecoming of sorts. But there’s an anxiety to that journey. As you approach Earth you witness a battle in which you allies, communicated by your inability to lock onto them, are wiped out by the enemy fleet. As you descend you begin to catch glimpses of something below the surface.

When you reach the pass the final ground base the earth itself opens up. Past this deep fissure is a hollow out earth populated by a mess of towers and highways, leading you into a long tunnel that finally gives way to —

a grand megaopolis beneath the earth. You follow its curved surface to the tower at the center, where you’ll defeat a guardian a reveal the machine core of the planet itself. You lock, and with a final shot you destroy it — taking the Earth with it and dooming yourself.

The post credits end screen.

Mission Complete.

For context, we can get some backstory, taken from the events from its predecessor, Raycrisis, and the manual.

Before the events of the game humanity has created an AI called the “Con-Human” to govern earth. But when a cloned human’s mind is linked with the system it becomes sentient and loses its reason. It creates calamities, wipes out organic life and hollows out the Earth to create a body that functions as a mobile fortress.

And this is where the story begins. With you as the pilot of a desperate mission to save what’s left of humanity. This context helps lend emotion to your journey. Here the genre convention of a lone ship as the last defense changes. You become a malicious invader, a foreign element in the body of what used to be your home, a place made hostile and alien by the Con-Human’s reconfiguration.

As you approach your fleet is destroyed, humanity taking a decisive blow. Your actions become vindictive: You are willing to destroy what was once your home in order to kill the being that killed your people. You are willing to die for its destruction.

But even without this context Rayforce manages to communicate a strong narrative. The opening scenes, visual motifs of descent work alongside a soundtrack by Taito house band ZUNTATA that moves between energetic melodies, anxious themes, and contemplative respites. The final moments solidify it, with the post credits scene leaving on a somber note.

The destruction of Earth.

Rayforce is a strong game that takes what could have simply been an impressive technological gimmick and builds a complementary narrative. Its a visual and thematic success. A continuous and cohesive space.

A good place to take a Bullet Dive.

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