There’s a number of indie games out there with sizeable fan followings and popularity. However, I don’t think there’s anything that can quite match up to the fervor for the Touhou Project series in Japan.
Releasing its first game way back in the far away time of 1996, the one-man development team behind the series continues to put out new titles regularly. While occasionally spinning off into other genres, the vast majority of releases are bullet hell shooters.
As I said earlier, the series has an absolutely massive fan following in Japan, with its fair share of fans in the west as well. Greatly encouraging this is the series creator’s openness to fan works that make use of his creations.
Fans have created everthing from manga to soundtrack remixes and even full indie games of their own based on the elements of Touhou Project. Some of these game creators have even launched their works in western markets, creating an interesting situation where fan-made spinoff games received official releases here in the US before the original series (of which only one game has received a western release, and an untranslated one at that).
The game we are looking at today is one of these fan games, which carries over some of the bullet hell familiarity from the original series while adding some of its own twists.
Developed by Souvenir Circ and published by Unties Games, Azure Reflections was released in the west on May 15th, 2018, exclusively for the PS4.
Hazy at Best
Azure Reflections follows Touhou series main character Reimu as she investigates a strange mist slowly starting to cover the land of Gensokyo. Looking into this leads her to the Scarlet Manor, the site of a similar incident in the past. Within the Manor, though, things are much different than they were previously…
The plot here makes heavy callbacks to the mainline Touhou series, and the sixth installment Embodiment of Scarlet Devil in particular (which, as luck would have it, is the only Touhou game I have any real familiarity with). Most of the characters here are taken from the original game, as well as the environments, much of the music, and even some things as particular as enemy attacks.
While the Touhou games haven’t never been known much for plot (with much of the ‘canon’ story and character personalities created by fans), the story here in Azure Reflections may be pretty much impenetrible for those without any kind of familiarity with the origin series.
Characters already have set relationships with each other and often reference events that I assume took place in other games. I became real lost real quick with some of the story details, and what I could follow wasn’t particularly interesting. By the time I unlocked the second playable characters, I just went ahead and skipped all the story dialogue.
From All Sides
Like the main series, Azure Reflections is a bullet hell shooter, and you’ll be spending the majority of your time dodging and weaving through increasingly intricate bullet patterns just to survive. However, in this game, the perspective is switched; your battles will be on a horizontal plane rather than the traditional vertical.
With this switch comes a new challenge, as enemies can now appear on all sides of the screen. The game has helpful warnings that appear on the side the next enemy swarm is coming from, but they don’t last long. As such, I usually tried to stick to the center of the screen as much as possible outside of boss fights. This means having less reaction time to bullets flying at your face, unlike in other shoot-em-ups where you can typically safely stick to an edge of the screen.
Alleviating the challenge a bit is the addition of a couple of new skills to your attack repertoire. While you still have a normal upgradeable attack (with dedicated buttons for shooting left or right) and a screen clearing bomb, you also now have access to a rechargeable barrier and a secondary special skill that comes at the cost of your attack power (i.e. Reimu can erase bullets in her immediate vicinity, another can slow down the speed of nearby bullets, etc).
The barrier in particular is the main gimmick of Azure Reflections. Once fully charged, you can activate it at the press of a button, and it’ll absorb all bullets for a limited period of time. While active, you can also dart around the screen to absorb more bullets and body-check enemies. The more bullets you absorb in this mode, which the game calls “Danmaku Rush,” the more powerful your bodyslam.
This Danmaku Rush becomes essential during boss battles, which are easily the highlight of the game. Each of the seven stages is capped off with these serious tests of skill, with the bosses throwing screen-filling barrages of bullets in every pattern you can imagine. Navigating through these onslaughts is often incredibly challenging, but never really bordering impossible, with every attack requiring a different approach. Really, the bosses are the reason to play this game, as the stages in between them are actually quite boring, with repetitive enemies and tactics.
Helping make things a bit easier is the fact that you don’t have to worry about one-hit kills. If you’re hit by an enemy or bullet, you’ll be momentarily stunned, but still able to move. Being hit while stunned, though, will knock off a life.
Despite the barriers and stun system making things less frustrating, though, you’re still really going to have to work to see the end of the game. I learned this the hard way when I managed to beat the fifth stage, and abruptly got a bad ending. To see the game through to the end (and unlock other playable characters), you have to do so without using any continues. Also, each boss’ special attack is on a timer, and if you don’t manage to take down their life bars in the set time, you’re locked out of the ending.
This is where the game gets tedious, as both of these conditions are rather easy mistakes to make unless you’ve practically memorized all of the bosses. I can’t count the number of times I’ve narrowly gotten timed out on the fifth boss, forcing me to hit the reset button and start the game over again.
Meet these conditions, though, and you’ll find Azure Reflections is a stunningly short game. Skipping the dialogue, you can run the stages front to back in maybe half an hour. Then again, unless you’ve already got some bullet hell skill, you’ll be hard pressed to do this on your first try. This style of game is all about replayability and getting high scores, and there’s always something you can work on to make your run-throughs more efficient.
If there’s one thing most poke fun at in the mainline Touhou games, it’s their art. The series creator isn’t much known for his artistic skills, with many games featuring character designs that’d look at home on DeviantArt. The artists behind Azure Reflections, though, pull off a complete 180 with some absolutely excellent character designs.
While the 2D sprites of characters that appear during dialogue look great in a rather standard anime style, it’s the in-game 3D models that really stand out. All of the characters are shaded in a hatching style, lending an attractive hand-drawn aesthetic to the models. The style is especially apparent in the closeups each character gets upon their introduction or finishing a level.
The environments, though, suffer from being much too repetitive. Most stages are just an endlessly-looping scrolling background, although if you’re really focused on the game, you probably won’t really notice. What does stand out, though, is that three of the stages (as in, nearly half the game) take place in the same ethereal blue-dominated environment. With the work put into the characters paying off so much, I would’ve appreciated a bit more put into the backgrounds.
Touhou is famed amongst the fandom for its soundtracks, again, also created by one person. As such, Azure Reflections opts to feature remixes of songs from the original series. I recognized quite a few of them from Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, but they don’t stand out nearly as much to me as the original tracks.
An Imperfect Loop
Overall, Azure Reflections is a tightly made and enjoyable game for fans of Touhou and bullet hell games in general. Setting things on a horizontal plane was a fun change of pace from most other games of this ilk that I have played, and the anti-frustration features added in here made the game feel much more inviting.
My major complaint is that the game locks much of its content behind a perfect play. I can understand making seeing the end of the story difficult, but the requirement of practically mastering the game just to unlock the other characters is a source of frustration all on its own. I had to drop the difficulty down to easy just so I could open up the other characters for this review, which was a blow to my pride as a gamer.
Between that, the repetitive environments, and a plot that requires background knowledge in the series, this is by no means a perfect game, or even one of the best shooters I’ve played. It is, however, just a plain fun time and a good challenge to boot.
~ Final Score: 7/10 ~
Review copy provided by Unties Games for PS4. Screenshots both courtesy of Unties Games and taken by reviewer.