Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet is a new entry in the prolific Touhou Project series of games to make it stateside, and the first fan-made one to show up on consoles. That's a big achievement for indie developer CUBETYPE, and there's a reason it got picked up–it's fun!
The game is structured like a traditional versus-fighting game, meaning you battle with your opponent one-on-one until either you or your enemy are knocked out. However, you'll be battling in a danmaku (bullet-hell) shoot 'em up arena instead of along a 2D plane with fists and feet.
This may sound insane, and it is, but it's been done before with Ubisoft's release of WarTech: Senko no Ronde in 2007 for the X-Box 360; Genso Rondo, however, is a great first-entry into the Western game market for the Touhou family, and it's charmingly old-school feel sent me back to the day I unwittingly picked up my first copy an unknown title called Guilty Gear on the original Playstation.
You can grab Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet on the Playstation Network for the wallet-friendly price of $29.99.
If you're familiar with the Touhou Project universe, then you probably speak Japanese. This is because the vast majority of Touhou games haven't made it out of their domestic market, and their home-system tends to be PC, a format that is has only recently become popular in the U.S. for JRPG and anime-influenced titles. With 24 official Touhou games released, and countless fan-made games joining the stable, the scope of the series exceeds even the most imaginative Western gamer's ability to comprehend.
Suffice it to say,Touhou games take place in a region of Japan called "Gensokyo," (Land of Illusion), where humans and yokai (Japanese folk monsters) live together. The official Touhou games normally center on a Shrine Maiden, Reimu Hakurei, who lives on the barrier between the world of Gensokyo and our own, and is frequently tasked with offing mischievous yokai.
In Touhou Genso Rondo, this backstory is completely unnecessary; the dialogue and cobweb-thin stories will make about zero sense to those not versed in Touhou lore. That shouldn't stop anyone, however–while current gen fighters like Dead or Alive 5 and Mortal Kombat X like to sport roster-spanning stories, the fighting games of the past focused solely on pummeling. And honestly, isn't that enough?
If you're like me, you see a fighting game and jump right in. Tutorials be damned, you can figure it out on the fly! I did this with Genso Rondo, and thought I was doing fine. I'd picked a quick character with a good bullet spread–but then I hit a wall. Not the soft, egg-shell office or home wall, but the rough brick kind that let's you know you were kidding yourself all along.
There are mechanics at work behind the sparkling, light-flaring projectiles, and ignoring that will keep you from ever completing even a half-hour playthrough.
Battle, while appearing to take place in mid-air, actually takes the form of a top-down shooter in a circular bound arena. You can attack, "focus," dash, or cast a spell. Attacks come in both melee and bullet forms, and there are multiple versions of each. Your character appears with two concentric rings around her, and the smallest is the range of your melee strikes, while the outer indicates the range of your special melee strike. Your regular melee attack deals damage, while your special attack turns all struck projectiles into "P" (damage boosters) and "C" (charge meter boosters) blocks that you can collect.
Your bullet attacks fire normal or "Main" shots (generally machine gun style) and "Sub" shots (bigger waves or larger bullets). You can only fire your Main and Sub weapons for a certain length of time, as indicated by sidebars, before they deplete and suffer a brief cooldown.
"Focus" causes you to move slower, but your hit box is smaller, and your slower movement can make close dodges possible. Dash is, as implied, a lunge in this direction or that, which also gives you a unique bullet attack if you fire while doing so.
Spells are the big attacks in the game, and–unlike so many special attacks, burst attacks, and limit breaks–they actually alter the play mechanics for their duration. When a spell is cast, a black screen appears with the caster in the middle of the upper screen and the victim below. From there, the caster can launch limitless volleys of bullet attacks to tear their opponent to ribbons. Movement for the caster is very slowed, however, and your abilities only last as long as your quickly draining charge meter does, or when your health is depleted. Luckily, if your health is depleted, you don't die–your spell is simply ended, and your life is restored to pre-spell levels.
Your opponent isn't so lucky, however, and the damage they suffer sticks. They do, however, have a speed and firing boost during your spell, and they can build their own charge meter a lot faster by dodging your millions of bullets, as you gain charge quickly by closely dodging.
In order to execute a spell, you have to build up at least one of the four sections of your charge meter and have a "Bomb" available. You're granted only three bombs during each round, and you can choose to use them to launch a spell or ignite them to clear all projectiles on the screen and replace them with "P" and "C" blocks.
When all of your life is depleted, you don't die immediately. Rather, you are blown away from your opponent, and all projectiles on the screen become "P" and "C" blocks. You then enter "Extended" life, where you can only get hit a single time before death. It's shocking how often you can drag a victory out of this last chance, especially if you've banked your charge meter up enough to execute a long spell.
There are several game modes, and all are classic. You have an arcade (Story) mode, a Vs. Computer mode, a Boss Rush mode, and a Vs. Online mode. The online mode would be great, but unfortunately, there was no one available for a game during any of my playthroughs, so I'll have to judge it dead.
graphics and sound
Each stage, of which there are maybe six or so, have their own audio tracks. They're pleasant enough, with a couple standouts and the rest filler. The sound effects serve their purpose as well, but it's the graphics and visual design that really catch the eye here.
That's not to say the graphics are beautiful and impressive, but they have a retro charm that brought the best memories of the nineties arcades and PSX era flooding back into my brain. The title has the unique mechanics and polygonal graphics of such cult treasures like Trap Gunner and Silhouette Mirage–not in terms of gameplay, but in terms of creative risk and camp-quality arcade fun.
I enjoyed launching a game that I can jump right in and play, one that'll fulfill my need for twitch-combat goodness and edge-of-my-seat competition, and Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet fits the bill.
Some are bound to be turned off by the low-polygon count and lack of fancy storylines, but the gameplay allows for barrels of strategy and quick rounds that can go either way until the very end. Each match is like a close superbowl heading into the final stretch, and that's what every fighting game should strive to achieve.
|+ Old-school creativity||– Old-school balance issues|
|+ Cute design||– No online players|
|+ Fresh take on danmaku games|