Graceful Explosion Machine review: "Without a solid hook, it's likely to leave your mind as quickly as it arrived"

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Graceful Explosion Machine is the gaming equivalent of empty calories. It's pretty to look at, super smooth, and has some interesting weapons, but there's no real hook to keep you sustained beyond the act of moving around and blowing up aliens.


  • +

    Stylish and smooth

  • +

    Four weapons offer opportunities to get out of nearly any jam


  • -

    Levels are way too long

  • -

    You've seen most of what it has to offer after a couple of stages

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Playing Graceful Explosion Machine is like guzzling down a bunch of candy. It's bright, colorful, and fun to consume in the moment, but eat too much, and it all starts to taste the same; your mouth begins to go numb from the sugar. Ok, that metaphor got away from me by the end there, but that's Graceful Explosion Machine in a nutshell. It's a very pretty and slick-looking arcade shmup that'll let you blow stuff up real good for a few minutes then completely disappear from your brain when you put it down.

Graceful Explosion Machine takes many of its cues from arcade classic Defender or modern spins like Resogun. Almost every single one of its 36 stages take place on a horizontally-scrolling field that infinitely wraps around - like taking a strip of paper and folding it into a circle by making the ends touch - and you must deftly maneuver around wave after wave of enemy aliens and blast them into oblivion. A couple tutorial stages introduce its four weapons - a simple blaster, an energy sword that rotates around your ship, lock-on missiles, and a high-powered sniper blast - as well as the ability to flip directions and dash through enemies. You can't use these weapons forever, though. Your blaster will need to cool down if you use it too much, and your other weapons are tied to a gem meter, which is filled up by collecting the yellow gems which enemies drop as you blow them up.

This seems like a lot of information to take in, but within a few rounds, it all becomes second nature, as visual and audio cues from the various gauges and your ship's animations let you know when you need to lay off the blaster or grab more gems. It's a delicate balance, too, as enemies come fast and furious, forcing you to constantly be on your guard and make dozens of split-second decisions at a time. Tiny aliens will surround you and can be taken out with a sword swipe, but if you don't have enough gem power, it might be best to dodge out of the way - but you might dodge right into an enemy bullet if you're not careful. Three hits and you're dead, but you can eventually earn more health if you stay alive long enough.

All the while, Graceful Explosion Machine envelops you in this colorful, candy-coated shell. Everything is filled in with bright pastel colors, enemy explosions pop in a series of overlapping diamonds, and emojis sneak onto the screen when you pull off a particularly impressive feat. It's got a really clean, slick look, all enhanced by its silky smooth framerate and a plinky synthesizer soundtrack that accompanies the action, responding to the frenetic pace of your attacks and the natural ebb and flow of the enemy onslaught.

But... that's all it does. Once you've played the first few stages, you've seen pretty much everything it has to offer. Each stage has a specific rhythm. You'll usually start out by getting harassed by swarms of constantly spawning smaller melee creatures, which you'll likely take out with your blaster and energy sword. Eventually, a few larger ones show up and launch some energy balls at you, and you move around blowing them up and absorbing gems until they're dead while continuing to destroy the smaller enemies in tandem. Sometimes stages remove the ability to wrap around the edges. Sometimes stages have moving laser beams you have to avoid. Sometimes new enemy types get added to change things up, which force you to use your sniper beam to whittle away a shield before you can do proper damage. But these things don't change up the flow enough to make any particular moment stand out, inevitably making each level feel like it just blends into the next at a base level of fun and excitement until you decide to turn it off. It's only exacerbated by the fact that the only major aesthetic difference between each of the four worlds is the color scheme. 

Individual stages also take way too long to complete, partially because they can easily last up to five minutes or more, and mostly because you spend the majority of your time dealing with an enormous amount of mindless fodder in between the larger and more interesting enemies. Its structure is a bit strange too - if you die in a stage, you have the option to either restart the current wave from the beginning, or start the entire stage over. Lose three lives, and it's back to the start of the whole level for you. Graceful Explosion Machine already resets your score to zero when you lose a life; by not letting your respawn immediately where you die, it just makes each level last far longer than it should. The worst offenders are the Warp stages at the end of each world, where each death sends you back to the beginning of the entire stage, with no checkpoints in between.

Graceful Explosion Machine is a decent enough distraction; something you can play that allows you to turn your brain off and blow up a bunch of multi-colored bits and bobs when you need to kill some time for a few minutes. But without a solid hook beyond its glossy exterior and a handful of interesting weapons, there's not much reason to return to it, its arcadey offering likely to leave your mind behind as quickly as it arrived.

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David Roberts
David Roberts lives in Everett, WA with his wife and two kids. He once had to sell his full copy of EarthBound (complete with box and guide) to some dude in Austria for rent money. And no, he doesn't have an amiibo 'problem', thank you very much.