Shmup Essentials: Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours

A common criticism of arcade-style shoot ’em ups by people who don’t understand that the main “point” of them is to replay them over and over for high scores is that they’re “too short” or “don’t have enough content”.

This is one criticism that most certainly cannot be levelled at Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours, the most recent installment in the long-running shmup series. Featuring a full port of the super-widescreen 32:9 arcade version of Dariusburst Another Chronicle EX — including its 3,000+ stage “Chronicle Mode”, which is communally unlocked by players from all over the world — as well as an all-original 200+ stage “Chronicle Saviours” (usually shortened to just “CS”) mode designed specifically for 16:9 displays and a single player, Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours most certainly isn’t a game you can accuse of being “over in 20 minutes”.

It’s also one of the most expensive shoot ’em ups available in the modern market, even compared to the relatively premium prices that Cave’s back catalogue has historically commanded. But is it worth splashing out on? Spoiler: yes; but read on if you’d like to know more.

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The Darius series has a long history of doing things a bit differently, right from its very first installment in the arcades. Eschewing the usual “tiny spaceship versus either Giger-inspired aliens or mechanical monstrosities” approach of most of its contemporaries, 1986’s arcade incarnation of Darius instead saw one or two players facing off against giant robotic spacefaring fish, a tradition that the series has maintained to this day.

That’s not the only interesting thing that the original Darius did, however; the arcade version unfolded across three monitors attached together and reflected by mirrors to create an unusually wide playfield for the action to unfold across. This aspect was obviously mostly lost in the numerous home ports and adaptations of the original game, since hardware of the time was typically attached to a single 4:3 monitor or TV, but it’s an aspect that the arcade version of Dariusburst Another Chronicle incorporated into its design, and which is replicated in Chronicle Saviours via various means according to your particular hardware setup and which version you’re playing — when playing on PlayStation 4 or Vita, the screen is letterboxed to replicate the 32:9 aspect ratio, while the PC version provides compatibility with dual-monitor setups for an experience more true to the arcade original.

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The Darius series as a whole also became synonymous with its unusual soundtrack from Taito’s house band Zuntata; in the early years of the series, the music was relatively conventional compared to some of the tracks we can hear in Chronicle Saviours in particular, but there was still a strong emphasis on unusual rhythmic patterns and distinctive, peculiar instrumentation rather than the typically melodic hook-heavy and often rock-inspired approach of many other video game soundtracks at the time. Zuntata’s music is often compared to progressive and fusion artists; in more recent years, however, it’s perhaps more accurate to call it truly experimental, and consequently it’s a bit of an acquired taste!

What all these unusual features that the series has boasted since its inception mean for Chronicle Saviours is that it’s a shoot ’em up with a very clear sense of identity — and, while I don’t throw this word around lightly, because it’s not often it’s accurately applied — genuine uniqueness. There’s nothing else out there quite like Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours; while other shoot ’em ups might incorporate elements we see here, there’s no other shoot ’em up out there that offers quite such a comprehensive package of ways to play, things to shoot and ways to explode in a blaze of frustrated glory.

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Mechanically speaking, Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours is relatively straightforward, with a few caveats. There are a number of different selectable ships, each of which have different configurations of forward-facing shots and bombs or lasers that fire vertically or diagonally. Each ship’s shot, bombs/lasers and shield can be upgraded by collecting coloured orbs — red for shot, green for bomb/laser and blue for shield — with each element “levelling up” to a different (and not necessarily more powerful) form after several orbs have been collected.

The “Burst” in Dariusburst’s title comes from the addition of most ships having a “Burst Laser” mechanic. In most cases, this can be fired in one of two ways. Firstly, holding the Burst button fires a powerful laser out in front of the ship for as long as the Burst gauge lasts, providing a substantial boost to scores if you finish off enemy waves using it, and also providing a difficult to time but immensely powerful counterattack facility against certain boss attacks.

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Secondly, a double-tap on the Burst button allows you to drop your burst laser in place, and once it is down, stopping firing your shots for a moment allows you to angle it by positioning your ship relative to it before fixing it in place again by starting to fire. The main use of the fixed Burst is to act as a shield against particularly tough bullet patters, especially when fighting bosses; carefully positioning and angling the fixed Burst allows you to create yourself a safe spot on the screen, with the burst gauge regenerating as it deals damage and cancels bullets, potentially allowing it to last a lot longer than it would do normally.

That said, a number of the ships in Chronicle Saviours work a little differently. Some have a short delay between you pressing the Burst button and the laser firing. Some can’t fire a fixed Burst. Some fire black hole bombs instead of a burst. Some don’t have a Burst at all, with the Burst button instead being relegated to a separate button to fire bombs and lasers in this case. These seemingly small differences in implementation can make a massive difference to how you play, and when combined with the varied boss battles mean that there’s a lot to master here.

