Pyromancer is the newest shmup from the creator of Giant Cutter and it certainly shows in more ways than one. Utterly bizarre and profoundly alien environments and enemies are found in nearly all of the games developed by Minami* and this game certainly doesn’t disappoint as the designs and the unique artstyle make it immediately stand out from other shmups. The freeroaming sections from Giant Cutter are gone, making this a more pure, and certainly more polished, shmup experience spread across four levels, which are each in turn divided into three distinct segments. While the freeroaming sections may be a thing of the past, the unusual emphasis on close-range combat remains as, in addition to a standard forward-facing gun, your ship is armed with two small flamethrowers on its top and bottom as well as an enormous jet of fire directly behind it.
*The developer’s name on Freem is 南カラス, which can be read as Minami Karasu or, in English, South Crow. Since the copyright on the title screen in the game itself is simply attributed to “Minami” I will be referring to the developer by that name for this article.
The game is definitely built with your ship’s specific abilities in mind, so let’s take a closer look at just what that ship can do before moving on to anything else. There are two modes of fire for the ship based on which button is pressed. The standard attack comes in the form of focused, fast bursts of bullets directly in front of the ship alone with smaller streams of bullets aimed diagonally upward and downward in the front. It’s a pretty standard type of attack for a shmup but it gets the job done by being able to quickly obliterate anything the ship is facing while also picking off smaller enemies to the sides. Your second form of attack gets rid of the two diagonal shots and reduces the main gun to shooting smaller, far less frequent shots, but adds small jets of fire to the top and bottom of the ship and a massive fire pillar to the back of the ship. The fire comes in a continuous stream with this attack, making it equally great for picking off entire groups of smaller enemies and for decimating tough enemies coming from any direction other than the front of the ship, which soon proves to be a common occurrence in Pyromancer. The ship is also armed with up to three bombs which hit enemies to either side of the ship horizontally while clearing the screen of bullets and it takes three hits for the ship to be destroyed, though losing a life does set the player back to the start of the current segment.
It is worth noting that there is a Gradius-style upgrade bar where you can choose to save up for better upgrades or cash in accumulated items to get the reward at your current tier. This upgrade bar is pretty simplistic with the first upgrade being a virtually mandatory speed boost followed by a standard gun upgrade, a fire attack upgrade, a bomb, and a shield at the end (the bomb and the shield can only be taken if the player isn’t already at full capacity); the only upgrade of the first three on the entire list which can be taken multiple times is the one for the standard gun, which can be taken twice, but reaching the end of the list and looping back to the start grants an extra life, so this list becomes a great way to stock up on lives in the easier parts of the game.
Like the ship itself, the level design is surprisingly flexible with the three segments of each level having their own qualities which players will need to adapt to. The first segment always takes place on the surface of the planet (or whatever it is that the player is flying around) and is always very open. Mixing up the two types of attacks is mandatory in these segments as many of the enemies are rather durable and come just as much from the back of the screen as from the front. Most enemy types which appear from the back also remain in the back to launch their attacks, so simply waiting for them to move to in front of the ship will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, the majority of the enemy types here will stick around if they aren’t killed, making it even more important for players to learn which targets to prioritize in order to not get overwhelmed by attacks coming in from every direction, especially since the latter two segments of this type also have enemies running along the planet’s surface at the bottom of the screen to lob attacks upward at the ship.
The segments which make up the second part of each level are where Pyromancer most clearly displays its strengths. These segments alternate between descending vertical ones and more traditional horizontally scrolling ones and they are far more confining than the open areas on the surface, though there’s no threat of taking damage from crashing into the walls. Since the ship is still only capable of facing to the right even when descending a vertical tunnel, the fire abilities tend to be used more extensively for these portions of the game than anywhere else. Further increasing the importance of the close-range fire attacks is the fact that a good number of enemies are embedded in the walls themselves, which only the fire can pierce, or are tucked away in niches where they can only be hit from above or below. The enemies which inhabit these interior areas tend to be less durable than those found on the surface, but their positioning makes them more difficult to reach in the first place and there are a few other types of hazards along the way. The biggest threat found in these area comes in the form of invincible, purple tentacle-like creatures within the walls which temporarily extend to create living walls when the ship moves near them, forcing players to go around them or, in particularly confining corridors, to deliberately make them extend and then rush to the other side after they retract. Other enemies which help ot contribute to the more claustrophobic atmosphere of these segments include spiders which hop around while leaving behind dangerous trails of webbing and giant slimes which continuously produce smaller, hopping slimes and can only be killed by destroying nearby shield-carrying enemies to drop shields on top of them. While this game as a whole has a sort of Abadox vibe to it, these cramped, eerily organic segments where enemies can attack from just about anywhere are where the similarities are the most noticeable and where the gameplay is at its best.
The last segment of each level is always short and largely serves to provide the player with a few upgrades before throwing a boss fight at them. Overall, the bosses are probably the most underwhelming part of Pyromancer. Most of them spend the majority of the fight on the right side of the screen, providing few opportunities to make use of the ship’s flames. Boss patterns are also simplistic, short, and never change in any way as the fight goes on, so the fights devolve into spending the first few seconds finding safe spots for each attack and then repeating the exact same movement pattern until the boss eventually explodes. Thankfully, the third out of the four bosses doesn’t quite follow the same rules as the others and the fight against it proves to be far harder and more engaging than the rest of the boss encounters. This third boss is little more than a pulsating mass of flesh inside a mouth-shaped container, but the ‘mouth’ fully surrounds it and blocks all bullets, making it only vulnerable to fire. Like the other bosses, the third boss has a simplistic pattern which it endlessly repeats, but this pattern consists of spending most of its time moving across the top of the screen while dropping down medium-sized hopping slime enemies in sets of two before briefly firing a few bullets while moving along the right wall. The slimes themselves hop around independently from the boss and pose a very real threat of flooding the room if they aren’t focused on, so the fight becomes extremely intense as players must make use of both fire and bullets to quickly dispose of the slimes while also finding time to get a few hits in on the boss itself from the bottom or the side. It’s a shame that the other three bosses aren’t nearly as interesting outside of their designs, but the weak boss fights make for a small mark against an otherwise solid shmup.
If you want a shmup which is a bit unusual, Pyromancer makes for a great choice. The close-range fire attacks are used well alongside the more traditional bullets and the varying level design to create a shmup which has a strong sense of identity without straying too far away from the traditional gameplay of the genre.