A Look at the Latest: Touhou Double Focus (PS4)

Touhou is a unique series in the video game world. Beginning as a series of shoot-em-up games, series creator ZUN decided to leave the characters of his games open for others to add to their own doujin works. It’s quite a bit like how H.P. Lovecraft left his mythos open for others to explore, except in this case instead of tentacled eldritch gods it’s flying magical girls. Rather appropriately then, the first Touhou game I’ve played is not a main series shoot-em-up but a doujin work, and while I’d certainly like to give ZUN’s games a go some day, this fan-made spin-off is the first time I’ve dipped my toes into the series proper… not to say I haven’t already been sort of immersed in it due to the huge Touhou fan community online.

The story begins as overeager crowgirl reporter Aya and her more reserved wolfgirl companion Momiji end up sucked into a magical book while investigating what had looked like a good scoop. They weren’t the only ones absorbed into the world between the pages either, as other characters from the Touhou franchise are stuck inside the book now too, all while a set of mischievous fairies have decided this book world is the perfect chance for them to dress up as villains and cause all sorts of mischief. Alternating at any time between controlling the two heroines, the main goal is pretty simple: free everyone from the book world. There are tiny little quests along the way where you help some of the other Touhou characters, but you don’t really progress the story so much as explore the world and eventually bumble into the finale. There are a few bosses, but they all sort of face off with you for the sake of it, but the game does at least have a bit of fun whenever the characters start to chat. The dynamic between Aya and Momiji is fun if a bit prone to leaning on the same character traits repeatedly, but for two Touhou characters I was ambivalent towards before, the game did at least make me like them quite a bit. In fact, the game has a lot of fun with the little character cameos, and while I certainly didn’t get every reference a big Touhou fan would enjoy, I enjoyed what I did recognize and even was able to enjoy the parts that were clearly references for the fans. More importantly, they still worked well enough in their game context so that you won’t be scratching your head at anything the game brings up… save a few times where the character side quests require a bit of knowledge about which characters might need certain things.

The characters are certainly the most interesting aspect of the game, and it’s nice to see them taking what could have been a basic attack for one of the two main characters and instead turning it into a character summon of a person you met along the way. Unfortunately, the worlds you explore in the storybook aren’t exactly that interesting. I must know which generic bland story the cliche desert area would be supposedly ripped from since all it does it trot out the first five things you think of when someone says “desert”, but that’s likely because the game’s gameplay style isn’t exactly complex either. Resembling the Castlevania games for the Game Boy Advance but with far less complexity, Touhou Double Focus sets you out to explore an interconnected map, jumping around and beating small enemies as you gradually find the ways to move onward by unlocking skills or finding items. The map is rather small compared to some of its genre brethren, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on how much you like to get lost in a world like this one, but the bigger problem with the areas is what they’re populated with. There are some good challenges along the way, a few platforming tests and some enemies that put up a proper fight, but for every good one of those there is always a bad one waiting around nearby. The game is chock full of areas that just consist of waiting on incredibly slow moving platforms. You have to wait for it to reach you, then you have to wait while you’re on it for it to move you along, and if there are enemies nearby they might knock you off it and make you have to wait even longer for it to come back. Simply speeding up these platforms just a bit would have removed so much downtime from the game where you literally can’t do anything but wait! The game does give you a rather fun movement option in Momiji’s ability to climb walls if they’re flat, but Aya’s hover is mostly just meant for a few specific moments. Giving her a shield that takes no damage if you have stamina also makes Momiji much better to have out at almost all times, Aya’s dodge not nearly as reliable and just as likely to smack you into trouble in the rather packed rooms.

Aya and Momiji have very limited skillsets to deal with it, despite what the game would want you to think: Aya’s attacks are mostly projectiles with too little range and Momiji’s slashing attacks put her too close to enemies. Aya has a dodge that seems unreliable at best, but Momiji at least has a shield that eats damage so as long as your stamina bar isn’t too low. The stamina bar exists primarily to limit your fun, slowing down your attacks even though they’re not that great even without such a limiter. If anything, it makes you averse to trying out new things, as your better abilities use more stamina or have long charge up times before they release, making them almost too useless to bother with. The bosses, the place where you think they might come in handy, are too strong to risk vulnerability during and too dodgy to get hit by something that takes time to execute. Once you do got your patterns down for them, there’s no real reason to use anything but your reliable attacks. Touhou Double Focus runs into a classic problem of a game giving more tricks than there is need to use them. The basic enemies aren’t worth doing anything flashy to and the bosses are too risky for it, so you gradually accumulate a set of skills you never really use… especially because the game seeks to severely limit how you can use them IN ADDITION to the stamina bar usage mentioned earlier. Aya and Momiji can each have three skillsets customized with different abilities that they can switch between on the fly. These skillsets can consist of either attacking or passive abilities. Most attacking abilities are too situational to bother with or too similar to the basics to necessitate swapping to them, but at least they aren’t as bad as the passive abilities. To get the benefits of a passive, it must take up one of your current set’s slots, and each set only has three. Most of the effects are so minimal that somehow they can’t even compete with the already unnecessary attack abilities for those positions. They would have made perfect universal passive abilities to gradually evolve your character, but instead, the game gives you a bunch of toys that aren’t worth playing with since you’ll be hurting for trying to shift your style up. There are some abilities like very rarely avoiding an enemy attack or taking an insignificantly smaller amount of damage from an enemy attack, so just like your attack abilities, there’s only a handful of passive you’ll ever even spare a glance at when you’re making your skillsets.

