Developer: Team Shanghai Alice
Release Date: May 7th, 2015
A review copy was provided by Playism
We here at APGNation love indie games; there’s just something about the spirit of a small developer pouring their heart and soul into a game just for the love of the medium that is just great. The Touhou series, also known as the Shrine Maiden Project or Touhou Project, began as such: a passion project all the way back in 1996. It was work of a lone programmer, who dubbed himself ZUN, and kickstarted the Touhou legacy. He now works under the name Team Shanghai Alice and has, for some time, not only programmed the games, but also contributed all of their artwork, character design, and music. From these humble beginnings, Touhou has spawned 15 main series games, most of which are top-down shooters, as well as a literal truckload of spin-off games, manga, and other merchandise. The series was even designated as the “most prolific fan-shooter of all time” in the 2011 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.
Despite all of this success in Japan, it is only recently with Playism’s release of Touhou 14 that Touhou has finally seen an official release in the West. I’ll admit now, I am not a Touhou fan. My only exposure to the series up to this point was wading through the copious amounts of fanart floating around in the digital ether to find other things. So this will be my first time experiencing the series for myself.
The World’s Cutest Bullet Hell
Touhou 14 is a top-down shooter in the vein of such old-school titles as Capcom’s 194X series, or more modern titles such as Ikaruga, and plays in a similar manner. From the onset, you can choose from one of three different characters: the Shinto shrine maiden Reimu; the Witch of the West Marisa; and Sakuya, a young time-stopping vampiress dressed like a maid. Each character can be played in either their typical setup, or in a more challenging configuration that, flavor-wise, represents them fighting without their trademark weapons. For the record, I mostly played as Reimu, as she was the cutest of the three available characters.
Following character selection, players find themselves knee-deep in a world where fairies and other supernatural creatures all descend from the top of the screen while firing cascading waves of magic bullets. That’s right! This is known in Japan as danmaku, the Japanese word for “barrage”, or Bullet Hell in English. These shots are often intensely difficult to dodge and render the screen to look like a laser light tribute to Pink Floyd. The lunatic spread of bullets brought my death dozens of times on the first stage. But after a few dozen runs, I finally managed to learn how to dodge the waves, play with my character’s hit box, and generally survive without wasting my lives on the first stage. Maneuverability in Touhou is just as important as being able to shoot and is immensely satisfying once mastered.
If one can survive the waves of fodder enemies, which drop red and blue power-ups that increase the intensity of both your main and sub weapons, Touhou then throws at the player a variety of bosses at a rate of two per stage. These bosses are carved from the same mold as the game’s player characters. They’re all cute girls with hats that assault the player with a labyrinth of bullets that will test the player’s ability to dodge and weave to the max. These battles are among the most interesting parts of Touhou and require a bit more thought than progressing through the stages. If you mess up, you will die, but retrying the same stage over and over never feels tiresome. Touhou 14 is such a short game, only clocking in at six stages plus a secret EX stage, that real feelings of triumph come from progress made. Practice will bring less reliance on screen-clearing bombs per stage. It will also mean fewer lives spent as well. This is a unique feeling in gaming nowadays, and a very welcome change of pace from most modern gaming experiences.
Part of what I enjoyed about Touhou 14 is just how much personality it has. Most games in this genre put you in control of an airplane, spaceship, or other machine. Instead, Touhou 14 opts to put players into the shoes of a variety of cute and ultimately memorable characters, even if the art representing them looks a bit odd, and are far more endearing than any of the former vehicles could ever be. I imagine this helped propel the series from a small set of fan-made shooters into the media franchise it is today, and lent it such an enduring presence despite being nearly 20 years old at this point. On top of this, Touhou 14 boasts an excellent soundtrack that really fits the action taking place on-screen. It is evocative enough that no matter what the theme of the level is, such as the nymph-filled pond of the first level or the moonlit forest of the third, you won’t tire of any one tune for quite some time even across repeated playthroughs.
The only real downside to the game, aside its length, is its difficulty. Western gamers live in a world where casual gaming is king and accessibility is the order of the day, but Touhou is completely unforgiving. Even in Easy Mode, you are given a very limited pool of lives and continues, and must play to near-perfection to earn more. The game has an old school charm about it lets you learn a bit from each playthrough, memorizing enemy patterns or practicing efficient shooting. On the other hand, it can be very frustrating as one false move will send you straight to the Game Over screen. But if you are willing to put in the time and effort to learn the game, you will ultimately be rewarded with a highly entertaining and gratifying experience.
EASY MODE: Or How I Learned To Stop Complaining And Enjoy Touhou 14
In the past I’ve been a little harsh on Touhou fans, as I really couldn’t see the appeal of the games or their characters. This preconception acted as a wall that honestly prevented me from even trying any Touhou game until Playism announced that Double Dealing Character would be released in the West. And surprise, surprise: when I actually sat down and spent a dozen or so hours with the game, I found that I actually enjoyed it far more than any AAA title I’ve played in the last five years. The gameplay is challenging, rewards effort and practice rather than luck or button mashing, and the characters are far more endearing than I thought they’d be. I may never jump into the Touhou fandom like I have other media franchises, such as Type-Moon’s Fate/Stay Night or 07th Expansion’s Umineko, but I will keep an eye out for any future English releases.
So let this be a lesson learned: don’t let your own hangups prevent you from trying something new, be that a video game, TV show, or any experience for that matter. If you think you’ll enjoy it, then go for it as you never know when you’ll find something interesting and fun to add to your usual list of pastimes and fandoms.
With all of that mind, Touhou 14: Double Dealing Character gets an 8.5/10. If you like top-down shooters, brutally difficult old-school games, and cute anime girls, then this a game you will not want to miss.
- A challenging experience that favors skill and practice
- Gameplay is frenetic yet fun, and offers replay value reminiscent of retro games from the '80s and '90s
- The music is excellent
- All of the characters are different enough from each other as to offer a different experience when using them
- Art is charming, even if it looks a bit odd-looking at times
- May be to difficult for some people's tastes
- A very short game, with only six normal stages and a bonus round to its name
- As the 14th game in a long running series, newcomers might be confused as to who any of these characters are
- My copy didn't have an English translation for the banter between the player characters and bosses; hopefully the final release will fix that