Even as one who considers themselves to be a connoisseur of video games of all different types, some franchises and fandoms are always guaranteed to be off of your radar. One of these cases, personally, is the ever-popular Touhou franchise, a series of one-on-one bullet hell and fighting games (typically combining the two) where humans and yokai straight out of japan fight with with massive “danmaku” attacks, or barrages of bullets. The series has a rather large fandom in and outside of Japan, yet I honestly know little about it. But based on how passionate a friend of mine is about these games, and with its major console games finally appearing stateside, I felt inspired by their love of the series and decided to check out Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet, hoping to understand what makes the franchise addictive as well. And now I’m going to have to break their heart by telling them that one of the first major Touhou console games in the West is pretty much average.
(EDIT: As has been mentioned to me by said friend and others, though, Bullet Ballet is actually a fan game that was licensed for release in the West, and is thus not an official, canonical Touhou game created by ZUN. My apologies for this oversight. On the plus side, my friend also though the game was repetitive as well, so no hearts were broken.)
The backdrop is the land of Gensokyo, a lost part of Japan that became inaccessible and stuck in time, developing a civilization where humans and yokai live together. The story for this particular game, though, is that…um, well, there really isn’t a unifying story. Each of the nine characters (with a tenth character’s story mode as DLC) has a particular goal they want to achieve at the moment, they set out to achieve that goal, and wind up getting in danmaku battles with the other characters. It’s all pretty much an excuse plot, and while you do get to learn about the basics of the characters, it’s a baffling move for what is essentially a fighting game. After all, the best fighting games put a heavy focus on the unique and varying personalities of each character, and Touhou Genso Rondo downplays that, to the point where the characters use the same unchanging images for their cutscenes and only have one win quote each.
In fact, Touhou Genso Rondo is bare-bones, which does not bode well for a game that costs thirty dollars. The graphics, while not bad, aren’t much to write home about, consisting of two zoomed-out 3D models fighting each other over a simple CGI backgroup, which keeps constantly spinning around and having a camera flown through to disguise the lack of details. The music is vastly better, consisting of peppy, fast-paced tunes that perfectly fit the action and the mythological setting. The projectiles are also vibrant and eye-grabbing, filling the screen nicely, with each character’s bullets and attack type easy to differentiate from.
How the core game works is that two characters each have a duel in a circular arena with an overhead view, launching lavish danmaku attacks at each other (along with melee attacks that can be performed by getting within an enemy’s personal circular area) until their energy runs out and the final blow is dealt. You have your traditional light attacks, medium attacks, and bombs, along with different varieties you can launch while dashing or slowing down, albeit with limitations. There is some strategy in having to concentrate on both attacking your opponent and dodging a wave of bullets at the same time, as well as having to figure out which combination of moves work best against each opponent, and this is where Touhou Genso Rondo is at its best and most enjoyable, living up to the “ballet” part of the title.
Unfortunately, there are still some instances where it definitely feels like the game is just overly reliant on spamming attacks for the win, without much effort. A huge example of this comes with the spell attacks, the super moves that you can perform by filling up your charge meter. During these moments, the game becomes a traditional 2D vertical shoot’em-up, with one player suddenly able to launch every attack they have without limits and the other having to break them out of it. When the A.I. launches one on you, you have to skillfully dodge each bullet and maneuver around the screen, while either attacking your opponent or waiting for their charge meter to run out. When you attack them, however, they stand in place and take every bullet while just constantly shooting you, draining your charge in an instant and ending the attack in a few seconds.
Moments like that really feel like they go against what the game should be about, and this even extends to the game’s control scheme. Looking at pictures of the game, you might be inclined to think that it’s a twin-stick shooter, but that isn’t the case. You only use the one analog stick, along with one button for each attack, but they’re automatically aimed at your opponent instead. It does make things resemble a traditional fighting game a bit more, but it takes a while to get used to, doesn’t feel as fun, and makes certain attacks hard to land when they require more precise aiming to be effective. Melee attacks are also hard to full off, since the game seemingly only feels like having them work whenever it feels like.
Not that Touhou Genso Rondo isn’t enjoyable, the combat still has a lot of potential and still creates some nicely chaotic moments, but the lack of content betrays it a bit. Outside of a player-versus-player mode (both online and offline), you have your standard Story Mode, where you face off against a selection of characters, Arcade Mode, which is the exact same thing as Story Mode, except without any cutscenes, more random opponents, one round per battle instead of two, and a charge meter that carries over between matches, and Boss Rush, which is a lie. Again, it’s just facing off against the exact same characters, except now you’re only facing off against their spell attacks, which is incredibly annoying. The three modes are completely redundant, and Arcade Mode and Boss Rush aren’t particularly fun, meaning you’re better off just sticking with the story mode or getting a friend to join in.
If you’re looking for a game that will completely sell you on the Touhou series and turn you into a fan, Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet probably won’t do it, as it really feels like a weak entry with a lack of substance that doesn’t show off a lot of Touhou’s potential beyond the ability to have a massive amount of bullets appear on the screen. It is still an okay battler with a neat gimmick, but with a thirty-dollar price tag, there’s not much here that makes you feel like you got your money’s worth. The truly die-hard fans may get some enjoyment out of it, as it does have some fun moments indeed, but for others, you may be better off waiting for other titles in the franchise instead.