Thankfully, Aya and Momiji, despite being sort of stuck in boxes of what you’ll be able to do with them, eventually become pretty fun to play when you get the hang of them. The illusion of variety doesn’t detract from your ability to slowly master the game’s simple combat system, and soon you’ll find yourself enjoying it as if those options never even presented themselves as phony alternatives. The game does strangely withhold any instruction on the controls to start, which wouldn’t be too much of a problem as a bit of experimentation will at least get you started into acclimating to them… but the most important menu in the game is hidden behind an unintuitive action. So many PS4 games seem to forget there is even a giant touchpad on the controller or just treat it like a button… and for good reason. Moving your hands away from the main controls for the touch pad is awkward, but Touhou Double Focus takes it a step further. To access the game’s settings, you must swipe your finger up the touchpad from bottom to top. You don’t press it like a button. Pressing it like a button pulls up the map, which is an appropriate use and the map itself is well laid out if a bit small, but it is a generally short game so that’s just symptomatic of that. If you swipe down instead of up on the touch pad, you get to view your Snap Archive, a delightful collection you can expand with Aya’s camera ability to have Aya and Momiji give some insight on or have some fun chatting about the characters and enemies you’ve met along the way. That swiping up to get the settings menu though? That turns a frustrating experience into a possible and fun one, because it unlocks the most important feature of the game: respawning in the current room after death. If you do not enable this feature, every time you die, you are returned to the game’s single solitary save point, losing any progress made since your last save. The game’s map isn’t too big, but it’s big enough that going back to save constantly would be grueling, and while the game does hand out Portal Books that can take you back to the save point, they’re sparse enough so that it’s just barely doable. If there is nothing else to take away from this review, just remember that tip, because it will improve the quality of your experience dramatically.

Despite quite a few failings in area design and attack variety, the game does at least scratch your itch for a bit of exploring. There are secret breakable walls and passages to find, the side quests won’t hold your hand so you can solve them with the clues you have been given, and the navigation itself does eventually get pretty enjoyable in and of itself. It starts off rough, mainly because the controls take some getting used to as you experiment with what works and learn fairly quickly your characters can’t take much punishment. Enemies have quite a few hefty strikes that require careful approaches to avoid, with some hitting you with attacks that will chew through your health in an instant if they land their strike. Health upgrades along the way never really move you out of this range of trouble, but most enemies you’ll eventually figure out well enough that they stop giving you trouble. Either that, or you’ll be able to recover from your mistakes one way or another. If you didn’t turn on respawn of course these tricks will become nearly unforgivable. Some enemies can hit you multiple times in a second, erasing all your health when you hardly had time to react to their presence. Bosses are just the right amount of difficult because of the respawn, but if you had to trek back to them after being obliterated as you tried to learn their patterns the first few battles, it would be excruciating. It’s baffling how respawn wasn’t a default option, or that the game didn’t just put in some better save point system in its place. The Portal Books are clearly them trying to do something like that, but its an inelegant solution to a problem that didn’t need to exist. The game is made so much more enjoyable when you can take on the challenge as a proper challenge rather than getting blindsided by something you haven’t learned about yet or were positioned poorly to deal with.

THE VERDICT: Touhou Double Focus is simple. The world design is simple, what you can do in it is simple, and the extra bits of flair and its own failings are simple as well. It balances the annoyances like waiting on platforms and enemies with unfair attacks by giving you nice things like decent basic attacks and some interesting characters to meet and interact with. Even a really good game has bad parts, and even a really bad game can have good parts, but Touhou Double Focus is constantly tipping the scales one way or another with its parts. A boring room will precede a room with a fun challenge, but nothing ever stands out as unique. It’s a small enough game that it’s feels just right to go for getting all the collectibles and getting better at the boss fights for PSN trophies, and really, for a game that isn’t all that long, it at least did enough with what it had that despite its flaws, it keeps up a good pace so nothing ever bogs it down.

And so, I give Touhou Double Focus for the PS4…

An AVERAGE rating. The presence of the Touhou brand certainly helps this game to be more interesting than it would have been otherwise, with some interesting characters to meet and a bit more color to the foes you face and the two girls you play as. Unfortunately, without that bit of paint, there is too much generic about it. It executes its gameplay style exactly as much as it needs to be, wearing the warts without worry while giving you the right level of gameplay you would expect from a short exploration based game. I’m certainly more interested in the characters than I am this Book World they have been trapped in. Book World itself is less a playground to explore my abilities in than a world that only requires and allows a rather solid set of basics to be utilized. Some small mechanics changes would make things so much more interesting than just the standard experience you do end up with since so many of the game’s issues are simply its inability to explore the stuff it was trying to create.

Touhou Double Focus is a fun enough adventure with Aya and Momiji, but the game’s real double focus should have been on injecting more creativity and variety into the fundamentals it relied on too heavily.

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