The shoot ’em up is still alive and well and flying guns-blazing out of bullet hell.
It’s time to go back in time to an era where sweaty teenagers were jammed into dimly-lit arcades. To a simpler time of basic controls, where a joystick and a couple of buttons was really all you needed. When depleting credits either meant you scrounged for more coins, gave up, or faced the odds through an onslaught of bullets.
This was the age of the shoot ’em up (affectionally termed the shmup). A truly iconic genre and a classic staple of The Golden Age of Video Games. Games that feature the player facing off against waves of enemies, screens littered with bullets, an array of ship upgrades, weapon enhancements, and massive boss battles.
You’ll probably be familiar with games like the classic Gradius or 1942, or more recent titles like Geometry Wars and the critically-acclaimed Ikaruga. It’s a genre that spans decades, with the highly-influential Space Invaders being considered one of the earliest titles in the genre.
Though shmups aren’t quite as popular as they once were, there are still games that are keeping the genre alive, and today I’m writing about one that completely took me by surprise: Natsuki Chronicles. The developers, Qute Corporation (what a cute name), are quite experienced in creating games of this genre, and this game occurs in parallel to their previous title, Ginga Force.
You play as budding pilot young Natsuki Sugiura aboard a ship by the name of Dominator and is a new member of the planet’s Rapid Defence Force (RDF). The game follows a story linked to its predecessor and is scattered with character dialogue and short cutscenes at the beginning of each mission. Although the story feels somewhat tacked on and certainly is one of the weaker parts of the game, that’s perfectly fine, because nobody plays a shmup for the story. It’s all about the gameplay. Thankfully this is where Natsuki Chronicles goes above and beyond.
The game has two modes: story and arcade mode. Both take you through 10 main levels, each in a distinct environment with set patterns of enemies, plenty of hazards, and a challenging boss fight at the end. During the story mode you start each stage only being allowed to take 3 hits (which slowly recharge), but as you progress further through the stage this contributes towards stage XP, overall XP, and credit points which you can spend on weapons and upgrades.
With each failure your stage XP increases and unlocks additional shields to use during the level. Every additional shield will allow you to progress slightly further through the level until you reach the perfect point where you have just enough to take down the boss. Some bosses are brutal and will require a full set of shields, but never felt unfair or overly difficult. It’s a perfect way to adapt the difficulty based on the player’s proficiency.
Over the course of the game you’ll begin to level up and unlock an array of armaments. You can choose to change your main weapon, sub weapon and special weapon with an almost limitless number of combinations. Whether you have a play-style that best suits a hard-hitting focused beam, bullets that spread out and cover the entire screen, or a homing attack so you can focus on dodging instead. There’s something for everyone! Certain weapons are also suited for particular stages: a level with lots of walls requires a weapon that can fire through them, or a level with lots of enemies approaching from behind requires weapons that can fire backwards.
Playing on PS5, the game runs at 4K and maintains a consistently smooth framerate, and as such is highly responsive and looks detailed and clean. Though the game is far from a visual marvel, the environments of each level are a pleasure to look at and the enemies have a distinct cartoonish appearance allowing them to stand against the background. The same goes for your ship: the Dominator; even when the screen is jam-packed with bullets you’ll rarely lose track of yourself. The game also aides you with warning lines to mark the trajectory of incoming bullets, which comes in handy during particularly difficult sections of the game.
During the story mode there are also extra “training missions” and certain levels that allow you to pilot a much larger ship that launches a literal wall of bullets. Each level in the game can also be played on one of four difficulties; I played through the entire game on Normal and felt this was a reasonable challenge. If you’re a bullet hell maniac then by all means play on Hard and above, but I would not recommend this for the regular player.
Arcade mode also offers a more challenging version of the game, as you collect power-ups while progressing through each level. Getting hit forces you to lose a power-up instead of a shield, meaning that dodging bullets is even more important. Once you aim for the hi-score you’ll be able to upload it onto the global leaderboard in order to gloat to your friends. I got #100 globally after a few tries which was satisfying, so fans of arcade gameplay are likely to get decent replay value out of this mode.
The soundtrack by composer Yousuke Yasui is also one of the game’s best features. Its fast-paced beats, retro style and funky bass lines feel straight out of the ’80s and are incredibly fitting alongside the frantic gameplay. He’s no stranger to shmups, as the composer has created music for a massive list of games including the previous Qute games, multiple Touhou series games, Under Defeat HD, and outside of the genre even 3D Dot Game Heroes! It’s well worth a listen even after having finished the game.
Overall the campaign took about 8 hours to complete (with many deaths along the way), and during this I ended up unlocking a majority of the weapons and trophies along the way. It’s quite a lengthy campaign for a shmup game and felt like good value for the time that I committed. The vast options for weaponry along with a clever level-up system and adaptable difficulty make it one of the best modern shmups I’ve encountered. If you’re a fan of the genre you’d be a fool to go past Natsuki Chronicles.
So why should I play it?
- You enjoy the shoot ’em up genre.
- Lengthy games are too time-consuming – something quick and engaging is more suitable.
- Space ships, guns and bullets (lots of them) are your thing.
- Arcade gaming is a fond memory for you.
But why shouldn’t I play it?
- You dislike repetition and would rather not play through the same levels repeatedly.
- Hundreds of bullets on screen at once would give you a heart attack.
Thanks to Rising Star Games and Plan of Attack for providing a PS4 review code for the purpose of this review. The game was played on a PS5 console.