While they are perhaps not as ubiquitous as back in the arcade heyday, there’s still something I find irresistible about a good bullet-hell shooter. Something about the fast action, often bright and vivid visuals and that all powerful one more go factor just sucks me in every time. Not that I’m any good at them, even after all this time, but boy, do I enjoy them. Natsuki Chronicles is the latest of the genre to pass my way and I had a rather excellent time with it – despite not managing to get all the way to the end.
That’s even with Natsuki Chronicles rather forgiving set up too. Unlike other titles in the genre, here we have a couple of bones thrown our way to offset the frankly mad action on screen. Firstly, our craft is able to withstand 3 hits in quick succession. Not only that, but dodging further attacks for a short while actually sees the shield slowly recharge. Additionally, extra shields can be added depending on your performance on earlier runs, though these are expended upon impact. We also have a plethora of options for attack. Forward and backward firing guns, rockets, lasers and more allow you to defend all angles. Using both at once is possible, though the damage output is diminished at the same time. A defence perk rounds out our crafts abilities, again coming in many different flavours and allowing us not only to inflict extra damage but also wipe out incoming bullets at the same time. The only thing missing is a full screen clearing attack, though there’s enough else to use that having that may have been overkill.
All this is to allow Qute Corporation to really lay on the enemies and difficulty – and they take every opportunity to do so. Even in the early stages, on Easy no less, the screen is rarely clear for more than a few seconds before a literal explosion of colours and bullets make their way toward you. Our ship is nimble, with two swappable (and customisable) settings allowing us to speed up or slow down to handle the incoming waves. But even that can’t save you alone. Enemy ships come thick and fast, and in an impressive amount of variety. From tiny drones that let off a single bullet to screen sized tanks using rockets, lasers and bullets in concert, each offer a unique challenge. As I mentioned, I rather enjoy this type of game, and Natsuki Chronicles pretty much nails exactly why in this respect. Every few seconds is different, never letting up but always keeping you in control of your actions. Get cornered by a barrage of bullets and it very rarely feels as though you had no choice to escape it. Overly cocky play will be met with severe punishment, yet cowardice will be put down just as much. On the flip side, once you lock in to the zone – your peripheral vision being used for the majority of your threat detection, the colours (or lack thereof) all hinting at the next possible avenue – there’s not many game experiences that can touch it. Qute help out here too, with contextual (or always on/off should you prefer) guidelines that show the nearest impending threat direction, giving you vital seconds to plan an escape.
The levels themselves are brilliantly designed too, with fast moving backdrops adding to the feeling of souring through the air in a high-powered anime rocket ship and giving the visuals a nice boost – not that you’ll get much time to spend looking at them. In addition to the sheer variety of ships, the bullet types, colours and effects is astounding. The screen often looks like a gaggle of rainbows are engaged in a comical brawl, such is the colour emanating off screen. While the majority of the action sees us flying from right to left, occasionally Qute deem it fit to mix things up a touch. Enemies will fly in from all angles, but there’s times when navigating a series of tight corridors – while avoiding a hail of fire, of course – is the order of the day. Or one level while escorting a train, where it suddenly speeds up, shooting along the lower part of the screen while enemies that are latched on the the top of it attack you from the behind as they fly past.
Whether you complete or fail a level, experience, currency and unlocks are granted (obviously more for a successful run though). Repeated plays will grant you enough to purchase new weapons and defences. Some will be better suited to certain stages, though you’ll no doubt settle on your favourites for your style as I did – the forward homing rings and backwards wave attack seemed to see me well enough for the most part. Even a failed run feels valuable here, inching you closer to those upgrades you’ve had your eye on. Natsuki Chronicles always looks to reward the player, no matter your performance – yet another great touch that keeps you feeling engaged rather than defeated. The end screen of each run is inundated with new stats and figures, so much so that it can feel a little overwhelming at first. Handily, all of these message can be referred back to in a log on the menu screen later.
It’s a shame then that I struggled to get much beyond the halfway point of the game. I was having an excellent time, and those of you out there with more nimble fingers and reflexes will no doubt get to the end. But the difficulty starts off hard and ramps up and up. A lack of mid-level checkpoints see a death forcing a full restart, while notching the difficulty up beyond the easiest setting has seemingly been designed for those who have had some sort of nano-machine enhancements installed. I only managed one stage on normal, and even then it took many, many tries. There are two further difficulties to unlock too, though needless to say I didn’t manage to get there. Difficulty is synonymous with bullet-hell shooters – I mean, it’s kinda in the name – but I’d have liked to see a little bit more of a drop off for the lowest setting. I also could not tell you what was happening in the story. Early cutscenes and flashback sequences fill in a little; you’re training to join the Rapid Defence Force in order to fight some eco-terrorists, though our hero seems quite uncertain that the lengths asked of her are really justified. Some more exposition is offered up in game, but the dialogue is all in Japanese – there are subtitles, but glancing at them tucked in the top corner means certain doom for your craft.
An arcade mode eschews these aspects entirely, instead focussing on the classic experience of starting from point one and seeing how far you can get. Power ups are dotted throughout the level instead of earned via upgrades and also act as your extra shield buffs. Take a hit and this will disappear along with it’s associated power-up. A more traditional mentality, it does mean that the more you get hit, the weaker you become which may put some off. The difficulty is also just as brutal here; I managed to get to the end of stage 4 before falling. The more you play, the more continues you unlock which does encourage a retry, though this is one for the more dedicated out there.
Natsuki Chronicles is one of the more enjoyable bullet-hell shooters I’ve played in quite some time. It nails the addictive nature of the classic arcade titles, and wraps it up in some gorgeous visuals and excellent level design. While these games are hard by nature, I did feel that Qute took it a tad too far here, with even the Easy setting proving to be rock solid. But those with time and patience on their hands will get no doubt have a great time here, and even if I suck at it, Natsuki Chronicles will be popping up on my playlist for sometime yet.