Cotton Fantasy Review: Peak Revival
We’ve reached peak revival when even a series like Cotton, a fondly remembered but niche even in its day shmup, is getting a new entry for the first time in over 20 years, after a series of rereleases the last few years. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; seeing beloved series I’d thought were gone for good can be a lot of fun, and Cotton Fantasy will entertain fans of the genre who prefer to live on the cuter side of the street. Despite some good ideas though, it doesn’t really stand out in the Switch’s increasingly crowded shmup library.
Most of what long time Cotton fans love about the series is absolutely present in Cotton Fantasy, so if you’re worried about this being a follow up in name only, you don’t need to worry. Cotton and her fairy friend Silk are back, with the same issues I had with them in the Cotton Reboot! last year, with another adventure that has the world at risk, with only the young witch Cotton able to save the day. She’s still a reluctant hero though, selfish to a fault, only convinced to take action thanks to promises of magical candy called Willow which she’s obsessed with.
What Fans Expect
Even beyond those surface-level trappings, this feels like a Cotton game. You have fast-paced shooter action, which isn’t impossible by any means but isn’t easy either. Power-ups explode out of enemies, color-coded to reveal what they are. Shooting them changes their color, allowing you to juggle them and get the powers you actually want for various situations. The many different powers are well balanced, most of them able to be charged for a powerful screen-clearing attack. You can even attack lasers and bullets, turning them into additional points.
Levels end with powerful, memorable bosses that demand precision if you’re going to get through them. Well, that or repeated continues. Beating them even leaves you to play the tea time mini-game series fans will be familiar with, which put a smile on my face. Basic 3D stages, more reminiscent of games like Panorama Cotton and Rainbow Cotton, even sit between the main stages. However, they’re way scaled back into just collect-a-thons, basically mini-games.
If you play as Cotton, Cotton Fantasy is a very standard Cotton game. Nice to see back in the gaming world, but it doesn’t offer anything that really stands out even within its series outside of a pretty great soundtrack. The closest thing to an interesting change is the ability to take on most of the game’s stages in an order of your choosing, but I’m not a huge fan of that. It seems to rob a lot of the game of a sense of progression since it doesn’t know what order you’ll tackle these stages. From a graphical standpoint, Cotton Fantasy actually looks significantly worse than Cotton Reboot! which came out last year. That game was beautiful to look at. Cotton Fantasy’s stages and effects look fine, but they don’t really stand out, and the character models are missing all the personality they had in that title. They’re soulless.
More Than Meets The Eye
Where Cotton Fantasy is at its most interesting is when you play as a different character. You start out with six playable characters, with more able to be unlocked. These guest characters include guests from series like Umihara Kawase and Psyvariar. You’d expect these guests to be mere pallet swaps, but they fundamentally change the entire game. Systems are swapped out and replaced with those from a whole other series. You’ll get a brief tutorial before playing as each new character and its definitely helpful to get used to the changes. It’s daring, and something few SHMUPs can compete with.
I wish Cotton Fantasy had gone all the way with this, though. While gameplay changes tremendously depending on who you play as, nothing else does. No matter who you play, Cotton Fantasy’s story still stars Cotton and goes exactly the same, a strange choice, though, one I’m sure saved a lot in not having to redo entire story sequences, record new voice acting, and more. You’ll be told this up front, but that doesn’t make it less jarring. I also wish the various stages adapted to who you’re playing as. Sure, powerups and gameplay essentials may change, but the basic layout is the same which means that no matter who you’re playing as, it feels like you’re playing through a stage designed for Cotton. Unique mechanics of the other characters aren’t take advantage of as fully as they could be, leaving playing as them feeling less compelling than it could have been.
That doesn’t mean I don’t like Cotton Fantasy. It’s a fun time, and it’s great to see Cotton back after so long. Trying to shove so many different gameplay styles for all of these guest characters was definitely ambitious and I applaud the developers for trying, but next time around I’d much rather they focus on moving this series forward and making the best Cotton game they can.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Switch (Reviewed), PS4; Publisher: ININ Games; Developer: Success; Players: 1; Released: May 20th, 2022; ESRB: E10+ for Everyone 10+; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Cotton Fantasy provided by the publisher.