The structure of Kokuga is not a linear experience of playing through stages in a set order, but instead grants a degree of freedom. There are twelve stages (A–L) arranged in a pyramid that can be tackled in any order. Three 'Final' stages are at the three corners of the pyramid and once complete, award one of three different endings. Completing a stage awards a medal and there are four difficulty levels to complete – Normal, Hard, Ultimate and Boss Mode, the latter taking the action straight to the end of stage boss, bypassing the rest.
Ship movement and firing is another area that sets Kokuga apart from modern examples of the genre. Instead of automatically scrolling vertically or horizontally, the player takes control of a tank-like ship which can be manoeuvered around each stage wherever the outer boundaries allow. There is no continuous stream of bullets either; the L and R shoulder buttons are used to rotate the turret on top of the ship, with the B button firing off a shot and the circle pad allowing movement. These elements of offensive play are slow, and this makes for a more tactical and methodical approach to defeating enemies. Although they may take some time to adjust to, within the context of the slower pace throughout, they fit in well.
The enemies themselves come in various styles. Some are there simply to be destroyed as they don't fire back, whereas others have startlingly accurate homing shots, with yet more able to avoid player shots. The bosses on offer stand out from the regular enemies and are fun (and, again, challenging) to do battle with, taking the tactical gameplay a step further as weak points are identified whilst trying to remain safe from multiple guns and turrets. The layout of the stages are fairly straightforward, with a gate to the boss sometimes needing to be opened by destroying objects. On other occassions however it can be rushed towards, whilst enemy bullets are dodged. Solid objects throughout some stages need to be taken advantage of, further encouraging cautious play, in order to hide behind in order to take refuge from all-powerful laser fire.
With a lack of a smart bomb, depth is added to the range of attacking options through cards located on the bottom screen. A deck of twenty is provided at random when starting a stage and come in two flavours – one focused more on offense (Rapid Fire, 3 Way Shot, Laser etc), the other on defence (Restore Shield, Stealth, Repair and so on). There are four cards permanently on the touch screen, each being replaced when one is used. The fact that they cannot be pre-selected can lead to some frustration – for example, when health is critical and the ship is surrounded, with only a couple of different attack-focused cards available – but this system also provides a sense of urgency, with the most having to be made with what choices there are.
The random nature of the cards also ties in to the overall difficulty of the game. Although there are only a handful of stages available, each taking a matter of minutes to finish, there is a considerable amount of challenge within each one. The Normal difficulty will challenge most players and the fact that death means restarting the stage again, with no lives system or checkpoints on offer, means that mastering the game, especially on higher difficulty levels, will take quite a while, even for shmup veterans. It is refreshing, however, that in the modern age of games full of tutorials, hand-holding and lack of challenge, Kokuga sticks to its guns, harkening back to a bygone age. A "1CC" run here will be something to be very proud of!
Disappointingly, there is no real scoring system in Kokuga. Defeating enemies obviously gains points, but unlike Cave shooters for example, there isn't much more depth. Taking down a number of the smaller foes with one shot will boost score, but that's unfortunately where the hook ends.
In terms of presentation, the main visuals are Tron inspired, all glowing lines giving off a futuristic feel. The 3D slider, when pushed up, adds a certain amount of depth where the depth of pits can be judged more accurately for example, and explosions upon defeating enemies send debris flying which looks all the better,but this is a game that would work just as well in traditional 2D. More impressive is the soundtrack. Composed by Manabu Namiki (of Battle Garegga, Death Smiles, Ketsui and so on fame), the background music marries well with the slower pace of the game, whilst still maintaining that familiar shmup sound.
Download play is supported, with up to four players able to play cooperatively using a single game cart. Unfortunately we were unable to test out the game's multiplayer component, due to having a lack of people in posession of an import 3DS, but it is clear that co-op play would go a long way to aleviating the overall difficulty of the game. The fact that some stages have multiple routes to be explored only serves to strengthen this point. Although only fifteen stages overall are available, finishing each one on each difficulty, as mentioned before, will take some time and anyone hungry for a challenging experience will find a lot to love.
In the end, Kokuga can be considered a "hardcore" game. It is a niche genre with a high difficulty, where mastering each stage is what will provide length. Genre fans will doubtless find something to enjoy here (as will those who relished the likes of Dark Souls), but everyone else may have to think twice before taking the plunge. It may not be bullet hell, but the hellish difficulty more than makes up for it. With most of the game, brief story text aside, in English, this may be a candidate for awestern release. Offering it as a downloadable eShop title with a sensible price would likely make most sense in order to allow it to appeal to as wide a range of people as possible.
- Challenging, with a lack of hand-holding.
- Card system allows for depth and urgency.
- High difficulty not for everyone.
- Relatively short experience, challenge aside.
Publisher: G. Rev
Other Versions: N/A
Version Reviewed: Japanese