Natsuki Chronicles is a bright, vibrant shoot-’em-up from Qute Corporation, the studio behind gems like Ginga Force and Eschatos. It joins the trend of more story-driven shmups, with a story mode that’s surprisingly involved and full of drama, and also adds a layer of character progression that you don’t typically see in arcade shooting games. But for the score-chasers, there’s a decent arcade mode, too.
Taking place in parallel to the events of Ginga Force, Natsuki Chronicles tells the story of Natsuki, a talented new recruit in the Mitsurugi Security Service’s Rapid Deployment Force (RDF). Skilled pilot though she is, she’s still somewhat naive—making it quite a shock when her mission, a routine arrest, winds up with her killing the target after being ordered to use whatever force is necessary to stop him. When the same thing keeps happening, she finds herself questioning the RDF’s goals and her own complicity.
It’s a much more grim, yet thoughtful, story than I expected going in. Despite the game’s colourful presentation and playful energy, it goes to some dark places and asks pointed questions about authority and use of force in policing. It’s not an especially nuanced exploration or one that goes into too much depth, but it has a point to make and it makes it boldly.
However, Natsuki Chronicles suffers from one of the common problems with story-centric shoot-ups: in-game dialogue with Japanese-only audio. As a rule, I’m not concerned about not having an English voice track (I tend to stick to Japanese with subtitles even when English is an option, anyway). But in a game where taking your focus off the immediate action for even half a second to read a line of subtitles will likely get you killed, the lack of translated audio suddenly becomes a much bigger issue.
It’s a tricky one, because recording a whole new voice track is expensive, prohibitively so for a small localisation outfit—I don’t doubt that the lack of such in Natsuki Chronicles was simply a case of it not being financially viable. Key plot points unfold through pre- and post-level cutscenes, so the issue isn’t so bad that the story becomes impossible to follow. Regardless, if you can’t understand Japanese well enough to pick up the gist of the mid-level dialogue, you’ll miss out on some of the more interesting characterisation.
Natsuki Chronicles mostly follows a familiar side-scrolling shoot-’em-up framework, with a variety of different enemies to avoid and/or shoot down as they appear from all sides of the screen, and increasingly challenging bullet patterns to weave through. There’s a wide array of different weapons to pick up and bolster your own firepower with, and a nice little (optional) touch of having the game show bullet trajectories.
The level design and boss design in Natsuki Chronicles is particularly impressive. Most levels include terrain among the many obstacles you have to contend with, and some take this to almost maze-like extremes: the screen’s scroll remains fixed, as usual, but with an array of different rooms and timed doors between them that you need to find your way through before the scroll leaves you stuck between a wall and the edge of the screen. Boss fights get similarly creative, when they see you flying high-speed through an obstacle course or trapped inside a mech’s giant claw with limited space to move around and dodge its attacks.
Story Mode adds a layer of player progression, with a wide range of different weapons to unlock and use to customise your ship. Playing a stage earns you experience points depending on your performance—win or lose, you’ll always get something, but completing the stage will obviously get you more. As well as a constant player level, every stage has its own stage level, through which you’ll unlock both weapons for permanent use and stage-exclusive bonus shields that let you survive extra hits. The latter is particularly noteworthy as a neat way to moderate difficulty—the more you play a stage, the easier the level becomes, but without detracting from the inherent challenge (or reward) of gunning for a perfect run.
Arcade Mode, by contrast, is your standard arcade experience, with those various weapons and shields coming as drops from enemies and supply ships. This is the place for high score runs and chasing the top of the leaderboards—classic arcade stuff. But even here, there’s a light element of progression, with repeat plays increasing the maximum number of credits available.
This all makes for an exciting shoot-’em-up with plenty of depth, dressed up in a bright, colourful art style. In its story mode, Natsuki Chronicles cleverly balances the challenge inherent in the genre with a sense of constant progression, as it pointedly explores questions around authority and use of force. With arcade mode, you’ve got the pure fun of trying to perfect your runs and post the highest scores you can. In both, you’ve got a rock-solid shooting game that’s a whole lot of fun.
Natsuki Chronicles is developed by Qube Corporation and published by Thunderful and Rising Star Games. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.