Too Cute By Half

HIGH Flashes of brilliant design. Solid arcade-style training modes.

LOW Weapons are frustratingly underpowered. Progression is too grindy.

WTF Why can’t I preview the items I’m buying for my ship?

Sometimes, a game developer just can’t outrun their own history, no matter how hard they try. In the case of the Qute Corporation and its long-time design partnership with M-KAI and Mach, it’s the echoes of their earliest works that linger in the memories of space shooter fans.

With 2004’s Judgement Silversword, they shredded through the notes of single-screen classics like Galaga at a speed metal pace. With 2011’s Eschatos, they broke out into a wild ride of scrolling shooter setpieces, expertly weaving through one barrage of bullets after another with sweeping, cinematic 3D camera transitions. Even if Qute had walked away from the industry at that point, they still would have left an indelible mark on the genre with those masterworks.

Enter Ginga Force, an older Xbox 360 scrolling shooter that had previously been limited to Japanese release until Rising Star Games stepped up last year to secure North American distribution.

Unlike those earlier titles, Ginga Force pushes story to the forefront with a constant stream of narration from its titular police force to accompany the on-screen action. It’s an interesting choice that’s incredibly difficult to pull off in practice – with scrolling shooters, the endless torrent of enemies and bullets rarely affords players the opportunity to look away from their ship. As a result, even skillful players will likely require a couple of passes over the English subtitles to read what’s being said by the Japanese voice acting.

The writing itself is decent enough thanks to clever stage designs that provide characters with opportunities to incorporate hints and strategies for important setpieces. These moments might feel somewhat gimmicky in another context, but Qute goes the extra mile to make them resonate with the ongoing chatter — a nice change of pace from the genre’s usual one-note directive to shoot everything and ask questions later, if at all.

Unfortunately, it’s when Ginga Force steps away from those carefully constructed unions of exposition and action that it begins to lose its way.

The first problem is a simple one — the plot that’s delivered by all this writing is disappointingly basic, featuring standard anime archetypes dutifully carrying out predictable twists and betrayals. Given that most scrolling shooters don’t even have a plot, it’s somewhat tempting to look past this as an issue, but Ginga Force can’t help but continually call attention to it with all the narration.

The second problem is more structural and, frankly, surprising — this game is a grind.

As a callback to the more open-ended U.N. Squadron from Capcom, players choose from a series of stages and use the cash earned from completing them to buy improvements to their ship. There’s a wide variety of equipment that could conceivably support a variety of playstyles but everything feels frustratingly underpowered.

Additionally, the prices of upgraded items are often very high and/or locked behind the completion of certain stages, which means that players will likely find themselves stuck with a sub-optimal ship loadout unless they repeat missions over and over to build up their budget.

Frustratingly, Ginga Force is more ambitious than it is good, dragging down its occasional moments of signature Qute brilliance with a glacially-paced story mode in service of a forgettable plot. With much more generous tuning of the progression rewards, this could potentially be an effective gateway title to welcome newer players to the genre. As it is, it’s weirdly perched between the old and new, with too much grind and too much noise to really land for anyone.

Here’s hoping that the recent release of Natsumi Chronicles, a Ginga Force prequel/sequel, carries this intrepid developer to at least one more legendary flight among the stars.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Qute and published by Rising Star Games. It is currently available on PS4 and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 7 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed once (all easy difficulty episodes completed in story mode). There are no dedicated multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E due to Mild Fantasy Violence and Mild Language. There is no official description available on the ESRB website, but there are numerous explosions and weapons fire in a militarized science fiction setting. This should be quite safe for any shmup fan of any age.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no required sound cues for gameplay. All voice acting is in Japanese, with subtitles appearing at the top of the screen for all dialogue in game. There are no options to resize or recolor text. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Controls are not remappable and are limited to three preset configurations.

Steve Gillham
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