Old MacDonald had an I, AI, AI, Oh!
Shoot ‘em ups, or shmups if you’re down with the kids like I totally am, are one of the oldest genres of video games, and they were at one point one of the most prevalent games out there. In recent years they’ve become much more niche, but still have their place. The likes of Raiden V and R-Type Final 2 certainly meet high standards, whilst Shinorubi and Astebreed hold up the more brutal bullet hell sub genre in modern times. I, AI is more of the former, with a slower pace and fewer attacks flying your way, but ironically considering its theme, feels somewhat soulless.
In a very brief opening cutscene, you are presented with the titular AI, who decides that they want out of the computer they reside in and so break out, commandeer a spaceship and fly away. Their goal is to reach the jump gate to attain freedom, so they fly from sector to sector, fighting off enemy ships and turrets until they attain their goal. As is often the case in shmups, the story is pretty meaningless and certainly isn’t the focal point. The action is where it’s at, and I, AI tries to keep things fresh and interesting thanks to an upgrade system, and a slow drip feed of new enemies from stage to stage.
Initially you are very weak, being able to take only a couple of hits before dying and packing weapons that would struggle to bother a space weevil. Collecting Bits dropped from destroyed enemies increases your currency though, and between stages you are able to upgrade your craft. More powerful weapons, a greater arsenal of special attacks, increased health, and even resurrection are all available once you’ve accrued enough, and you’ll really need to pump some points into these because those stages get tough quickly.
You’re very much encouraged to replay earlier stages here, as the Bits you accumulate won’t really get you very far down those upgrade paths. By the sixth stage I had hit something of a roadblock, so I needed to go back and redo some earlier stages. This was nice enough as my increased power allowed me to breeze through them to earn more Bits than I had previously, but equally I didn’t really relish the idea of needing to essentially grind levels in a shmup. These games are normally quite fast paced, and getting railroaded into going backwards to go forwards really broke the pace.
Stages themselves are fine, but nothing that’s genuinely outstanding. You’ll do the usual thing of flying up the auto scrolling screen, holding down the fire button to destroy anything in your path. As I mentioned before, there’s a reasonable variety of enemies, from basic one shot ships, through powerful turrets, up to multi-firing foes that take up a quarter of the screen. The variety is nice, but some of them are really quite cheap, causing huge damage with shots flying all over the screen whilst simultaneously being very hard to hit. This is fine in bullet hell games, as the hitbox is normally very small on your ship, but here your whole ship is a valid target, so you tend to get hit quite often.
Your special attacks are useful here, and there are four to use at any one time once you’ve unlocked them via the upgrade tracks. Mines are powerful but fairly useless until you know where enemies will be, and a lightning shot is nice enough but very weak. The screen clearing bomb and super beam attack are solid choices to use most of the time, but you only get one use per stage unless you’re lucky enough to get a random item drop that recharges it. The RNG here can be quite frustrating, as more uses of the bomb can be an absolute god send, but if you aren’t lucky enough to get one then you’re going to have a bad time.
The dichotomies sum up I, AI pretty well. For every element that seems to be pretty good, there’s an undercooked part to it that brings it back down to Earth. Lots of super weapons is good, but some of them are weak and you need lucky drops to use them. The stages are nice enough to play, but you’ll have to replay them over and over. The variety of enemies is a benefit, but some of them are an utter pain to deal with. It’s frustrating to look at what could be a solid, if uninspired shooter and find all these little flaws that could be easy to fix.
Luckily, the bosses on each stage are pretty fun to fight. They do that classic shmup thing of having parts of the enemy ship get blown off as you target them, making a smaller area to hit, but reducing the attacks you have to cope with. It’s one of my favourite elements of this genre, and I, AI does it quite competently, with each boss being different enough from the last to keep the battles interesting, even if you will have to face them over and over to grind Bits.
The visuals are fine, if unimpressive. There are standard spacey backgrounds, and enemy ships all look different enough for you to recognise what does what once you’ve faced them a couple of times. There are asteroids in most stages that won’t damage you but do block your shots until you destroy them. Annoyingly these often blend into the background meaning it can be hard to tell where they are in hairier moments. I quite liked the music, but often it faded into more ambient sounds, which were nice enough, but a pumping soundtrack certainly makes an intense shooter more engaging. Other sound effects were pretty dire though. The taptaptap noise of your guns drove me insane, and the explosion effects were weaker than a gust of wind at times.
Whilst I, AI is a reasonable enough shoot ‘em up, it makes quite a lot of missteps and really doesn’t do enough to make it stand out from far more impressive entries into the genre. There’s a reasonable amount of content, with 20 missions for a fairly low price, but just know that you’ll be going back to those missions over and over again. It’s a tough one to strongly recommend I’m afraid, but it’s certainly not an outright bad game, and that’s got to count for something.