Slow and steady.
Review written by
September 5th, 2013
There's really only one significant niche that would find enjoyment from a title like this. That, to the ire of major publishers around the world, is not a mark against the game's favor, but the short of the matter is that unending, unrelenting challenge only appeals to a small minority. The likes of whom speed run old Castlevania titles for fun, or find any difficulty setting under 'ultra hard' or 'insanity' utterly pointless.
I am not one of those people. I played Mass Effect for its story and character and I generally give up on challenging segments to prevent insurmountable frustration. Much like how golf ruins a good walk, unfair and unfriendly challenge ruins good immersion for me, and I didn't expect to find much of value in the most recent work by Ikaruga head Hiroshi Iuchi.
Much like his previous games, this is a game about shooting and dodging. Sounds simple enough, except to those familiar with your good old fashioned shoot 'em ups will know that 'dodging' in this case is akin to dodging rain in a downpour. You better bring your A game, or Kokuga, like Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun, will chew you up and spit you out, at least if your skills are on the level of mine (competent, but far from the tournament zone). It's entirely possible someone with a background in difficult games like this might find it incredibly easy, I have no way of knowing. All I do know is that even on normal difficulty, Kokuga forced me to pull together some daring maneuvers just to survive.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Kokuga, a downloadable eShop title costing a steep $14.99, places its players in command of a floating tank with a fully rotational turret. Most of the many levels are training missions in VR styled settings, while a spare few others are actual missions in ranging areas against far tougher enemies. Usually, the player must maneuver the tank through mazes, fighting off tanks, turrets, and the occasional barricade.
Admittedly, the combat is fairly straightforward. You move with the circle pad, rotate with the L and R buttons (a setup that's a little inferior to similar games that employ dual analog control schemes), and you shoot with the A button. Luckily, complexity comes in the form of power up cards, which offer bonuses to weapons, defense, health, and act as the player's source for bombs. Each mission grants the player fifteen cards and allows them to choose from four at any time, with the selections generated randomly. This system adds a layer of random chaos that keeps the gameplay fresh, but unfortunately by hiding shield recovery amidst the plethora of quickly spent weapon bonuses, I was often left spending cards just to get a little bit of my green bar back.
Luckily, you can also recover health by destroying the barricades, and those weapon bonuses will save you in a tight spot. In general, it benefits the player to use as many cards as possible, otherwise the bonuses are left wasted.
The tank itself controls a little too slow for comfort, however, and the vanilla gun is often left with a little too long a recharge time. If the right cards didn't present themselves in just the right times, I was overwhelmed quickly, unable to orient myself quick enough to take down multiple enemies in quick succession. That's all part of the challenge though, and the mission structure seems intent on forcing the player to memorize patterns. Some of my hardest victories came only after trying and trying, learning with every failure.
Stylistically, Kokuga goes for a streamlined, mechanical look. It's very clean, but doesn't benefit from the striking visuals of most bullet hell shmups like Touhou or Raiden, in which a regular session reminds me more of a fireworks show than a game. The style does expand a bit in the final stages outside of the training simulator, but just expect your virtual/mechanical atmosphere to be replaced with a rock/mechanical instead. You still fight the same visual array of enemies shooting the same lasers.
But I think the emphasis should be placed on 'streamlined' in that last paragraph. This isn't a lazy look, it was just never made the priority, and in the end the simplicity does allow for a smoother play experience, since all of those lights and flashes of other shmups can be tremendously distracting.
Sound is fairly simple as well, with your usual spectrum of beeps and zooms to accompany the techno landscape. Music is also very minimalistic, but never oppressive or detrimental to the overall experience. Like with the visual style, you get the impression that the sound is only in place because it must, not because the designers felt compelled to do anything exceptional with it. I'd usually take massive points away from the game for so blatantly refusing to innovate, but the emphasis, again, was placed on gameplay. And to be fair, I think the gameplay benefits from having so much attention spent on it, even if the tank feels a bit sluggish.
While to many, a $14.99 price tag might seem awfully steep for an incredibly simple and fairly dry tank shooter, Kokuga manages to be worth its price tag thanks to an engaging level of difficulty paired with fine-tuned controls. There were perhaps better solutions to the complexity issue than cards, but they allow for some interesting situational gameplay. Even with its flaws, to those that enjoy their coffee black and their games hard as nails, this makes for a worthy purchase. It's just not for everyone.
This game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
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