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So there’s plenty of difference between the ships and enemy encounters. What of those different modes? Well, the arcade port of Another Chronicle is arguably the most “conventional” way to play, but even that is split into a number of different experiences. Of these, “Original” mode sees you playing through three stages with a boss at the end of each and a branch point before you move on to the next level. In this way, you can tweak the overall difficulty of your run as you play through; zones further through the alphabet (and “lower” on the screen) are more difficult, though “easiest” route A-D-H still puts up a stiff fight if you’re not prepared!

Another Chronicle’s EX suffix comes from its “Original EX” mode, which remixes Original mode with a much harder difficulty. To be a true Dariusburst Another Chronicle master, you need to beat route Q-U-Z — there are achievements/trophies for doing so without dying or taking damage if you really rate your own skills.

Another Chronicle’s “Chronicle” mode is theoretically the most interesting part of this aspect of the overall Chronicle Saviours package, since it consists of over three thousand levels that are communally unlocked by all players registered to a single virtual arcade cabinet online. Each of these levels has specific requirements and restrictions in place, ranging from only having certain ships available to having a particular number of players participating — Another Chronicle as a whole allows up to four players to enjoy the game at once.

At the time of writing, many “cabinets” appear to already have most of the stages unlocked already, so this mode simply offers a dauntingly huge selection of challenges to play in most cases. Still, the experience of playing particular stages and fighting bosses with various restrictions in place is an interesting twist on the usual formula, so it’s still worth exploring.

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That said, Chronicle Saviours’ titular single-player “CS” mode is perhaps a better way of approaching the same type of varied, mission-style content for those playing at home. Here, progress is not communal to players across the world — though there are leaderboards for each stage — and is instead entirely dependent on the individual player’s ability to clear the various challenges ahead of them.

“CS” mode markets itself as a journey through all of Darius’ history. In practice, this is executed by it incorporating a very light sense of narrative progression and a strong feeling of respect for the series’ history, mostly represented through the game gleefully switching to music and sound effects from the older installments when taking on certain challenges or using certain ships.

“CS” mode is designed to be a lot more friendly to play at home by unfolding on a single 16:9 display, though some slight letterboxing means that the actual play area is more like 21:9, making it still a little wider than a conventional modern display. Levels and boss encounters have also been rebalanced to ensure that the lesser amount of screen real-estate compared to Another Chronicle doesn’t make the player feel cramped, and there are even some bosses that are entirely unique to “CS” mode.

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With 200+ stages that are gradually unlocked as you complete the ones preceding them — and multiple routes to follow, meaning you can switch to another challenge if you get stuck — “CS” mode is clearly designed as a way to play that will appeal to those who enjoy a sense of constant progression rather than repetition for the sake of high scores. This isn’t to say that there’s no value in playing this mode for those who appreciate a more traditional arcade-style approach, however; each “CS” level, as previously noted, has its own online leaderboard, and perhaps more importantly, each subtly teaches you techniques that will be useful if you decide to go for a full-on score attack in Another Chronicle mode.

There’s a certain amount of repetition in “CS” mode, too, it’s worth noting; its emphasis as you progress is on learning how to deal with particular enemy patterns and bosses in various different combinations rather than being constantly forced to adapt to new challenges. That said, there are occasional shifts to brand new mechanics; “defense” stages, for example, challenge you to ensure as few enemies as possible get past you to deplete a gauge behind you, while “scramble” stages are effectively time attacks. In practice, despite the different criteria for “success”, however, these stages still demand the same skills from the player.

All in all, although Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours may appear to be on the pricey side for “just a shoot ’em up”, it’s worth noting that there’s considerably more than what would typically be “a single game’s” worth of content in here for the genre. Even without taking into account the many and varied DLC packages — which incorporate ships, music, stages, scoring mechanics and enemies from other popular shoot ’em ups including Cave’s Deathsmiles, DoDonPachi and Ketsui, Sega’s Space Harrier, Galaxy Force II and Fantasy Zone for an even more varied experience — there’s one hell of a lot of game here that you’re unlikely to have seen all of or mastered even after hundreds of hours of play.

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Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours is a true “evergreen” title that, once in your library, is something you’ll find yourself coming back to time and time again. And, with the sheer amount of things to do in even the base game, chances are no two of your play sessions will be quite alike, either!

To cut a long story short, then, if you’re a shmup fan and you’ve been sleeping on getting this: don’t. Grab it now, and enjoy some of the most intense, creative, challenging (and, at times, frustrating) mechanical fish-blasting of all time. Just don’t come crying to me when Hungry Gluttons obliterates you for the fifteenth time… it’s a rite of passage.


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