The concept for Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet – which is the first title based on the Touhou universe to receive a console release – is an interesting one. The world of Touhou has been synonymous with “danmaku” (“bullet curtain”) titles for Japanese players on PC for many years, so naturally Bullet Ballet – as the title would suggest – is all about screens filled with brightly-colored gunfire. The twist is that the action veers away from the traditional scenario of you trying to survive in your ship as you take on the world. Instead, you’re flying around in a circular arena as one of the Touhou characters, battling against a single equally-matched foe over three rounds, fighting game style, with no ships in sight.
As I say, it’s an interesting concept.
Sadly, that concept isn’t particularly well realized. Starting out at the tutorial, which is a rambling, overly-long affair where two characters explain the various controls conversationally, the whole package feels somewhat low-rent. The tutorial does get across the message that each fighter has a total of nine modes of fire and that moving around in “Slow Mode” (L1 button) raises your shields to allow you to absorb a lot of the damage you’d otherwise take and that it also allows you load up your charge bar by picking up “graze” points from near-misses. A faster mode of movement is available on the R1 button and of course, you have the option to use neither modifier.
In each of these three modes, your weaponry changes. So while moving fast, your main weapon might fire a volley of homing bullets while your sub throws out a high-powered laser, with slow mode bringing in a low powered straight shot on your main and a large-spread shotgun for your sub and so on. Limited-use bomb attacks are available too which – as you’d expect – fill the screen with shrapnel and cause a stack of damage should you catch your opponent unaware.
In addition to these ranged firing modes, players can somewhat unexpectedly deal close-range melee attacks. The player initiating the attack has up to three chances to deal damage to their foe in a Rock, Paper, Scissors-style affair, with the odd counter being on offer for those with the skill. But most damaging of all is a staple of the Touhou series: the spell card.
When a player activates their spell card, the game switches from the free-roaming movement of the arena into a vertical battle, with the aggressor being at the top of the screen. They get to rain down wave after wave of bullets and bombs on their hapless target, with the only defense being to avoid the attacks (which is pretty unlikely) until the spell ends after a timer depletes, or to go in all guns blazing to try to take down the attacker’s spell energy to put a stop to things early.
There’s plenty of scope for technical nuance in Genso Rondo and there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that the small percentage of players who want to put in the time in learn every bullet type and every pattern in the hope of being one of the best online will get a great deal out of it. For everyone else though, there’s a laundry list of problems that will get in the way of any enjoyment.
In the game’s single player modes – Story, Arcade, and Boss Rush – the AI is ridiculously erratic. There’s no way of changing difficulty to make things tougher for yourself, so most attempts at the 10 different stories on offer (most of which are painfully weak) will result in you strolling through all but the final match, which will either be just as easy as the previous battles, or difficult to the point of making you tear your hair out. When I say that the early rounds are easy, I mean it. It’s no exaggeration to say that I got to the final level of more than one character’s story by holding down the square button the entire time and moving the stick to avoid a few bullets. In at least two runs, that tactic was enough to deal with the final enemy as well.
Outside of the story, arcade mode is essentially the same thing, only you have an energy bar that rolls onward from match to match, replenishing a little each time based on your performance. Boss Rush sees you playing a game of avoidance, where AI characters play their spell card right away in each round and try to destroy you as you dodge their fire. It isn’t particularly fun and doesn’t even really sound like it would be, so it appears to have been thrown in just to extend the life of the product a little.
Most serious players will use the AI matches as practice for Genso Rondo’s versus modes of course, but these are clumsily handled, too. Online, you can set up a lobby for ranked or unranked play, though the developers seem to think that multiple matches against the same player shouldn’t be on the cards, given that you’re booted from the lobby after every single match. Other than that, versus matches do work well enough, but there’s a distinct feeling that character balance isn’t particularly great.
With certain combinations, you know that you’re going to win or lose right out of the gate, with no regard to the tactics involved. There’s enjoyment to be found in overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, but the fact remains that if two characters just fire at each other constantly and every bullet lands, there’s a better than average chance that one of them will win with half an energy bar remaining.
And that’s the real takeaway from this. Every match feels as if there’s no real skill involved. It’s simply a case of which character survives the bullet curtain longer. The fact that those curtains aren’t colored in any logical manner, meaning that you often can’t tell if you’re being hit by your opponent of if you’re pointlessly trying to dodge your own fire, just adds insult to injury.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
A few players will absolutely adore Genso Rondo, of that there’s no doubt. For most though, this is an interesting concept that falls short on quality.