At first blush, Cotton Fantasy feels a lot like last year’s Cotton Reboot. It’s got a new story, new levels, new enemies and boss fights, but the same cute, playful vibe, same general approach, and similar (if slightly simplified) scoring mechanics to Reboot’s wonderfully exuberant revamp. It’s a sequel, after all, and the first entirely new Cotton game in almost 20 years—more than 20, if you exclude pachinko machines. Using the excellent reboot as a base makes absolute sense.
But then you pick one of a handful of guest characters from other Success and Studio Saizansen games, and you really see the game’s full potential: a bunch of characters with unique, wildly different mechanics push that rock-solid Cotton base in all sorts of different directions, with all sorts of new possibilities. Plenty of shoot-’em-ups have different characters with different attacks or mechanics, but here, they reach the point of feeling like entirely remixed versions of the game, or even whole new games.
Pick Cotton or recurring character Appli, and Cotton Fantasy plays like a Cotton game, with gems to collect that function as power-ups, ammunition for your powerful, bullet-cancelling magic attacks, and the root of the scoring system. Pick Psyva Ria, an anthropomorphised form of one of the ships from Success’ PS2-era bullet hell Psyvariar, and Cotton Fantasy plays like a bullet hell, complete with a single-pixel hitbox, a graze mechanic, and a scoring system that revolves around it. Pick the eponymous heroine of Studio Saizansen’s fishing-themed platformer Umihara Kawase, and you get a version of Cotton Fantasy where fishing for enemies and then firing them from a cannon is your most powerful and versatile weapon (and also the core of the scoring system—you get the picture). Some characters twist the core systems more than others, but with seven in total, there are plenty of possibilities and styles of play.
Those choices of character compound with Cotton Fantasy’s choice of levels. The first and last two stages are always the same, but for the five in between them, players can pick from a handful of different options: five initially, but 11 once you’ve unlocked them all. Different themes and design approaches mean each stage has its own feel, and everyone will have the levels they prefer to play. But it’s the intersection of character mechanics and level design where things get really interesting: Psyva Ria fares much better on pure shooter stages with lots of bullets to graze than on more puzzle-like ones with obstacles to navigate; Umihara Kawase shines when there are hordes of weak enemies catch; and so on.
All this means there’s a huge amount of variety in Cotton Fantasy. That’s worthwhile in its own right—if you like a good shmup but want a bit more flexibility than they usually offer, this is a good choice. But again, where things get really interesting is in how those pieces come together: the overlapping variety of characters, stages, and systems for both power-ups and scoring mean that whether you’re playing for survival or score, there’s a huge amount of room to explore and experiment. It’ll be fascinating to see how high scores and superplays develop over time, as players pick apart all those little pieces and figure out the best ways to put them back together. Thankfully, there’s a decent training mode to help with that.
The trade-off is that, on an individual level, none of the characters feel quite as deep or layered as Cotton Reboot. Even Cotton herself uses a simplified version of Reboot‘s mechanics—still fun, and with the same sort of energy, but a little less nuance. Even though stages have different levels of synergy with different characters, they still have to at least be functional for the entire cast; as a result, they never get to really push their unique ideas to the full potential. On balance, I think I still prefer Reboot‘s more pure, focused approach—but that doesn’t mean I don’t still love Fantasy‘s creativity.
At the very least, it’s a polished, enjoyable shmup full of Cotton’s usual charm and attitude. The titular witch is as lazy and sweet-obsessed as ever, and as unwilling to save the world as ever, but when it turns out that all the candy in the world is mysteriously disappearing—well, things take a personal turn. It’s silly, comical fun, backed by the usual bright art style, bubbly character designs, and a seemingly endless pool of sass from Cotton herself. The sheer number of stages means a single run is a little longer than a typical shmup, for better or worse (I prefer a punchy five-stage blast, myself), but the shooting itself is rock-solid, with fluid movement, precise controls, and smart level design.
As a follow-up to Cotton Reboot and the first entirely new entry in a long time, Cotton Fantasy does everything it needs to. Play as Cotton, and you’ll get a new game that builds off Reboot’s revamped systems without reinventing the wheel—which, honestly, would have been enough. But Success and Studio Saizansen weren’t content with “enough”, and with a roster of such wildly different characters and their unique mechanics, Fantasy pushes the Cotton foundation in all sorts of new directions.