Trigger Heart Excelica was first released in 2006 by the small developer Warashi, who is best known for its mahjong games and one shooter (Shienryu) way back on the Saturn. The game, and it's bizarre grappling hook system, were met with skepticism upon release, but there was obviously some enthusiasm because Warashi saw fit to bring the game home to the Dreamcast, likely knowing full well that it would sell out, selling to the worldwide shooter and Dreamcast markets based solely on the fact that it's a shooter on the Dreamcast.
The grappling hook is simple enough to understand, to hook an enemy line yourself up and fire, depending on the size of the enemy you will either instantly grapple it or be presented with a meter above the foe which counts up to a 100% after which he is yours and you may do to him as you please. Your new weapon has its own health bar, and depending on its size can take a set amount of damage. You can take your foe and whip him around at high speed absorbing the surrounding Bullet Hell, which is handy for getting out of a tricky situation but a waste of an opportunity to kill many enemies fast, you can just hold him in front of you as a shield and battering ram, killing anything you run it into.
Or, you can play how the game was meant to be played. This is talking the detainee and whipping him around you and slingshoting it through what ever gets in its way: Bullets, on screen debris, and foes. When your slingshoted foe plows through the first enemy it hits, a chain reaction occurs as the explosion leaps from foe to foe potentially clearing the whole screen of enemies with one tiny captured foe if you get really good at placement.
At first just an option in the early stages of the game, it quickly becomes essential to your survival as the enemies on the screen begin to resemble a Puyo Puyo game screen, only, they are all shooting at you while 100% clogging the screen. Note that the grappling hook can also be used similarly to the hook shot in Giga Wing 2. Whilst attached to a foe, you fire a concentrated stream of fire at him and no one else. This is handy against ground foes, which you can't turn into weapons, and bosses, which are also off limits for weaponizing. The game begins to feel more like a puzzle game (it really does become one in the second half), only returning to normal Bullet Hell for a few boss fights.
Several boss fights make their way into the game of course, and not all are very spectacular, unfortunately many don't even incorporate the grappling element. The ones that do however are fun, and the finale is one of my favorite bullet hell fights ever. You are faced with a more or less undodgeable wall of bullets compounded by an unwavering rain of debris. This idea is to capture the larger debris, whip around the junk which turns all the shots to coins which power your shot. You then toss the debris into the boss, you can then either lay a volley of your own fire into the boss or quickly get back to finding a new piece of junk to do damage with.
It's a shame that the game looks as outdated as it does, and really it's surprising. It's even more surprising when you compare it to other NAOMI arcade titles such as Virtual On (which was released eight years before this) or the recent Under Defeat from Grev. At least it's only outdated looking ... it could be ugly too. The character design, while not unique for the most part, is acceptable. All bullet types and coins are bright and distinguishable from each other. That is something I regard as very important, because it really cuts down on cheap deaths, don't go claiming you didn't see the wave of bright blue diamonds coming.
At least the graphics weren't laughably bad, as almost all of the sound is. The characters are all voiced by the obnoxiously "cute" girl anime voices that anyone who watches subtitled anime is far, far, far too familiar with. There is a female voice that announces the approach of bosses. She strains to say, "Your target is approaching." You can really hear her strain on the R's, but she avoids all engrish. I don't know if that's a good thing or not, I rather enjoy engrish. Let's not forget the back ground music, here's how the BGM development went down: "Ok, the game is done ... wait ... THERE'S NO MUSIC! Quick, you, bust out your Casio keyboard and play for 30 minutes" It's uninspired, low tech, generic and obviously an afterthought.
Thankfully Trigger Heart is not just a straight port, while there is a straight port included, Warashi decided to double the time it takes to do everything on the disc. Added are a story mode and an "Arrange" mode. The story mode is built around the arcade game, with extra boss fights added and voiced cut scenes to accompany them. I didn't understand all of what of what was going on, but it seems like standard shooter fare. The arrange mode is your standard score attack mode, nothing is customizable. Your lives, bombs, continues, etc. are all locked to default, a necessary addition for the score buffs out there. Now, I say double, but that's not saying much, each mode is a 20 - 30 minute ordeal.
So that's the second to last Dreamcast game. It's short, ugly, and might make your ears bleed. Yet somehow it's highly enjoyable. The grappling system and puzzle game play isn't going to turn the shooter market on its head simply because it's not surrounded by an amazing game. It's expensive ($59.90 is a lot for an arcade port), as all late market Dreamcast games are, but if you can get past that, I think you'd be making a good choice picking this one up. One game left; don't take the grey 'Dream' machine off life support just yet.