WELCOME TO GENSOKYO
The Touhou Project is easily one of Japan’s most popular and most prolific series of indie games, with a history spanning almost 20 years. In that time, the series of shoot-em-ups has achieved explosive popularity in Japan as well as a dedicated cult following elsewhere in the world. And now, finally, the series has had its first Western release: Touhou 14: Double Dealing Character. Does this latest release live up to the series’ reputation?
Like all Touhou games, the story of Double Dealing Character plays out in the mystical land of Gensokyo, a mountainous plot of land in Japan sealed off from the outside world to stop an ongoing conflict between humans and the ghostly youkai that inhabit the region. A small human population still exists inside Gensokyo; among them is our protagonist, youkai-hunting shrine maiden Reimu Hakurei. In addition to maintaining the border between Gensokyo and the outside world, she keeps the peace by thwarting those youkai who would upset the natural balance of the region for their own ends.
Reimu, along with treasure-hunting witch Marisa Kirisame and time-manipulating knife-wielder Sakuya Izayoi, is called into action when a number of seemingly-unrelated incidents occur at once. Many of the quieter youkai start rioting, drawing an uncharacteristic amount of attention to themselves. The air becomes filled with the sound of discord, with no clues as to where the noise is coming from. And, most curiously, inanimate objects have started coming to life and acting on their own, including the weapons of the three protagonists.
The rest of the story follows your chosen character as she travels Gensokyo in search of the reason behind this coincidence of problems. But that brings us to the most glaring problem with this release of the game: it’s entirely untranslated. Like the Japanese release of Double Dealing Character, the menus are in English but all the dialogue is still in Japanese. I can read enough Japanese that I understood what was going on, but the plot will be entirely lost on most of the Western gaming audience. Whether the choice was on the part of the publisher or the developer, it’s a curious omission for the series’ first official release outside of Japan. I’ll stress that the game is perfectly playable as-is, but the plot gives important context to the proceedings. As far as I could tell, the plot is well-done and interesting, if a bit rushed. That’s a consequence of the genre more than it is a failure of writing, though.
So, given that you probably can’t read the manual, it’s a good thing the game is easy to understand. It’s a shoot-em-up with anime girls instead of spaceships and the rate of fire turned up to eleven. The most important rule is simply this: don’t get hit. That’s easier said than done when the majority of the screen is covered in enemy fire. You have just a few simple tools to deal with the onslaught: a simple rapid-fire weapon, and a limited number of “Spell Card” attacks that can clear out enemy bullets and deal heavy damage in return. You also have a “slow” button which can be held down to slow down your character and focus your attacks to give them more power but less range. This mode also highlights the tiny “hitbox” – the portion of your character’s sprite that can receive damage – making it ideal for weaving through dense curtains of enemy fire. Being able to switch between the two modes skillfully is all but necessary to dodge the tricky bullet patterns being thrown your way.
The important word there is “patterns”. The game may be hard as nails, but everything has a pattern. This isn’t a game you react to, this is a game you learn. Some enemy attacks just seem impossible to dodge at first, but after you’ve seen it a few times, you start to find the safe spots and learn the tricks. The feeling of finally dodging a particularly nasty pattern is an absolute rush, and it leads to some of the most intense boss battles I think I’ve ever seen in a video game.
As if things weren’t difficult enough, just like the classic shoot-em-ups of old, taking a single hit means you’ve lost a life. This doesn’t send you back to the beginning of the level – your sprite just reappears in the middle of the screen and you keep playing – but you can’t save your progress. Losing all your lives and continues will force you to start the entire game over from the beginning, with nothing to show but maybe an entry in the High Score table. Given that the game takes roughly an hour to play through, this isn’t a bad thing. The point of the game is to learn it so well and so completely that you can concentrate hard enough to make it through that entire hour without seeing the words “Game Over.” And once you pull that off, it’s an incredible feeling. It’s not even disrespectful of your time – taking a page from the fighting game design book, there’s a “Practice Mode” where you can practice any stage or boss attack you’ve seen over and over until you’ve got it down.
But, no matter how many times you have to start over, it’s hard not to want to jump right back into the world of Gensokyo. The game has a striking visual identity, and an incredibly honed sense of pairing form with function. Enemy bullets come in various colors and shapes, lending a hypnotizing sense of beauty to the enemy attacks, especially considering the fact that you have to pay close attention to these patterns and interact with them. One of my favorite moments occurs during a boss fight, where the boss’s opening salvo fills the screen with an array of deadly musical notes. The notes drift around in an erratic fashion, tuned to coax you away from the bottom of the screen and into the thick of things. Every time I get to that point, the bullet pattern, the colors, and the music all conspire to make me feel surrounded, suffocated, and overwhelmed, just as if I was stuck in the middle of the cacophonic noise the attack represents. The game has a number of moments like this, and these are the times where it becomes obvious that these games were made by just one person with a very clear idea of what he wants his game to be.
The audio design is also spot-on, and not only because of its catchy and well-composed soundtrack. Clear audio cues help you keep tabs on what’s going on even when you can’t focus on the entire screen. Different collectibles make different noises when they appear. Separate chimes let you know when you’ve collected enough stuff to earn an extra Spell Card, an extra life, or a weapon upgrade. Because it’s sometimes hard to focus on both your position and that of the enemy, the soft hum of your weapon turns to a low rumble when your attack is hitting the boss. This rumble increases in pitch when the boss is about to change tactics, letting you know when to get ready for something different. It all just works so well, and it’s all ingenious.
The Verdict: 7.0 out of 10
It’s an incredible shame that Double Dealing Character’s Western release was barely localized at all — the only changes made were to make it easier to run on non-Japanese PCs. I really want to shout from the rooftops about this series – the Touhou games are the series that made me like shoot-em-ups, and they’re just as good now as they’ve always been – but the poor localization means any recommendation I can make has a big fat asterisk next to it. But the fact remains that even if you ignore all the Japanese text, Double Dealing Character is a shoot-em-up that’s just so good that once you start playing, it’ll haunt you until you overcome its challenge. Yes, it’s brutally difficult, but it’s more Dark Souls than I Wanna Be the Guy; it’s not a mean, spiteful bully but rather a stern mentor who knows you can do better and keeps pushing you to improve. The game rewards every second you spend on it, and each instance of crushing defeat is redeemed by those moments when you finally triumph over a boss for the first time. It’s just too bad the game won’t congratulate you in English.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.
Aaron Dobbe is an Associate Writer at MONG specializing in Nintendo but playing a bit of everything else too. Follow him on Facebook and pester him to get a Twitter.