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December 2022

Natsuki Chronicles

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Shoot-'Em-Up
Publisher: Rising Star Games
Developer: Qute
Release Date: Feb. 18, 2021


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PS4 Review - 'Natsuki Chronicles'

by Cody Medellin on Oct. 1, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Natsuki Chronicles is a dramatic horizontal shoot-'em-up that takes place in the same setting as Ginga Force.

How do you make a game that is welcoming to genre newcomers while still serving up something that is both challenging and appealing to more experienced genre players? That's a question that designers constantly try to answer when developing their latest titles. For some, the answer is to ignore the newcomers and concentrate on something that caters to the hardcore through and through. For others, the approach is to add in something new to the genre that is universally familiar and capable of making the game feel different. That's the route that Natsuki Chronicles is going for, and the end result is quite solid.

The gameplay mechanics are a good example of how the developers have tried to please both new and old shooter fans alike. The shooting is more of a "bullet hell lite," as you have a good amount of enemies on-screen and a decent amount of bullets — but not to the point where it seems impossible to navigate. You have two movement speeds, and those speeds can be further tweaked in the options menu, so you can go between fast and slow movements at your discretion. To help out further, you can turn on indicators to show where enemies will appear, and you can also turn on pathways to show where each bullet will go; it gives you a huge advantage in finding safe spots, since the game gives your whole ship a collision box instead of relegating it to a small part at the center of your ship.

As for actual firepower, you can shoot both forward and backward, which is helpful since the game is fond of having enemies appear at all sides at any moment. While you can concentrate fire on either the front or back of your ship, you can fire both gun types at the same time, at the expense of either a higher rate of fire or heightened damage, depending on the weapon equipped. Speaking of which, the weapon variety is quite large. You may start off with a vulcan machine gun, but other front and rear weapons include wave beams, homing lasers, and spread guns.

Defensively, you have options that can be configured a few ways as far as ship placement goes. By default, the options need to be activated to provide the player with defensive maneuvers against enemy fire, but it needs a recharge after some time, and you can't fire back while it's active. Later on, you can configure the options to both act defensively and become battering rams against enemies. You have a shield instead of suffering from-one hit kills, and it regenerates over time, but draining the shield means an instant game over since there are no extra lives.

If you're looking for a bevy of modes to play with, forget about it; you're only presented with two basic modes in Natsuki Chronicles, so those who look forward to time trials or boss rush battles are out of luck. Of the game's two main modes, Story mode is where you learn about the title's narrative, which takes place before the events of the developer's other shooter, Ginga Force. You play the role of Natsuki Sugiura, a rookie pilot for the RDF. As she succeeds in stopping the forces that the top brass has labeled as terrorists, she becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that the only resolution to the conflicts is death. It doesn't take long for her to reach her breaking point and rebel against the very organization she works for.

There are two problems with the narrative. It can be daunting to follow the story because all of the dialogue is spoken in Japanese with no option for an English vocal track. Some will argue that the subtitles mitigate the language barrier, but they're placed in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. It's annoying during cut scenes but impossible to follow during gameplay, which is problematic since the more important bits occur when you're actively fighting against enemy forces and bosses. To compound this, going through the levels the first time unlocks trophies, and they completely obscure the text. As such, you'll need a second playthrough to understand what's going on.

Provided you go through the trouble of doing all of that or just get the major story beats, the other issue with the story is that it isn't that interesting. Natsuki already experiences some doubt about her actions after the first level, but that cycle of doubt repeats itself until you make it two-thirds of the way through the game. By that time, her act of rebellion is no longer an exciting story development, and facing off against her former boss is met with apathy as. Combined with a lackluster ending, the narrative falls flat.

The gameplay does a few more things that makes it lean toward being a more accessible shooter. For one, you can save your progress, and dying doesn't mean that you're starting over from level one. Instead, completing a level or dying in one feeds XP to a level familiarity pool, and achieving different XP levels grants extra shields for that level alone, so you get a fighting chance to defeat the level. The system is brilliant for those who want to beat the game, and it prevents the player from abusing the system by aiming for constant quick deaths, since you need to make actual progress before a significant amount of level XP is given.

You also have a general player XP system to heed, as leveling up gives you access to new weapons. You'll still have to do a bit of grinding for credits, since some of the more powerful guns are expensive, but it means that you can start a level with the weapons you want instead of relying on random power-up drops. Combined with the difficulty levels, it shouldn't be too hard for anyone to beat the game, but while you can carry over your weapons and cash from one difficulty level to another, the level XP is stuck to each difficulty level, so trying to take on the final boss in Expert mode after beating him in Normal mode with five extra shields means having to grind for more level XP to get those extra shields again at that difficulty level.

For all of this progress, the mode does something quizzical that involves the campaign pacing. There are three training levels that are only available here, but they don't appear in the beginning of Natsuki Chronicles. Instead, they're spread out through the 10-level campaign, and while the final one makes sense since you're piloting a new craft, the first two are nonsensical, since they're trying to teach you things you've already discovered through normal gameplay. It serves as flashbacks to the story, but since you can't skip them, it feels like unnecessary padding.

The second mode is Arcade mode, which has the same shooting mechanics but with some significant changes. The 10 main stages are still here, but now you don't get interrupted by cut scenes, in-game dialogue, or flashbacks to training levels. You also don't get to pick out your ship loadout before launching into each level, relying instead on pick-ups to get new weapons or power them up. That becomes more daunting, as the drops aren't accompanied by text, so you have to figure out which weapons or powers were dropped based on the icons. Your shields still have regenerative powers, but getting hit powers down your weapons until you end up with the bare essentials, so there's incentive to avoid enemy fire.

The biggest change comes from the game's sense of progression, as you can't save your progress at all. As in the arcades of old, you're expected to go through all 10 levels in one go, and losing all of your shields results in an immediate game over. Like a few shooters out there, Natsuki Chronicles makes up for this by granting you the ability to have limited continues that apply for your next run, and while you'll never reach that mythical infinite continue supply, you can amass enough to get you to the end, provided you have the skill to not rely on them too often; this ensures that you get a place on the leaderboard with an "All Clear" designation.

Unlike the gameplay, the presentation is merely serviceable. The music is fine but ultimately forgettable, while the effects and voices are good enough even if they don't stand out much. Graphically, the game does a brilliant job of holding a steady 60fps despite everything happening on-screen, but the locales aren't that exciting to look at. The same goes for all of the enemies you encounter, as none of them have memorable defining features, while some of the particle effects (e.g., explosions) look overly simplified. The simple nature of the graphics means that no enemies or bullets blend in and surprise you, but this is hardly a showcase for a modern game.

In the end, Natsuki Chronicles is a solid shoot-'em-up. The action provides a nice balance between hardcore and novice-friendly gameplay, while the various tweakable options are welcome for players of all skill levels. Despite a lack of modes, there is some replayability thanks to an online leaderboard system and various difficulty levels and items to unlock; it gives players a reason to return despite the lackluster story. If you're a shoot-'em-up fan, Natsuki Chronicles is well worth checking out.

Score: 8.0/10

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