Touhou is perhaps my favorite series I’ve never played. It’s hard to have even a passing familiarity with the top-down shooter genre without hearing of the beatiful and deadly curtains of bullets the series is known for and the brutal difficulty it can reach.
Part of the reason is the creator’s encouragement of fangames, resulting in plenty of romhacks and indie titles to help spread the word further. Today’s review is Touhou Mechanical Scrollery, one such fangame out now for Steam.
Giant Spiders from the MOOOOON!
The plot for Touhou Mechanical Scrollery is a bit of an excuse plot: Reimu and Marisa, the two main characters of the series, have gone to the Human Village to check out the latest Agatha Chris-Q novel, when the book turns out to drag them inside to a world full of mechanical enemies.
What follows is the two exploring the world inside the book to investigate the cause and get their novel back. Each new chapter brings another book, and more appearances by characters from the main series. It’s silly, full of loveable ditzes, and does what it sets out to do: present an excuse to beat up hoards of enemies, most of them being giant mechanical spiders from the moon.
Swing and a Miss
Unfortunately, the gameplay is Mechanical Scrollery‘s weakest point, which is pretty damning for a game that you…well, play. In a departure from the main series, it’s a 3D action game with a mix of melee and shooting. On paper that sounds interesting, in practice, well…
I’ll start with the good: there’s a “snipe mode” to fire your shots as a fine beam to break enemy parts for bonus XP and items. That feels satisfying to use.
Now onto the bad. Your shooting is limited by a shot gauge that goes up by meleeing and grazing (more on that later). The result is that you’ll primarily be meleeing your foes. Nevermind that Touhou has never been known for melee combat, it just doesn’t work well in flying combat with finicky controls. You need to fly in an arc to turn around, for starters, then your melee combos move you around on their own, and finally the attacks are so painfully precise that without proper positioning you’ll miss entirely.
There’s a lock-on that makes your first attack warp to the enemy, keeps the camera pointed at them, and allows you to turn on a dime to face them. Sounds like that’d fix things, right? Unfortunately, it likes to position you just above or below an enemy so most attacks still miss, and the constant whirling of the camera as my combo danced me around my foe was literally nausea inducing.
So how about ranged combat? It’s fun enough, for as long as your gauge lasts. Melee is one way to raise it, but the other is grazing. In the main series, grazing is a bonus for only just barely dodging a projectile. Here it’s a small boost to your shot gauge for dodging through an enemy attack. The problem is that, just like melee, enemy bullets are incredibly precise. Huge bullet patterns have a good chance of simply missing you entirely, a bad thing when you need them to fire back. Even if you do graze a shot, the amount restored both by grazing and by melee is painfully small.
Lastly, there’s the spell cards. Your choice of weapon decides what card you use, and they are cast using a gauge that fills up as you land shots. However, I was playing as Marisa and, out of the four cards available, only one was useful. I could summon bullet patterns to emulate dropping moons, asteroid belts, or the big bang itself, but the giant laser was the only truly useful one. See, the first three summon bullet patterns which, just like the ones fired by enemies, are prone to missing their target entirely, while the laser is aimed and fired in snipe mode. In the end, of all the weapon trees I could explore, only two were actually viable if I actually wanted to use my spell card gauge.
One final note on the gameplay is the controls themselves. There’s ostensibly keyboard controls, but they can’t be remapped and, once I got out of the menus and into gameplay, I couldn’t find a key that did anything. The game wants you to play on a controller, but by default it doesn’t actually work, and doesn’t tell you in-game how to fix it. It turns out that you need to go into the Steam settings and turn on controlling Steam with your controller. This info was buried in the Steam news posts for the title, rather than someplace that makes sense.
Old and New
I actually really like the music in Touhou Mechanical Scrollery. It has that classical Japanese feel to it even during the more intense action tracks, but as always, there’s a caveat. All the foes have a track associated with them, so on occasion you’ll run into one foe, have the track change to their theme, then run into a higher tier foe soon after and have it change abruptly again. It doesn’t go away when you defeat them or leave either, so once you encounter the highest tier enemy in the zone that’s what you’ll be hearing for the rest of the level, no matter what you’re up to.
As for the graphics, I love the enemy models, but the areas look like they’re from a late 90s game and the character models are noticeably lower quality than the rest…in gameplay at least. During cutscenes they use lovely anime-style models.
A Long Way Off
I’ll be honest, this doesn’t feel like something that should have been released yet. It feels more like an early build of a game still in development. The visuals need some polish, combat needs larger hit detection for melee and dodging…it really needs a lot more love.
At the same time, it’s clear heart was put into this. A lot of the things I find frustrating, I can see how they’d be fun with some minor adjustments. With some more work I’d call it a decent indie title, but as it currently stands, I’d look elsewhere for your Touhou fix.
Review copy provided by Phoenixx Inc. for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Phoenixx Inc.