My relationship with the Touhou series has been shaky recently. I’m a huge fan of the original, ZUN-created bullet hell games, but The Touhou Project fan-games that have been coming to consoles over the last couple of years have been an entirely different kind of hell. From broken fighting games to soulless mystery dungeon experiences, these low-budget genre-swapping fan-games have almost consistently left nothing but a sour taste in my mouth. I was all too ready to write off the latest one, Azure Reflections, as another misguided entry in the Touhou Project catalog, but then I found out that – oh my god – Azure Reflections is a bullet hell game.
The latest Touhou spinoff opens up with a brief intro explaining that the world is once again being engulfed in a strange scarlet mist, just like it was in the original Touhou game Embodiment of Scarlet Devil. Our protagonist Reimu Hakurei sets out to discover what’s going on and put a stop to the latest in a long line of spirit shenanigans. Along the way, you’ll be facing swarms of enemies and iconic Touhou bosses. You won’t be clashing fists in an arena fighter, or tapping along to music, or crawling through dungeons here. no, Azure Reflections stays faithful to the core gameplay that Touhou is known for, and has you dodging bullets and blasting bombs in that classic shoot-em-up style.
Azure Reflections isn’t just the same old stuff, though. It presents a number of changes to the formula that help set it apart as its own thing. For starters, while Touhou is traditionally a vertical shooter in the style of Ikagura or Space Invaders, Azure Reflections renders the action horizontally. You’ve now got two attack buttons that fire bullets to the left or the right, because enemies can show up from any angle. It could’ve been a little stale if the enemies only ever came from the right side of the screen, but having to manage and weave around every inch of the screen makes things especially fun and chaotic.
Regular attacks aren’t the only tool at your disposal, you also have access to two incredibly fun abilities called Barrier and Danmaku Rush. When you activate a barrier, your character stops and makes any bullets in a circular radius near her vanish. When you’re caught up in a hectic array of bullets, barriers are a great way to break through them and save yourself from death.
Danmaku Rush is similar to Barrier, except it’s also an incredible offensive option. When you bust out Danmaku Rush, you’ll absorb bullets, and by moving with the left stick you can dash around the screen and absorb even more bullets within a short amount of time. These bullets feed into the power of your Danmaku Rush attack, and if you end by dashing directly into an enemy, you’ll deal massive damage depending on how many bullets you absorbed. It’s such a fun system that makes you think about bullet patterns in a totally different way, By rewarding you for hitting as many bullets as possible, it gives you a great way to take control of your surroundings and deal a lot of damage to bosses. I was addicted to using it the entire time I was playing.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a very wide breadth of content to use these fun skills in. The game has one, very brisk seven stage story mode. The levels and boss fights it dishes out are fun, but unless you’re someone obsessed with perfecting a run and beating high scores, you’ll be done with it fairly quickly. Thankfully, the game at least tosses in a couple of features that help add replayability to the short but sweet story. Beating it unlocks additional playable characters with different tools, and collecting points in the story also lets you buy costume accessories for the characters. While the accessories are almost impossible to see when you’re playing the game, they add useful buffs to your abilities that can make or break your runs if you’re struggling with certain bosses.
If you’re really struggling, there’s a convenient easy mode that can help turn down the heat for you. On the flip-side, though, danmaku veterans can opt for a hard mode that makes the already grueling bullet hell experience even more unforgiving. Each of these modes also has an unlockable challenge mode that immediately kills you if a single bullet or enemy touches you. While there’s a lack of any kind of boss rush mode, you can hop into a practice mode that lets you directly challenge each boss as often as you want. You can even tackle all of these challenges with a co-op partner, and with your lives and special attack meters shared between the two of you, things get fun in a wild and chaotic sort of way. While the core offering is slim, the game does a good job of adding little touches here and there that make the experience a bit more premium.
It’s a shame that the visuals couldn’t get that same premium treatment, though. Azure Reflections is rendered in full 3D, but the characters are all drowned in a torturously bright bloom effect that makes them look like they’re standing directly under the sun. It isn’t very noticeable in gameplay, but during boss cutscenes and the end-of-stage results screen, you can really see it. Character portraits are at least rendered in a cute, sharp 2D art style.
On the other side of the presentation, game audio is just fantastic. Boss themes have that classic Touhou head-banging charm, and character voices are expressive and fitting. Characters even mouth off at each other during boss battles, but due to the nature of the game, it’s virtually impossible to dart your eyes down to the subtitles to see what they’re ever saying.
Azure Reflections has got to be one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had all year. After being burned by a number of Touhou Project spinoff games, I was prepared for just as much disappointment with this one. Instead, I was met with a fan-game that remained faithful to the original series, while introducing concepts and systems that elevated that experience to an entirely different level. The sparse amount of content and shoddy visuals hamper the experience slightly, but regardless, Touhou fans and bullet hell buffs are sure to have a great time with this one.
Version tested: Nintendo Switch
Also available for PS4 & PC