Another day, another Touhou spinoff game. Sometimes hitting the mark, but often massive misses, these indie-developed riffs on the popular bullet hell PC franchise have been making their way overseas for the last couple of years. I was pleasantly surprised by the last one I played for being so faithful to the style of gameplay that the original series has. Unfortunately, Gensokyo Defenders is another huge departure from the standard Touhou shoot-em-up affair, and while the unique gameplay on offer here is interesting, the overall package is another big stinker.
In most of the Touhou spinoffs I’ve played, there’s been a decent effort to justify the change in genre or set up the overall narrative, but Gensokyo Defenders fails to do either of those things in any meaningful way. Why is everyone suddenly in a tower-defense game? They’re just playing war games. What’s the narrative tying all of this together? Cirno and the fairies just… want to play war games. There’s a lack of any meaningful writing, and worse, the writing that is there is incredibly rough. Awkward grammar and major typos litter the dialogue, and I even ran into text that was left completely un-translated.
While the writing is incredibly weak, the core gameplay at least feels like thought and care were put into it. Each level sees you in a different top-down level, with an enemy spawn at one end and your vulnerable home base on the other. There are a set amount of enemy waves that will spawn in and race across the stage to try and destroy your base, but you’re given unlimited time between rounds to place traps and prepare your defence strategy.
Gensokyo Defenders has you moving around on the frontlines as one of 20 different Touhou characters, and each character has attack styles and spell abilities that are different enough to make them all feel like proper, unique choices instead of simple model swaps. The variety of traps available to you as you progress is nice, and gives you further options to develop your own style of play. While the game starts out easy enough, you’re quickly met with insanely fast enemies or enemies who can fly straight to your base, quickly turning up the heat and forcing you to keep your eyes darting between the action and your mini-map at all times.
I appreciated the frantic pace of these missions, but I didn’t enjoy the way map designs punished me for zooming around. Certain stages have edges with hazards like water or spikes on the other side of them, letting you knock enemies into them for instant kills. Despite being on the other side of a regular map edge, though, if you happen to run into one of these corners you’ll be killed and lose a quarter of your base’s health to respawn. So many times, I found myself zooming around to defeat enemies, only to accidentally touch a wall a certain way and be killed by these hazards.
Between missions, you can also upgrade your traps with the stars you earn by clearing maps. I appreciate the layer of progression and replayability this system adds, but I’m also aggravated by how poorly it’s explained. Each trap has three different upgrades available, with either Level 0, 1, or 2 displayed next to them. When you pour points into an upgrade, nothing on the screen changes; the effect doesn’t increase or change, and the level number remains the same. Did the upgrade work? Do I need more points? I was never sure if my upgrades were actually doing anything or not, and it made me not want to bother upgrading at all.
These Touhou spinoffs are often low-budget affairs, and you can tell by the presentation in Gensokyo Defenders that this one is no different. Menus are bland and basic, and the 3D graphics come off as low-quality thanks to everything being rendered in a standard Unreal Engine lighting environment that makes it all look cheap and plastic. Music is another huge part of the Touhou series, and Gensokyo Defenders even flounders on that front. All of the tracks I heard were basic, ho-hum tunes that failed to capture the hyperactive adrenaline-raising energy of classic Touhou jams.
Gensokyo Defenders, like so many Touhou spinoff games before it, is a low budget affair that fails to capture the same level of satisfying gameplay and unique artistry present in the original games. While the gameplay is functional and sometimes entertaining, every other part of the package serves to bring that enjoyment to a screeching halt.
Version tested: Switch