Any true shooter fan knows the name Compile. They were literally the masters of the genre, creating many beloved classics. But as with any company there are always bound to be a few games that slip through the cracks. Sylphia is an obscure gem, one of their few shmups minus the sci-fi theme. The setting may have changed but the game still has the same intense action Compile games are known for. This is a great game and one of my favorite shooters for the system.
In ancient Greece a city is ravaged by demons. One of these inhabitants is a warrior maiden who is struck down defending the people. The Gods reward her bravery and transform her into a fairy with enough power to seek revenge and free Greece. Despite what the lengthy intro might suggest there are no further cutscenes outside of the ending which is disappointing, not that they were needed.
The classic color coded weapon system employed in many of the developer’s games returns here. Each of the four colors corresponds to the elements; red fire travels in a straight line while blue water is a homing attack. The green wind blades travel in an arc and linger, causing more damage. That leaves the yellow earth rocks, which are powerful but come with some drawbacks. The boulders are large and obscure bullets and other obstacles leading to cheap hits. Collecting the same weapon powers it up further while the orbs and gems gathered will improve your basic attack. There is a limited special attack that can be devastating when used properly. It’s a simple system that offers plenty of choice which is why they have used it in so many titles.
Beyond its weapon system Sylphia’s greatest asset is its setting. One can’t help but note that the game looks very similar to Dragon Spirit. Which is good as I like that game. The fantasy world allows access to a diverse set of creatures, some made up and some drawn from myth. Every level is unique and has its own set of enemies, keeping gameplay fresh. It is practically unheard of to see this much diversity in the genre and part of why the game is so great. Maybe it is due to the art style but some of the creatures look downright creepy, such as the harpy late in the game. A few of the enemies wouldn’t look out of place in a Megami Tensei title; I don’t know if that is coincidence or homage.
Like most Compile shooters Sylphia is pretty intense. The pacing varies from level to level which is great. The large variety in enemies require different approaches and when combined with varying terrain elevates the level design. Throughout it all though I would say the game falls on the easy side. Having a life bar helps but it goes beyond that. Weapon drops are frequent, even during boss battles. Although weapons drop down to their base level upon death it takes less than a minute to power up again. Because each stage is so heavily populated you’ll also gain extra lives regularly through scoring. The bosses are no pushover, especially if you bring an ill matched weapon. The lesser difficulty does make Sylphia more accessible and when combined with its length an enjoyable ride.
I really like the art direction although the game does not take advantage of the CD format that much. It leans heavily on Greek mythology so you’ll see a smattering of popular creatures such as a minotaur, harpies, and medusa. While familiar they do get a little creative with their designs and that applies to the rest of the game. The backdrops are mixed at times: when there are layers of scrolling it looks incredible. But there are long stretches of flat, ugly terrain full of questionable color choices. Its intro and soundtrack are the only aspects that could not have been done on a Hucard. Even despite that this is still probably one of the system’s better looking games on the strength of its art.
You might come into this expecting an orchestral score but will be surprised to hear blaring techno. It’s an odd match but seems to fit the game well even if the genre isn’t my favorite. The music tends to get drowned out by the loud sound effects at times but that was a common problem with CD games on the system.
Sylphia was a pleasant surprise for me as I knew nothing about it beforehand. It really is amazing what a few screenshots can do. On a platform drowning in shooters Sylphia still manages to stand out thanks to its fantasy setting and gameplay. Sadly you’ll have to pay out the nose for it; this was a late release for the PC Engine and is pricey as a result. On the rare chance you see it at a decent price go for it.