Touhou: Azure Reflections Review
Release Date: May 15, 2018
Publisher/Developer: Team Shanghai Alice/Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc.
Platform: PS4--seeing rumors of "coming soon" to Switch, no found release date
In October of last year I was introduced to the Touhou Project. From what I understand the series has been going on since 1996, when a lone developer crafted the unique characters and world of the Touhou games. While that game (Touhou Kobuto V: Burst Battle) didn't really resonate with me, it was also a departure from the traditional series as a 3D one on one fighter. Azure Reflections returns to a traditional gameplay style: the danmaku, or bullet-hell shooter.
Azure Reflections seems to go down the same story path as Touhou Kobuto V: Burst Battle (the game I reviewed last time). A mysterious mist plagues the land, and it's up to three particular heroines to save the day. This involves confronting those behind the devious scheme by traveling to the Scarlet Devil Manor. You start out as the main character of the series, a shrine maiden named Reimu, and will eventually unlock two other characters, basically two different "ships" to take through the field, each with their own attack patterns. The game scrolls forward, with smaller enemies to take out and power up through before you get to the meat of the game, the mid and end bosses of each stage.
Your weapons power up as you collect icons from fallen enemies, all while dodging their fire. Enemy attacks tend to be glowing balls of light, while your pick ups are red, green, or blue squares. As the game literally floods the screen, you have to distinguish enemy bullets, power ups, and your own bullets to plot a safe course through the artillery fire while trying to down enemies yourself. Fans of bullet-hell shooters probably take this as second nature, but newcomers will be thrown off, particularly if they go in thinking "normal" mode will be a fair challenge for a beginner. Anyone new to the genre needs to start out on Easy Mode if they're going to succeed at all.
Outside of the aforementioned power-ups, there are a few more moves available to you. Spell cards, act like bombs, nuking enemy lackeys and hitting bosses hard. There are dash attacks, where charging them allows you to absorb bullets coming your way for additional damage. There's also a screen-clearing ultra move, though utilizing that damages your chances at the best score.
Your characters have two speeds. The default allows quick movement and rapid attack, while the second slows you down and allows for more precise turning, which is integral to surviving a wave of bullets. During this time, your "hit box" shows up, a tiny heart at the waist of the main character. To be honest, this is what turned me off the most with the game. Despite your character being a full size humanoid, the only part that mattered was a belt buckle sized blip in the center. I constantly felt as if I had to protect my whole character when only a little speck made a difference, and it would make me feel a little off playing.
The game is presented in it's original Japanese, with really no introduction. If you know the series you're bound to recognize the overarching tale, but newcomers are going to be a bit confused. Regardless, the conversations before and after major battles are rather silly and don't seem to be as world-changing as the main plot would let you on to be (one boss even talks about how she came because she was bored, and there was a good restaurant along the way there, so why not). Even in easy mode, the boss attack patterns were so thick I'd see words translating the Japanese along the bottom of the screen as characters talked, but I'd have no chance surviving if I wanted to read them. Luckily, one hit doesn't guarantee death. You have a few lives, and you get stunned after an impact. Death only happens if you get hit while stunned. Collecting the right icons allow you to buy items in the accessory shop that can effect stats, such as hitbox size and stun time. While you may feel as if it is impossible to succeed at first, a few accessories could make it more bearable. There is no save state, but the game as a whole is short and sweet. The challenge is to make it through without a scratch, rather than push for a full story, so this is understandable. I just wish the backgrounds were a bit more varied.
Overall, Touhou: Azure Reflections delivers what it offers: a value-priced bullet-hell shooter sure to challenge gamers of several skill levels. It sticks a bit too closely to it's Japanese roots with confusing conversations and no way to follow the story without risking death, but the unique boss battles and their maze of shot patterns are a welcome challenge. Bullet-hells are by definition rather stressful, so don't come here unless you are looking for that challenge. Otherwise, Azure Reflections is right up your alley.
-New bullet-hell shooter for fans with unique and interesting patterns to overcome
-Lots of unlockable accessories to improve your odds
-Stun State gives you a chance to survive instead of instant death
-Confusing story thanks to weird conversations and difficult to follow subtitles
-Square and Circle fire left and right--I could see this easier as a twin-stick shooter
-Background graphics are a bit bland
Special thanks to Team Shanghai Alice for providing a copy for review!