Cotton Fantasy Review

Three things I like about this game, and two I don't

Cotton Fantasy

By Paul Hunter

Whether it's Konami's Parodius, SEGA's Fantasy Zone or SNK's Twinkle Star Sprites, I can never pass up playing a good cute 'em up game. This subgenre of shoot 'em ups emerged in the Japanese arcades some 30 years ago, replacing the staple turrets, tanks and torpedoes with kittens, candy canes and warm-fuzzy kawaii. Few franchises can be credited more with popularizing cute 'em ups than Cotton, which made its debut in 1991, spawned multiple sequels and recently made a comeback with 2021's Cotton Reboot!.

Here we are in 2022 and Cotton is back, this time with a full-fledged new entry to celebrate the first game's 30th anniversary. Cotton Fantasy, known as Cotton Rock 'n Roll: Superlative Night Dreams in Japan, is available now on PS4 and Nintendo Switch. Once again the hot-headed witch Nata de Cotton returns on another light-hearted adventure across 16 colourful and visually distinct stages complete with seven playable characters and a rocking soundtrack. So lets jump on our broomstick and head over to Fairyland, here are three things I liked about the game...and two I didn't.

Liked: Absurdly Cute Graphics

Visually, Cotton Fantasy is an absolute knockout. Each level begins with a gorgeous, fully voice-acted anime cutscene featuring the titular Cotton (Nami Miyaki) and her little fairy helper Silk (Kaede Horikawa). And in true Cotton fashion, Silk has to once again hilariously trick our witch hero into saving the day by promising her an all-you-can-eat buffet of willows, the series' recurring irresistible candy sweet. The cutscenes look wonderful with their vibrant colours, soft and inviting visuals and superb character models and animations. If you enjoy over-the-top zany anime, especially ones like Dragon Ball with super exaggerated facial expressions, then you'll love what's on offer here.

The stages themselves are just as attractive with their vibrant palettes and cutesy enemies ranging from gigantic snails to cartoon dragons to hammerhead sharks bearing ridiculous grins. Cotton Fantasy continuously bombards you with hilarious enemies, some fans will recognize from previous entries, and they're easily the best looking yet for this series.

I was also extremely impressed with the stage variety. You get everything from a claustrophobic level that reminds me of R-Type, to a lush green stage reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog's Green Hill Zone, to a large airship stage that feels like a Super Mario Bros. Bowser airship mixed with Star Fox graphics. You even get a funny on-rails bonus round when you need to collect ceramic Japanese tea cups and is from a behind-the-character perspective similar to Space Harrier. While the game only takes about 40 minutes to beat, you can't help but replay the Story mode over and over to re-experience these creative, exquisite visuals.

Liked: Playable Character Variety

When I first played Cotton Fantasy I was kind of surprised to find out that the campaign only consists of nine levels (note: there are also 7 unlockable levels, so 16 in all!). But I realized on my second playthrough that the real thrill of this game is revisiting the campaign with all six playable characters, plus an extra seventh that unlocks after completing the game on Normal or above.

Many of the playable characters have such vastly different gameplay mechanics that it essentially feels like a completely different game. Our protagonist Cotton is one of the most 'standard' characters, as far as shoot 'em up norms go, as she can switch up her attack between fire, lightning and tornado attacks, depending what colour crystal you collect. Each shot type has pros and cons, such as tornado homing in on enemies but damage is low, while fire doles out deadly damage but only in a straight line. Unique to Cotton is her ability to collect white crystals that adds a fairy helper that will shoot alongside you, very similar to Gradius' option power-up.

Looking deeper into the roster is a character named Fine that completely shakes up the gameplay. She's a timer-based character that begins with 600 seconds and loses 100 seconds every time you take damage. Destroying enemies can release crystals that adds three seconds to the clock. Instead of having three lives like the other characters, Fine will only die once her timer runs out. Neat!

Another super interesting character is Ria that has an absurdly huge spread shot that can level up to 99 (vs. other characters that max out on level 5). To quickly rack up EXP you need to 'buzz' enemies and their bullets, which basically means getting so, so close to them without actually taking damage. Because of this Ria is a massive risk/reward character that encourages you to live dangerously in order to pump up her level to the max.

There are other characters with their own unique properties, like Luffee that mainly relies on her piercing laser shot or Appli that can actually grab enemies and use them as a shield, which end up making each run feeling completely fresh. What's really interesting is that Cotton Fantasy is not a very challenging shoot 'em up—the real challenge is mastering each character to beat your high score, and compete in the local and worldwide leaderboards if that's your thing. What's also exciting is beating the game with a character will unlock a new special stage designed specifically around their play mechanics, a nice touch that adds tremendous replayability.

Liked: Relaxed Difficulty

Surprisingly, Cotton Fantasy is not a very challenging cute 'em up game, at least on the Normal difficulty, especially considering you get unlimited continues. Instead the game is all about destroying enemies and staying alive to maintain a high combo and maximize your points. While I, of course, love hard shoot 'em ups like R-Type or Gradius, Cotton Fantasy's cute, relaxed nature is a welcome change of pace.

The game has Hard and Extra modes that amp up the number of enemies on screen as well as the number of bullets for those craving a greater challenge. But even better, on these difficulty settings you get to fully experience each end-stage boss's tougher second phase that usually fills the screen with a ridiculous number of bullets, lasers and missiles. Plus, these second phases typically look more imposing and impressive with most bosses doubling in size or jumping into vehicles like huge mechs or spaceships.

In addition to the main Story mode, Cotton Fantasy also offers a Training area where you can immediately jump into to any of the game's 16 levels, as well as customize options like your starting number of lives, beginning EXP level and the difficulty setting. This is an excellent place to brush up your skills on specific levels or dive right into the later stages without having to play through the full campaign.

Didn't Like: Hard-to-Gauge Hit Boxes

One point of frustration with Cotton Fantasy is accurately understanding each character's hit box because they're all different. And oddly enough, bullets can touch some parts of your character and pass right though, usually their heads I found. Most campaign runs I'd die once or twice navigating through a bullet hell mess specifically because it's so hard to figure out the hit boxes. The only saving grace is the game's relatively easy overall and you do get unlimited continues. But if you're the type that strives for maximum score, expect to spend a little while determining exactly which spots of your character's sprite lets bullets fly through.

Didn't Like: Too Visually Busy at Times

The first half of Cotton Fantasy's campaign is fairly simple to complete, but the latter half has some ridiculously challenging bullet hell sections where keeping track of your position is extremely tough. What makes it so much worse is you have special shots that turn enemy bullets into huge score 'bells' and quite frequently the screen will be an absolute mess of bullets and bells. Not only is a pain to navigate accurately but you can even have bullets and bells overlapping, which makes things even more confusing. It's not a huge deal if your goal is just to have fun or beat the game (given the game's unlimited continues), but it's a nightmare when you're striving for a high score and die in a cheap manner simply because the screen is far too cluttered.

The Verdict

Cotton Fantasy is ridiculously cute, colourful and charming. Shoot 'em fans looking for a more relaxed game oozing with personality will have a blast playing through the 16 levels filled with candy and bucket loads of kawaii. I especially liked that all seven playable characters have completely different playstyles, as that alone significantly beefs up the game's replayability. I had a great time playing this game and if you also love extreme cuteness then surely you'll enjoy it too.

Final Score: 8.5/10 - Great

Cotton Fantasy details

Platform: PS4, Nintendo Switch
Developer: Success, Studio Saizensen
Publisher: ININ Games
Genre: Shoot 'em up
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10+)

A key was provided by the publisher.