After feeling a bit burned by the last Touhou game I reviewed, I wasn’t sure how I felt about reviewing another one so soon after. The more I looked into the game, though, the less worried I felt. After refreshing my memory of the E3 trailer, what started as zero enthusiasm quickly turned to cautious optimism, and by the time I came to writing this review, I regretted doubting Scarlet Curiosity for even a second.
Of the three currently announced Touhou localisations, this is the only one to be handled by XSEED, as opposed to NIS America. That’s part of the reason why Scarlet Curiosity feels like it came out of nowhere, with a different company in charge of the marketing. Even stranger is that it has a low $20 pricetag, despite feeling like it has leagues more content than Bullet Rondo. Both approaches have some pros and cons, but Scarlet Curiosity is a game that fans, myself included, would’ve loved to get a nice collectors edition for.
The Touhou series, for those unfamiliar with it, started out 20 years ago as a budget indie bullet hell game in Japan, and over the years has grown into a phenomenon. Over a dozen official games have given way to hundreds of fan games, thousands of fan-comics, a handful of professional anime episodes, and more. It wasn’t until this year that we started seeing officially English translated Touhou games, but rather than the official PC bullet hell games, we’re getting a handful of fan-games that fall into various different genres, yet still explore the fan favorite characters and their relationships.
Scarlet Rhapsody, for veteran Touhou fans, sees you playing as either immortal vampire princess Remilia Scarlet, or her time-stopping battle maid Sakuya, as each of them go on separate quests to investigate a mysterious giant monster terrorizing the land of Gensokyo. While the two of them are the protagonists, plenty of other characters familiar to fans get screen time, and the way all these characters are brought together through the mystery of the giant beast leads to an incredibly entertaining story.
Newcomers to the franchise will be a little lost, though. There’s vampires, Onis, shrine maidens, Tengu and… crow girls? The game doesn’t really do any world building or explaining considering how geared it is toward existing fans. Still, if you just go in with an open mind and take it as you go along, there’s ample opportunity to have a great time.
It’s a 3D dungeon crawling game with light action combat where you fight enemies, level up, and get new skills and equipment – it’s probably most comparable to the Ys series, or a 3D Castlevania. There’s a fun loot system that gets you fresh gear from chests and defeating enemies, where you’ll be getting new weapons, armour and accessories. They don’t change your character’s appearance, which is fine, but there are barely any items in the game at all.
The two characters both use different kinds of weapons that you’ll only find in their respective campaigns, but by the end of the game I had only ever seen around eight different weapons for my character of choice. Each one you find will have very slightly different stats, but at the end of the day, there’s such a small amount of items in the game, that the entire loot system feels unnecessary. It adds to the classic JRPG feel and charm, but there need to be many more items with much more varied stat changes for it to actually feel like an important part of the game.
Thankfully, that’s probably the only major fault of the gameplay. Your characters gain a large number of different skills as you level up, as well as a handful of powerful magic spells, with three slots to fill. There’s a lot of nuance to the skill properties that, intentional or not, add depth to the combat. For example, a skill meant to be a simple dash-dodge that deals no damage can be turned into a deadly lunging attack if you press the attack button right before activating it. The amount of skills and their various properties give you a lot of room to play however you want to play, whether you want to focus on ranged projectile attacks or close-range beat downs.
While this is a dungeon crawling action game, it still manages to maintain a lot of the bullet hell charm of classic Touhou. For one, the ultra powerful but limited use spell system is reminiscent of bullet hell bomb attacks, but more importantly, you encounter proper bullet hell projectile attacks throughout the entire games. Fairies will fire the same fast pelts of bullets and orbs and stars at you that they would in the original games, and bosses certainly don’t hold back.
One second you’ll be clashing claws and trading physical blows, but the next you’ll find yourself dodging screen-filling projectile barrages that rival any of the bullet spamming bosses from Nier. It’s a great piece of game design that shows how dedicated the creators were in being faithful to the original title.
Unfortunately, that same faith wasn’t as strongly presented in the music department. The Touhou series is known for having iconic, intense music. In most of the stages I played of Scarlet Rhapsody, the music I heard was some of the slowest, saddest, most solemn music I’d ever heard. Not only did it not deliver on the great musical Touhou intensity I love, but it clashed immensely with the action happening on-screen. It improved later on, but the early hours of slow piano music left a bad taste in my mouth.
The visuals of the game were probably one of the best parts, to me. Character models and environments are pretty average, but the lighting is absolutely beautiful. All of the light in the game has such a realistic glow and shine to it. Street-lights bounce light off you perfectly, and glowing projectiles give off vivid sparks and shine. It’s down-right mesmerizing during boss battles and the aforementioned screen-filling bullet barrages.
Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity grabbed me and never let go. It’s a fun game with great characters and combat, and it all comes together in a package that kept me glued to my PS4. It’s a shame that mainline Touhou games haven’t seen English localisations, but the series’ unique charm has been wonderfully captured by this game. Newcomers to the series will have a great time dipping their toes into the universe with this title, and existing fans have absolutely nothing to lose with it either.