For a while there, it really looked like we were done with side-scrolling shoot-em-ups for good. I say that without any particular joy at that fact, obviously, because I really like this genre. But it seemed like the spark had gone out, the genre had been pushed as far as it could go, and without the basic arcade formula to keep things livened up there wasn’t much more to be done with it.
Fortunately for those of us who do like the genre, that turned out not to be the case, and people have found a lot of new and interesting things to do with shooters that have given the genre a small but needed shot in the arm. Natsuki Chronicles is definitely a product of that genre, and like most entries in the genre, it had to choose between recreating arcade gameplay with tough-as-nails requirements or trying to be a bit less brutal in its deployment.
And it opted for… both, in a way.
Natsuki Chronicles is out now on both PlayStation 4 and PC via Steam. The PS4 version was played for this review.
She’s the Introspective (R-)Type
As the title would suggest, Natsuki Chronicles is the story of a young woman named Natsuki. She’s part of the defense force on the planet of Seventia which involves flying around in a little spaceship, but she quickly realizes that her goals of keeping the planet safe are being outpaced by a remarkably overzealous and violent approach to dealing with dissent…
Or at least, that’s what you can probably manage to glean from the snippets of story you’ll catch.
Here’s the thing: the story in Natsuki Chronicles isn’t bad. It’s actually pretty good, if a bit rote in the stock types of “turns out maybe the good guys aren’t as good as you thought” plots. What makes it difficult to follow is not that the story is confusing, but that it’s presented in a way entirely at odds with the game you’re playing.
See, the game’s voice acting is still in Japanese. Fine, that’s not a problem. But the subtitled discussion is happening up in the upper right-hand corner of the screen… during the entirety of the level. You know, the level during which you are eagerly trying to avoid the truly astonishing number of projectiles hurtling your way and also shooting your way past your enemies. The level during which your eyesight should not be fixed on dialogue boxes.
In this particular case, it’s actually for the best that the story is a bit on the simpler side, just because that means that you won’t be lost trying to follow along when you only catch some of the dialogue or story beats along the way. It’s a bit of a downside, as is the fact that the story cutscenes focus pretty heavily on ships flying around and shooting each other rather than showing you these characters directly interacting.
I don’t mean to disparage the story too much; it’s clearly trying hard, and there’s a lot of investment in the fun of having a good, solid story. The problem is entirely down to how your focus needs to be aligned while you’re playing the game. Good idea, but perhaps not the best localization execution.
Making the Gradius
So when I started this particular review, I mentioned that the game wants to both have the more hard-as-heck arcade sensibility and the more accessible modern shooter version in place. And it does this rather simply, through having two separate modes of play. In the story mode, you play through individual missions and carefully customize your ship’s loadout; in the arcade mode, you start at the first stage and go straight through to the end, picking up powerups as you go.
It’s a testament to the overall balance mechanics that it works as well as it does. Natsuki Chronicles is built around a core shooter experience that is balanced and honed well, with a solid arsenal. Natsuki’s ship is armed with a main weapon, a secondary weapon, and a “special” weapon that works a bit more like a blocking shield than anything. You can fire your main and secondary weapons simultaneously, but neither one will be at full power when you do so.
So far, so good. What makes the game really sing is its attention to little details here and there. For example, there’s the speed toggle, allowing you to manually set your normal movement speed as well as an alternate speed for making fine adjustments to your position. This dovetails nicely with the game’s bullet warning system, showing you the trajectory of incoming attacks before they hit you (and of course, there are multiple options for how to have those warnings pop up).
The game also gives you access to shields, which regenerate over time, but slowly. The result is that you can take a hit or two without being in trouble, even without powerups (powerups in Arcade mode and stage replays in Story mode give you a couple of extra shields to absorb incoming shots). However, you can’t take multiple hits in short order, thus preserving the tension of trying to avoid damage at all costs.
Overall, I really like what the game seemed to be going for. If you like shooters but you’re not very good at them, the game seems well-suited to helping you through as much as possible without becoming shamefully easy. If you want a harder experience, there are a lot of ways to make life harder on yourself, including multiple harder difficulty levels to challenge you on story mode. Combine that with a whole lot of options in terms of weaponry and loadout and you have a lot of different ways of improving your play experience and tailoring it to your preferences.
Darius to Dream
Looking at static shots of the game, it looks a little simplistic and ugly. This is incorrect, though; it’s entirely a function of the graphics being chunky enough to tell apart in the heat of the moment. When you’re actually playing, everything looks brilliant in motion, with ships bobbing and weaving, bosses changing angles to attack you with different weapons, and every shot and laser clearly visible against the background blowing by as the stage progresses.
Appreciation must also be given for the UI, which has a lot of information to convey at a glance but manages to do so without becoming overcrowded. The issue with dialogue aside, the interface is clean and easy to read.
Beyond that, there’s the music, which is… fine, but it’s also a bit on the generic side. None of the tracks particularly stood out to me as earworms, but they all felt suitable in the heat of the moment.
In some ways, Natsuki Chronicles is a slight thing. It’s certainly not going to be the game that makes people who never play shoot-em-ups reconsider that stance, nor is it the sort of thing that you’re likely to devote months of play to unless you have a burning desire for a new shooter and this is the extent of your options in that regard.
However, there’s nothing wrong with it being slight in that regard. What the game seeks to do, it accomplishes well and with aplomb, missing some minor technical issues with its presentation. And it certainly has more than enough content to keep you engaged as you challenge higher difficulties, grinding your stage level up for a little more defense, trying to earn up the credits for a new primary weapon.
So it’s a little thing, but it’s a fun little thing. That’s what it wants to be, and it deserves good marks for aiming at a simple target but hitting it with notable skill.
Review copy provided by Rising Star Games for PS4. Screenshots courtesy of Rising Star Games.