If you follow the indie scene in Japan, you've most likely heard of the name Touhou. For close to 20 years, the work of ZUN and his team at Shanghai Alice were the very definition of indie development in Japan due to their prolific output in the "bullet hell" genre. The abundance of titles is helped by the fact that fans are allowed to make their own games using characters from the universe, thus expanding the library. The current gaming climate has made their presence difficult to ignore, with the West now getting translated versions of some titles. After an arena shooter on the Vita, we're getting the fan-made action-RPG, Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity on the PS4.
You start the game by either playing as the young-looking vampire Remila or her human maid, Sakuya. As possibly the most powerful being in the land of Gensokyo, she has grown bored by the lack of challenge, and nothing seems to hold her interest anymore. That all changes when newspaper reports come in about a monster terrorizing the land. On her way to investigate, Remila learns that her mansion has been destroyed while she was away. Though none of her friends have been hurt, she seems determined to find the monster because she finally sees a creature that can challenge her.
The story is pretty simplistic, which is fine since it gives the characters a chance to bring forth their personality. You get a good idea of their otherwise one-dimensional nature, but keep in mind that just about everyone you meet is an established character from the Touhou universe. Prior knowledge of this isn't necessary for enjoying the title, and even if you never play another Touhou title again, you'll be fine since the characters are represented well enough. There are plenty of references you'll miss if you aren't already familiar with the large universe, and considering that this is just the second title to make it to North America, you're almost guaranteed to miss some of the nuances and inside jokes.
As mentioned earlier, this is an action RPG with hints of its bullet hell lineage. No matter which character you play as, you'll get some simple genre mechanics to work with. You can deliver some basic melee attack combos with one button, while three other buttons are used for special attacks or more complicated spells, both of which use up a special meter to inflict more damage than normal. You'll gain new spells as you level up, and you'll also get loads of new weapons and equipment in your travels. You can also jump pretty far and quite high, which is pretty rare in top-down games.
With that being said, Scarlet Curiosity loves to play around with that concept quite often. Most of your journey is spent in a top-down, dungeon-crawling perspective that's mostly comprised of narrow hallways, slightly large rooms and loads of waiting enemies. You'll jump quite a bit since some areas have elevated segments, so there's some variety to the space. A good chunk of the game is spent on a skewed side perspective, where moving toward the foreground or background is more limited since you're solely traveling left or right. In between, the game feels like a traditional 3-D adventure due to the lowered camera angle.
For a game series that is mostly known for bullet-hell attacks, your normal combat scenarios are quite light. A few enemies can unleash spiral bullet flurries or a few spread shots, but they aren't often enough to make them much of a threat. With your ability to slash down bullets when timed right, their firepower is more of a nuisance than a threat, especially since only a few attacks break your combo chain. Even when they try to overwhelm you with numbers, standard enemies are merely cannon fodder that help you level up. Your only hint of bullet hell action comes from the aforementioned Touhou characters that appear throughout the game and act as bosses for your journey. As you would expect, just about all enemies are capable of some good patterns, though none feel new or particularly chaotic. They're still interesting to see because the attacks have been transplanted to a different genre.
The bosses and the game lack one thing that fans of both bullet hell and action-RPG games enjoy: challenge. One combo is all you need to dispatch just about every enemy in the campaign, and the bosses fall rather quickly if you sustain basic melee attacks. It isn't until the final third of the game that the bosses begin to toughen up and start making your life harder. Then again, the game tends to respawn you close to the point of death, albeit with full enemy health refills, so it shouldn't take you more than a few lives to fell even the toughest bosses.
Action-RPG fans will find some interesting design omissions. While you get tons of loot, there's isn't any real variety to them beyond stats. It is impossible to compare stats between items in a shop, so you're discouraged from wasting your cash on an item to see if it has better stats than the one you picked up on the field. The camera is incapable of being turned by the user, which results in more than a few areas where the foreground covers important parts of the screen. Map designation seems to be random, as some levels give you an on-screen map even if they're straightforward, while the other maze-like stages don't get a map at all. Finally, enemy variety is at an all-time low. By the second stage, you'll see every type of enemy for the rest of the campaign, and it isn't until you reach the post-campaign dungeon that you finally encounter new, tougher enemies.
Even if you keep in mind that this is a fan-made indie game, the graphics in Scarlet Curiosity have a number of issues. Outside of the Touhou characters, which can look generic, the enemies are uninspired. Since a number of the foes are fairies, they're small enough that you may not notice their presence until they shoot. It also doesn't help that the color scheme is dull enough to hide them effectively, and this poor use of color can also hide any sense of elevation in some segments. The early PS2-style graphics clash will some more modern effects, like excessive light bloom in areas, which causes some frame rate slowdown. In a nutshell, this game can't be considered a looker by any means.
On the other hand, the audio fares much better. Though the music is carved into snippets that repeat often in one area, the overall quality is good, with each tune fitting the mood. Sound effects are basic, but a few, like jumping and landing, are completely absent. The lack of voices is understandable considering the lack of a budget, but it's a bad design decision to have some dialogue sequences be completely silent, especially when you consider the lengthy cut scenes after boss fights.
In the end, Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity isn't that bad. The campaign is a decent length, and despite the limited combat system, the fighting can be enjoyable if you play in short bursts. The enemy monotony does drag down the experience if you want to play for extended sessions, and the presentation could certainly be much better, fan-made game or not. While it's not the best action RPG on the system, it's worth a shot if you've already exhausted the others.
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