This might be the first time that the Touhou series has appeared in the West, but it’s been a staple of Japanese gaming for the past twenty years. The sole member of Team Shanghai Alice, who goes by the pseudonym ZUN, has crafted an empire around Touhou, with over a dozen official releases and thousands of fan-made games, comics, animations, and more. It’s a series that managed to grip fans overseas, but the lack of official English localizations have made it a difficult series property to be a fan of. It’s a major milestone for the series to release with official localisation and overseas release, but after so many years, it’s a shame that this was the game we got.
The mainline Touhou games are mostly danmaku, or bullet hell games, similar to Ikaruga, Deathsmiles, or the boss battles in Undertale. With a top down view, you have to dodge enemy attacks and swarms of bullets that ramp up in intensity. They’re thrilling games of intense, twitch-based action, and despite not being able to understand any of the dialogue connecting levels together, I always had a blast playing them.
Touhou Genso Rondo is unique in that it’s structured like a one-on-one arena style fighting game, but the combat mechanics are lifted right from a classic bullet hell. Characters fire waves of bullets at one another, weaving and dodging until someone’s health reaches zero. There’s a lot of depth to the gameplay, but it’s all explained to you in a ten minute cutscene without letting you try it for yourself. If you don’t quite understand one specific gameplay element, you’ll need to boot up that tutorial all over again and try to skip through. It’s really clunky, despite the fun dialogue that comes along with it.
What’s even worse is that a lot of these intricate mechanics don’t even feel necessary half the time. There are three types of attacks, as well as three different movement modes that also let you use a different set of attacks, giving you a lot of combat variety. There’s also a melee system (with clunky animations) that rewards you with power ups for running head on into your enemy. The melee system ended up feeling too easy to exploit, as a lot of early story mode matches ended with me just flying toward the enemy and repeatedly hitting them until I won. It was something akin to spamming throws or cheap pokes in a Street Fighter arcade mode, so it isn’t necessarily a broken system.
What is broken is the Spell system. Throughout battle you build up a charge meter, which you can either spend to use strong charge attacks, or combine with one of three allotted Bombs to perform an ultimate Spell attack. Spells change the battlefield into a proper Touhou bullet-hell boss fight, with the casting character at the top of the screen and the other character on the bottom. The Spellcaster has unlimited use of stronger, crazier bullet abilities that fill the entire screen, and the opponent has to either survive for 20 seconds or deplete the caster’s Spell mode health bar to zero in order to end it.
It’s a fun idea that harkens back to the very basic idea of the Touhou series, and I thought I would love it. Unfortunately, the AI in this game is trained to simply stand still and pelt you with an unfairly strong bullet attack until your health is drained, completely negating the entire point of the system. It’s like the part in Indiana Jones where the swordsman does all those fancy blade-swinging tricks, only for Indy to shoot him point blank and end the fight before it even began.
The wonky Spell system is just one example of how the game really fails to capture the magic of both genres it attempts to fuse together. I never felt the twitchy split-second adrenaline of a bullet hell, and nothing in the game felt as precise or strategy-driven as a fighting game should.
There’s also not very many game modes. The story is the beefiest thing by far, but it’s just a standard arcade mode wrapped up with opening and ending art for each character, some story setup, and dialogue between each fight. There isn’t any kind of grand, world-changing narrative happening here. Each character’s story gives light, fluffy reasons for the ensuing battles to happen, like a character battling her friends to study their moves for a puppet show, or another character being distracted by fights while their master plans a secret birthday party.
Still, as a fan of the series who’s never been able to really see these characters actual personalities, it’s a treat seeing them interact with each other. The writing does a great job of making each characters personality stand out, and there are a lot of great bits of dialogue, and plenty of funny interactions. Each fight also shows off the fantastic music for each character, with really awesome re-arranges of their classic themes. The writing and music are, by far, the standout features of this release.
Beyond that, the standard arcade mode is just the fights from story mode with no story or dialogue, and a boss rush has you doing nothing but Spellcaster fights. Thankfully being on the receiving end of a Spell is a bit more satisfying and akin to classic Touhou than casting is. The online multiplayer features a clunky lobby system out of the early 2000s, and that’s it. If the core gameplay were a bit more engaging, maybe the light amount of modes could be forgivable, but it just isn’t.
It’s a real shame that the first Touhou game to officially come out overseas is Touhou Genso Rondo. It really doesn’t capture the appeal or the magic of the mainline Touhou series, and there are plenty of other fan-games in vastly different genres that are at least much more mechanically polished than this one. Touhou Genso Rondo is a mild disappointment for fans of the series, but despite the broad marketing efforts of NIS America, it should simply be absolutely avoided by newcomers.