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Review: Gensou Skydrift

23 Dec 2019

Gensou Skydrift happily advertises itself on its Steam page with a clear statement: “A Touhou Project racing game is here!” And that is entirely true. This is a kart racing game based on the whole Touhou Project. Which means that in one sense, this game is kind of impossible to review, simply because that fandom is going to inform a lot of what you get out of the game as a whole.

The thing is that if you know what Touhou is, you probably have a very clear idea of whether you are all in on this particular franchise or you couldn’t care less. And the game is a kart racer in that particular franchise, which means that almost all of the appeal comes from the chance to do things with these particular characters. If you wanted a Touhou kart racer? This is one of those. There, review over, you can leave.

But, of course, this isn’t a Touhou fansite and the point here isn’t evaluating if a particular niche audience is served by a particular title. We’re here to talk about a slightly wider niche audience, after all. So as someone who knows basically nothing about this particular franchise and picked up the game partly because it happily advertises itself as being a good place to start in on the franchise, how does it fare? More to the point, how is it as a kart racer independent of the fandom?

Gensou Skydrift is available on Nintendo Switch or PC via Steam. The PC version was played for this review.

A Steady Assault of Names and Portraits

For those of you who do not know what Touhou is…well, you know where TV Tropes is, you know how to use Google, etc. But most of you probably are faintly familiar with is as “that anime franchise which has, like, all that fanart and fan stuff.” Which is partly right; Touhou isn’t actually based off of an anime at all, but a series of shooters featuring a large number of girls in frilly outfits yelling at each other and filling screens with bullets. This has spun off into countless doujins, side games, and so forth.

Shed a tear for the poor Silver Hawk of Darius, which bravely shot lots of things but never got dozens of spinoff platformer games and doujins about what it got up to in its spare time. Or perhaps don’t.

As someone who’s never really gotten into the games or the fandom, my impression of Touhou is that it’s one of those series wherein the lore is dense but not particularly deep. There’s a huge cast of characters and a whole lot of individual interactions, but not much going on beyond which girls like one another, who’s causing problems or not, and what everyone is doing this week. It’s intentionally kept vague, and it feels like there’s got to be more to these characters than just “this girl has this character design and has these fictional magical properties.”

Not that you’d learn any of that from the game’s campaign mode, which features most of the playable cast…without actually introducing, explaining, or developing any of them.

The story starts with with two characters (Reimu and Marisa) noting that a magical race track has appeared and that something is draining their powers, but they can still fly by riding on one another’s backs. Then, they’re off, too…uh…find the person responsible? Except that seems to be forgotten the moment the actual game starts up, with a practice track devoid of opponents, followed by the plot immediately forgetting about all of that and just throwing various combinations of characters into races with one another.

Why are we now in somebody’s house with a vampire and her maid? Who knows! Let’s race around for some reason. Why are we now on a mountain? Hey, let’s race! Oh, did we find the person responsible? I…actually don’t know, at some point my brain kind of shut down from a barrage of names and characters being fired at me without anything to hook on to in terms of personality or role or defining characteristics.

Now…I’m sure all of this makes a certain amount of sense if you’re familiar with Touhou. If you already know who Reimu and Marisa are, you don’t need any foundation to be set down for their personalities or interactions or goals. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is just bad storytelling. It doesn’t have a point or a meaning or a destination. It’s the definition of an excuse plot, when things happen just to set up one particular situation and then things end as soon as that’s been accomplished.

I definitely appreciate the idea that this is a racing game with a story. Unfortunately, the actually story seems to be “this is our racing game.” Far from making me interested in finding out more about Touhou, it just… slammed into me and left me completely cold.

The Differences Should Not be Disadvantages

So what kind of game is Gensou Skydrift? Well, it’s a kart racer. More specifically, it’s Mario Kart: Double Dash But They’re Anime Girls. You control a pair of girls, one of them surfing on the other’s back, and you race around a course trying to fly through magic rings, earning points by doing so to randomly get Spell Cards. Those serve as your traditional kart racer power-ups, and they include a three-way shot, a homing shot, hazard mines, a big bomb arcing forward, speed boosts, and a special spell unique to each girl.

Each girl both controls differently as a kart (theoretically, anyhow) and has a separate meter for her spells. Drifting is just a matter of braking and turning at the same time, with no mini-turbo/blue spark antics to be had. If you’ve played Mario Kart: Double Dash, you will step into this game with at least a passing familiarity with how this game is supposed to work.

In and of itself, this is all fine and sounds like a solid foundation for a kart racer. The problems all come in the details, starting with the fact that it is not at all clear what many of the spell cards actually do until you use them. This isn’t exactly a failing of the game, of course, coming down more to the nature of kart racers, but some form of tutorial or a demonstration of what they’re supposed to be doing would be nice.

So that’s a forgivable error. Less forgivable is the fact that the courses… well, they’re not great, let’s say.

The problem isn’t exactly that the courses are badly designed or bland; they’re pretty imaginative on their own. What is a problem is that the courses are designed to twist and turn extensively, with you clearing sections on the ceiling, turning around, and so forth. Unfortunately, because the maps have to reflect these shifts in perspective, the maps wind up being largely useless, and there are many cases wherein you have no idea what’s coming up next.

