With an ever-expanding arsenal of weaponry and defensives, Natsuki Chronicles makes for some enjoyable shoot ‘em up action despite the plainness of the game’s stages.
With its succession of horizontally-scrolling, simple-looking stages, Natsuki Chronicles exactly doesn’t make a convincing first impression. But give Qute Corporation’s shooter a bit of time, and distinction grows unmistakably evident. Like many respectable entries in the genre, Natsuki Chronicles’ enjoyment comes as a slow smolder rather than an instantaneous spark and sizzle.
Much of this stems from the game’s ship customization system, which borrows some of the incentivization that can make role-playing games so addictive. While the stages themselves might not be interesting, you’ll be delighted by a drip-feed of new weapon unlocks. Taking each new one into battle endows Chronicles with a bit more longevity than its peers.
Story to Complement the Shooting
Much like the Sagamihara-based studio’s Ginga Force (published September 2020 in Western territories), plot plays a crucial role in Natsuki Chronicles. Ambitiously, this game serves as both a prequel and sequel to Alex and Margaret’s exploits following the eponymous lead’s training. In the present, you’ll continue to see the repercussions driven by Ginga Force’s depiction of a struggle for scarce resources.
Exposition arrives in two forms. Before missions, you’ll be treated to short cinematics featuring the prodigious rookie pilot Natsuki Sugiura, who is driven to the skies out of a sense of justice. But in both these pre-stage dialog screens as well as mid-flight spoken conversation, she’ll begin to question the motives of the Rapid Deployment Force (or RDF). As a division of the Mitsurugi Security Service tasked with ensuring the safety of planet Seventia, the RDF’s violent approaches seems to favor killing suspects rather than apprehending them.
Police brutality isn’t a commonplace theme in games, especially shooters. And while a genre like a visual novel would have been a better outlet to explore the nuances of the topic, Natsuki Chronicles’ intentions are noble. At the very least, the game offers a break from the ubiquity of the ‘single pilot taking on an entire invading army’ storyline. But when dialog occurs during missions it’s in Japanese. While subtitles are offered on the top-right corner of the screen, you’ll have to take your eyes off the action to read them if you’re not fluent. Of course, if you have no interest in narrative, you can confront the game’s arcade mode. Here, you can attempt to earn a spot on the game’s online leaderboards.
Bullet Trails in Bullet Hell
But exposition isn’t Natsuki Chronicles’ only exceptional characteristic. One of the game’s most useful assists is projecting the paths of bullet patterns on-screen. In execution, you’ll see translucent lines on the playfield that signal the trail projectiles will take, helping Natsuki steer clear on danger. It’s an incredibly helpful technique that I wouldn’t mind seeing in more games, since it offers assistance while still testing your dodging skills. It also scales obediently, offering no help, trajectories for high threat bullets, and even signaling the route for every single on-screen bullet.
Likewise, you don’t have to wonder where the next formation of enemies will be arriving from. Noncompulsory indicators foretell where foes will emerge, which is immensely helpful as adversaries arrive and linger on both sides of the screen. Depending on her weapon choice, Natsuki can opt to be ready for subordinates and bosses that sneak up on the left. Her ship has slots for two main weapons, with some firearms firing backwards.
Jack of All Trades, Master of Guns
While lacking traditional power-ups during play, Natsuki Chronicles’ ship customization is pleasingly complex. Across play, you’ll unlock access to a multitude of different gun types, special weapon behaviors, and levels of shielding, although you’ll have to use in-game currency to purchase each one. Naturally, you’ll discover lasers can sear through tougher foes on some stages, while spread shots favor levels where enemies are ground- and air-based. You’ll won’t find an offensive panacea but you will gradually build an arsenal that can confront foes across four difficulty levels.
Whether you succeed or are destroyed when tackling a level, Chronicles pays dividends. Persevere and you might earn leveled-up versions of your favorite guns and new defensive abilities for the green orbs that protect your ship. The enjoy for experimentation is substantial here, as you learn the strengths and weaknesses for each loadout. There’s nuance during play as well. While you can opt to shift between your two main weapons, the game also lets players fire both simultaneously. The downside is that each firearm is slightly downgraded, but the ability to protect multiple angles might be a fair trade off.
Likewise, the game’s special weapons allow for additional customization. While you can have the green orbs protect the front of your ship from attack, they can also be ordered to circle your ship. Alternatively, you can opt for an offensive boost, sending out the spheres to wreck opponents at the touch of a button. Your ships regenerative shielding also offers options, and you can equip a number of Ex. Shields that can absorb a hit. This is Chronicles’ version of the RPG grind, with persistence rewarded by increased resistance.
The Serviceable Sights of Seventia
That means you’ll probably be replaying stages, especially when an end-of-level boss belittles you. It’s here that you might wish Qute Corporation put a bit more effort into level design. While Chronicles’ milieus scroll by at a constant sixty frame-per-second rate on PlayStation 4 Pro, there’s not all that interesting to look at. For better or worse, there’s not a lot of opponent variety in each one with the game offering variations of the same five or so foes in each stage. It’s a Faustian trade-off for the game’s weapon system, and some players be turned off by the simplicity of stages.
But save for this minor infraction, Natsuki Chronicles is commendable, especially if you’re seeking distinctiveness in a shoot ‘em up. Between a storyline that superior to most shooters and the lure of an expansive armory, Chronicles is quite compelling. If nothing else, the title’s bullet trajectory tracking permits a wide swath of players to descend into bullet hell. Given the number of unlockables, expect to linger down there for a while.
Natsuki Chronicles was played on PlayStation 4 Pro
with review code provided by the publisher.