Cygni: All Guns Blazing is a cinematic shoot-’em-up that has its sights on moving the genre forward instead of looking back.
Reports of the demise of the arcade-inspired shoot ‘em up (or shmup, if you really must) have been greatly exaggerated. The past year or two has seen the release of R-Type Final 3 Evolved, PlatinumGames took to the genre with Sol Cresta (initially an April Fool’s joke) and The Wonderful One: After School Hero (initially a free DLC for Wonderful 101, but now its own standalone release) to name a few. Meanwhile, the beloved Radiant Silvergun is also finally set for a Steam release following last year’s Switch port.
That said, the above examples all lean heavily on nostalgic designs (one being a port after all) so Cygni: All Guns Blazing, the work of small Edinburgh-based indie studio KeelWorks, is refreshing in that it’s not looking to the genre’s past but aims to push it forward with modern sensibilities, and not just at a surface level.
Of course, the first thing you’ll notice is that Cygni looks incredibly pretty, with the cinematic flair and effects that look on par with a triple-A title. That attention to detail largely stems from the studio’s background in VFX and animation for the film industry, which is also why it also has a stronger focus on story than you might expect, incorporating a mixture of pre-rendered CG sequences as well as in-engine cinematics with the camera closer on protagonist Ava in the cockpit of your ship the Orca, the lone fighter against a huge alien invasion.
“Having 3D cinematics isn’t common in this genre, and especially not in the indie scene, because it’s very expensive to do,” says KeelWorks founder and CEO Meher Kalendrian. “So we’ve done that, while being a small team, which tells you a lot about how we’re approaching this. Our background [in film VFX] plays a role in the decision making of actually involving this kind of approach.”
I should hasten to add that this isn’t entirely new for shoot-’em-ups, a genre which arguably had some of the best looking graphics of the 2D era, with cinematic fights against colossal bosses and tons of explosions. Even Radiant Silvergun incorporated anime cutscenes to tell its story. Those older games just don’t have the same current-gen quality and detail as Cygni’s. (Though this game isn’t immune to an old-school preoccupation with fetishising its female protagonist – the opening sequence shows us Ava getting ready in a locker room, the camera lingering on her bare legs and sneaking a shot of her underwear just as she pulls her suit up.)
It’s once you’re playing Cygni that you really appreciate what it’s doing, though. It’s still, of course, a vertically scrolling, top-down shooter in which you face waves of enemies, but its mechanics were a little overwhelming to grapple with before I ate some humble pie on the first stage (in my defence, the developer had informed us that this stage was still very imbalanced in difficulty). I then took the sensible decision of playing the tutorial, which is charmingly presented with 1-bit, Asteroids-style visuals.
Cygni isn’t a twin-stick shooter as such, even though you can tilt your aim slightly to the left and to the right (albeit still at an upward trajectory). But by clicking the left stick, you can also fire homing shots to strike enemies to the side or behind you, while you also have access to a secondary weapon that homes in on targets. There’s also a further dimension to this, as you can also attack enemies on the ground by holding the left trigger, and in this configuration you do have free aim – though you’ll still have to juggle enemies coming at you in the sky. Indeed, you’ll encounter some especially spongey ships beneath you, which means you’ll have to switch your attention between targets before they eventually go down.
“The idea was to not copy and paste the classics, but we wanted to do something different that we would like to see today,” Kalendrian says. “We also really wanted to appeal to the wider audience, so from the very beginning this wasn’t intended as a bullet-hell or dodging game.”
This brings me to Cygni’s energy mechanic, which defines much of its offensive and defensive gameplay. As you shoot down enemies, you’ll have the opportunity to obtain energy pick-ups, which automatically fill bars displayed around your ship. By default, this fills up your shields in blue, allowing you to take a hit from the enemy, but the energy can also increase your firepower, indicated by orange bars. While there might be points in a level where you have a generous amount of energy to pick up, other times you’ll have to manage the resource, so by tapping the left or right bumpers, you can increase energy supply to your weapons or shields respectively.
You can see where the risk/reward element comes in, then, as you’ll want to ensure you’ve got shields to survive an onslaught of bullets, but the moment a window opens, you can put all the energy back into your weapons to maximise damage against a boss. Conversely, it also means if you see some energy pick-ups ahead but you’ve got to fly through a stream of projectiles, then with shields up you can afford to take the hit but still essentially have a net gain with the resources you’ll acquire.
Nonetheless, between managing energy resources and fielding attacks in the air and on the ground, there’s quite a few spinning plates for players to grapple with. Stages vary in length – the developer claims these will be longer than a typical shmup – and lack checkpoints, and even though you’ve got shields, there’s only one Orca, so death means having to restart the stage from scratch. But with difficulty options to choose from and, as I discovered perhaps too late, a menu tab that allows you to unlock and equip upgrades for your ship, there are ways to make its challenges more approachable.
While there’s still some balancing to fine-tune before the game’s ready to ship at a still undecided date (though likely later in 2023), it’s going to be quite special to see Cygni appear as a newly published title from Konami, a seemingly perfect partner given the Japanese company’s own shoot ‘em up heritage with classics like Gradius and Salamander. “If somebody like Konami, who played a big role in creating the genre, can understand what we’re trying to do with Cygni, then that’s a big deal for us because it’s the greatest feedback that we’re on the right track,” says Kalendrian. “They understand we’re not just trying to replicate the old.”
Cygni: All Guns Blazing is due for release later in 2023 for PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S.