This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the game didn’t have some of the weirdest out-of-bounds detection I’ve seen in a kart racer. There are numerous places wherein the game seems like it’ll let you pitch off the track to get some air, but…nope, you tried to make a jump there but you’re considered out of bounds and now we’re treating you like you just fell. Which is also distressingly common.

Drifting feels…fussy. Sometimes it worked great, other times I felt like I couldn’t actually keep a grip on a track whatsoever. It was uncomfortably easy to oversteer and wind up getting stuck bumping against something, or to get drifted out of bounds despite my best efforts…and get dropped back in a place wherein even moving almost assured me of going out of bounds immediately.

In early tracks, which have clear pathfinding and obvious ways to go, this isn’t really a big deal. In later tracks, though, there are sections where it’s painfully easy to be staring ahead and wondering what in the heck you’re supposed to be driving on while trying desperately not to slide into nothingness. It’s way too easy for a race to functionally leave you crippled by a turn you can’t make, and that’s just not fun.

I’m also hard-pressed to tell just how much your choice of girl really affects your stats. Certainly it never felt much like any given arrangement was all that much faster or slower, but it’s not helped by the fact that the campaign mode keeps bouncing you to new pairings with each race. As a result, you never get a chance to develop a feel for your capabilities or find a setup you really like.

Not that you’d have enough time anyhow, since I beat the entire campaign in about 80 minutes on my first sitting.

Yes, I’d like to consider myself pretty good at video games, but this is years after I’d actually picked up and played a kart racer of any kind. Mario Kart: Double Dash had numerous cups and engine sizes to play through, giving you an ongoing challenge to face off against and a number of structured options as you played the game. Here, you get through a set of races and you’re watching the credits in just outside of an hour on your first try.

Once you’ve done that…well, you’re down to either challenging records in time trials or playing single versus matches against either computers or other players. I suspect the real longevity there is meant to be online matches, which is…not technically a way of artificially inflating a game? But it sure feels like one.

I don’t mind short games by any stretch of the imagination, and I won’t lie and say there’s no virtue in playing a game that tells its story and then gets out of the way. But that playtime is really short, and this isn’t some artistic experience that has a deep meaning to convey. It’s a kart racer with anime girls that tells the thinnest qualifications of a story. So it doesn’t really fall under that header.

What Are You Trying to Be?

For all the things I can (and have) dinged the game for so far, it looks fine. It looks a bit old, yes, but this is a small game originally released in its native Japan back in 2014, so some dating on the graphics is to be expected. Everything scrolls smoothly enough that it’s not obnoxious, and the character models are distinct from one another even if they all have a tendency to run together a bit based on design similarities.

The stages also do manage to convey a unique aesthetic individually, with pretty much every stage having at least one segment that’s notably different from the others. Not all of the stages have what I’d call a “gimmick” in terms of mechanics, but they all visually feel distinct from one another, which is a real risk.

The music is…there. It’s fine. It sounds kind of generic, which makes me worry that it’s all remixes or arrangements of well-known pieces from the franchise and I just don’t recognize them. It’s not bad, but it’s about what you’d expect from a given kart racer and neither stands out as excellent nor awful.

Oddly, the most technically weird part of the whole operation was the cutscenes during the campaign. Dialogue windows had no prompt to advance them, and several seemed to linger for longer than intended or didn’t allow advancement until an arbitrary length of time had passed. It felt like they were timed out for a voice actress to read her lines, but there are no voices in the game and thus it felt like playing a guessing game with when you could advance the text.

Also, the cutscenes would play before every race, even if you were retrying a race (remember, you only advance by winning in 1st) and had thus already seen them. I was getting real tired of that by the end.

You can supposedly swap costume colors when selecting your characters, but either the buttons I assigned caused some problems or there’s just no visual indicator of it. Or it just doesn’t work; any of the above would be a bit of an oversight issue.

There’s a gallery option, but to my disappointment, it only lets you view character models and rotate them with rather rudimentary tools, view replays, or re-listen to the music. Adding some unlockables in there would have helped lengthen out the game a bit.

Fandom is a Heck of a Drug

Despite all of those couple-thousand-words up there, I think on some level that I kind of hit this one right when I started out. It’s a Touhou kart racer. For the people who dearly want a Touhou kart racer, this provides exactly that, and the reality is that the only really big criticism that’s actually crippling is the game’s length. Everything else winds up landing at the point that this is a game without Mario Kart money or polish trying to be Mario Kart.

That’s not to say that the length isn’t a problem, of course, or to say that any of those other problems aren’t real problems. They’re just not enough to cripple the people who want this particular game badly enough that it was always on their purchase list.

But for everyone else? It’s…well, fine. It’s not good but not actively terrible. It’s far too short for the price and not a great kart racer, but it’s not a truly dire one. Unfortunately, that makes it all but impossible to really recommend for anyone other than dedicated franchise fans; there are better kart racers available for the platforms this is available on, and however much you might want to grade it on a curve, the fact of the matter is that it’s…just mediocre. It’s fine.

And if you’re not already into the source material, well…this ain’t going to be the game to change that. Sorry.

~ Final Score: 5/10 ~

Review copy provided by UNTIES for PC. All screenshots courtesy of UNTIES.