After debuting last year in Japan, the over-the-top Cotton Fantasy is finally making its way west and it's one phenomenally fun shmup.
What is Cotton Fantasy?
Aside from the remake of the original that released last year (Cotton Reboot!), Cotton Fantasy is the first main game in the series to release in over 20 years. Although it was originally known as Cotton Rock 'n' Roll: Superlative Night Dreams, I'm quite happy that they changed the name to Cotton Fantasy as it's much easier to remember. 😊 v1d30chumz 18-232-59-38
Anyway, this delightful shoot 'em up was primarily developed by Studio Saizensen who's best known for the Umihara Kawase games and they also made Code of Princess and Blade Strangers. Considering they're not typically shoot 'em up developers, I'm very impressed with the job they did here as Cotton Fantasy remains faithful to the classics while implementing its own unique mechanics that do a great job of complementing the core gameplay.
Speaking of gameplay, Cotton Fantasy keeps things simple so series veterans can jump in with little instruction and be able to play while newcomers should study the brief tutorial screen to get accustomed with the controls. I also recommend playing as Cotton first before attempting the trickier characters but I'll get into that more in a bit. For now, just know that there are 3 buttons: a rapid shot, a charged shot, and a bomb button. Depending on your character, they have different uses but generally behave as they're described.
Dodging enemy projectiles as you skillfully deploy your various attacks given your current situation is highly entertaining stuff, especially when you begin to master how to maximize your score. There's always a lot happening onscreen so snagging crystals as you blast away is always engaging. Thankfully, the controls are tight and intuitive which makes playing a streamlined albeit often challenging treat.
Cotton Fantasy features 7 characters and each one features impressively different gameplay. Specifically, Cotton casts magic from pick-ups, Appli can catch and throw enemies, Kawase fishes for enemies then shoots them out of a bazooka, Ria powers up by grazing enemies, Fine has rechargeable time instead of lives, Luffee has a Mega Buster style charge laser, and Tacoot has a cosmic rod that you can position and send out to behave like a turret. Needless to say, this amount of gameplay variety is absolutely incredible and I had a ton of fun experimenting with what each character is capable of. Now that I think about it, it's actually hard to pick a favourite. 😅
As you can already tell, Cotton Fantasy is a very cartoony game and its cutscenes are over-the-top and downright hilarious. I mean; they're always funny in any Cotton game but here, the animations and facial expressions are so overexaggerated that it's hard not to laugh out loud as you watch Cotton throw fits and get annoyed at Silk. In-game, things generally look and sound fantastic with eye-popping colourful visuals, super-upbeat tunes, and enthusiastic vocalizations. However, the visuals often get incredibly busy with score items, crystals, enemies, explosions, and projectiles filling most of the screen which occasionally makes it tricky to spot hazards when you're trying to collect stuff or position your character. Besides that, everything is full of lighthearted fun that'll keep you smiling.
Pro tip: if you want to navigate through tricky spots easier, I highly recommend setting the hitbox display to "always on". 🍬
One aspect of Cotton Fantasy that I wasn't expecting is its secrets. The main campaign has you take on 8 stages and you can complete most of them in whichever order you prefer. On top of that, you may discover 6 additional stages if you play well enough. In fact, in my interview with game director Toshinobu Kondo, it was revealed that there's a secret no one has found yet. Can you discover what it is?
Although all of this is just wonderful, I kind of wish that there were more modes in Cotton Fantasy besides the campaign and training because even if you change your character up, you'll still take on the same stages over and over again which gets repetitive quite fast. Considering shmups like Darius feature dynamic campaigns with multiple paths and oodles of memorable stages and bosses, Cotton Fantasy can feel quite limiting in this regard. Heck, even a simple multiplayer implementation would have gone a long way to add value.
After over 20 years, Cotton Fantasy was worth the wait as it's bursting with enjoyable shmup gameplay set in a bubbly and very silly world. Plus, the fact that it features such a diverse-playing cast of characters is sweeter than a bowl full of Willow.
- + Classic Cotton gameplay with tight controls and stand-out presentation
- + Awesome characters that all play differently
- + Enjoyable bonus stages / hilarious cutscenes
- - Could use more modes and campaign variety
- - Visuals occasionally get too chaotic