I really like the title of the latest outing in the Touhou Project series, because it does a great job of illustrating how I — and I’m sure many others — see the franchise: as a curiosity. The niche line of bullet hell shooters has been developed by the one-man studio, Team Shanghai Alice, since 1996 and seen release mostly on Windows PCs. Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity breaks from tradition in more ways than one, being a) one of just a few of the games to make it to consoles and b) an action-RPG that only incorporates the franchise’s traditional shooter elements rather than focusing on them.
It’s also, unfortunately, not something I can easily recommend to either fans of the series’ past entries or hack-and-slash junkies looking for something new to enjoy. Only the least-picky of players will find something to like here — for all others, disappointment awaits.
I have to admit that Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity made a bad impression on me right from the get-go. Even before I played, I was aware that the series has been pretty light on story since its inception — it’s a shooter, after all — but this is pushing it. I’ve expressed my ire in previous reviews about games that simply throw cute girls at the screen, and this takes that trope to its most asinine level. I couldn’t honestly tell you what the story is about here, mostly because I stopped caring after just a few seconds. Blah blah blah, there’s a cute vampire girl, she’s looking for something she saw in a newspaper and eventually finds a bunch more kawaii girls she has to fight. Even my sarcastic dismissal of the lame premise is itself a cliche, because games like this are a dime a dozen.
Let me make one thing absolutely clear: I’m not against simple or cute stories. I’ve recommended games that don’t go very deep with their narratives before — in fact, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse earned my highest recommendation for creating such a palpable atmosphere despite one-note characters. But this is the sort of story that makes you wonder why they bothered adding a story in the first place; it’s nothing but an excuse to show artwork of various gals on the screen, and even that aspect of the presentation is lame.
Cutscenes, at their most detailed, are just still images with scrolling text and no voice acting. And sure, some of the character designs are cute, but a lot of the art here seems downright amateurish. The series may have its fair share of rabid fans and doujinshi creators, but seeing what’s on offer here, I’m not quite sure what the appeal is.
If Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity’s story takes its already-cliche premise to its most simplistic level, well… I’m sorry to say that applies to the gameplay as well. To be sure, it’s pretty cool to see the action-RPG genre combined with that of the bullet hell shooter, but this isn’t anywhere close to the best application of the combo. Games like UNDERTALE and Knights in the Nightmare have brought the tension of dodging a bajillion bullets together with role-playing elements to much better results, and top-down shooters such as Nuclear Throne and The Binding of Isaac offer similar, more polished pleasures. What we have here is essentially the defensive portion of bullet hell games (dodging the bullets), with the offensive half replaced with hack-and-slash conventions.
There are special skills the lead characters can use for projectiles, but many of the attacks are essentially close-range melee. That leads to a predictable rhythm: get in close when the enemies aren’t shooting to smack them, then quickly get out of dodge to avoid the oncoming waves of projectiles. The most enjoyable application of this system is, predictably, in boss fights — you’ve got a wide berth to avoid the enemy’s attacks, and the huge and unpredictable storms of bullets are pretty fun (if easy) to weave around and jump over.
The problems generally come in the levels, which also make up the majority of play time. Tight corridors, combined with a number of enemies shooting all at different times, make it impractical to bother dodging every incoming projectile. That’s especially true when you consider just how little damage they actually do, and that the punishment for failure is spawning a few feet away from where you started.
The presentation, as I previously suggested, is nothing to write home about. My first impression was that — outside of a silky-smooth 60 FPS and some pretty effects — the models and environments are about as simplistic as something we could have gotten three console generations ago. Walking through the levels is a crushing bore, particularly when there isn’t a map available. You really start to notice just how similar everything looks, and without interesting landmarks, it’s easy to get lost and perhaps even easier to doze off in the middle of a play session. The sound design similarly leaves a lot to be desired; cheap-sounding effects abound, and not a single one of the tracks on the score is memorable.
Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity is a shallow blend of action-RPG and bullet hell shooter elements that, in all honesty, seems like the worst of both worlds. A predictable rhythm of “hack-and-slash, then dodge” makes every boss battle feel pretty much the same, and the regular levels are often too narrow and too easy to make avoiding projectiles worth the trouble. For those who want to see role-playing combined with shooter elements, there are already far better options out there.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity attempts to blend the action-RPG and bullet hell genres, sadly doing justice to neither in the process.