Short Version: It’s not good. It’s an interesting idea that’s executed poorly. Turning bullet hell shooters into a fighting game is cool to think about, but it ended up being a boring, overly complicated chore that got old very quickly. The music could be better, the story is mediocre at best, the art is average, and the amount of content available does not justify the $30 price point. I’ve seen way better Touhou games than this, and this is definitely not the best place to start. You’d be better off not bothering with this and waiting for something better to show up.
Long Version: The Touhou Project franchise is a series of bullet hell shooters that are incredibly big in Japan, representing an enormous amount of the country’s independent work in terms of manga, visual novels, animations, video games and more. However, if you ask an American what Touhou is, they probably have no idea, even though they’ve most likely come across a bunch of picture of the property’s characters on the Internet. Because it is very deeply rooted in Japan, it could almost be considered a historical event to finally see a game featuring this property making it into home consoles for the Western market. Unfortunately, this newest game is a strange spin-off that does more to dishearten and leave a bad first impression rather than excite people on Touhou’s arrival to consoles.
Go To Hell…Bullet Hell!
Touhou Gensou Rondo Bullet Ballet is a mouthful of a title that features the more prominent and popular characters in the Touhou franchise, in which they are pitted against each other in a one-on-one fighting game. However, this is not the typical 2D side scrolling fighting style like Street Fighter or an Ark System Works game. Instead, the game allows you to fight through shooting bullets, therefore creating a bullet hell of your own, in which both you and your opponent need to dodge, bob and weave your way to victory in the hopes that the opposition gets hit more times than you do.
Conceptually, I like this idea a lot. As a fan of bullet hell shooters, I think it is an interesting and original take to be playing the role of the one shooting the bullets, in which others need to dodge your attacks. It is also really cool that different patterns and attacks are seen from combining different button presses such as melee, heavy guard attacks, light dash attacks and spells, creating a fun way to experiment and mind trick for your opponent. In addition to that, the characters are all fairly unique, with their own attack patterns and quirks that made playing as all of them very fun. Unfortunately, that level of interest only lasted for about and hour before I started to get really bored and desire more out of it; so I decided to check out the story mode. Big mistake.
Needed A Bit More Faith
Whatever. That’s the word that constantly comes into mind when I think about the story of this game. This is the most “whatever” story I’ve ever seen. Aside from the fact that the illustrations look rough and inconsistent to the rest of the game, the individual character stories are so forgettable and pointless that it makes Seinfield, the famous “show about nothing,” look like Shakespeare by comparison.
Basically, most of the story is focused on shrine maidens, whose power is measured through the amount of incidents resolved and the faith that their respective shrines receive. There are also other species of people like vampires and magicians (because apparently that’s a species) that are involved, but it pretty much boils down to cute anime girls with different bullet colors and patterns. If you’re already a Touhou fan, then you know all of this, but even if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. Most of these details never really factor into any kind of wider narrative. Most of the time, it will be very simple things like a girl wanting to be stronger than someone else, trying to come up with new ideas for puppet shows or simply going out to get more people to visit their shrine. Pretty much all of these stories resolve in a very abrupt and dry way, where either nothing really happens, it was all just a dream or a misunderstanding. My experience felt more akin to a bad filler episode in an anime than anything else.
It Takes Two To Bullet Ballet
Of course, in between these dialogue scenes, you get to fight all the girls, which was a pretty easy feat, since everyone is always shooting bullets all over the place to the point where you don’t really have to think too much about what you’re doing. Sure, you can go through the most boring tutorial in the world to teach you about grazing, meters, range, spells and a whole bunch of other stuff, but I was perfectly capable of beating everyone by just dodging bullets and repeating the same two or three patterns until the opponent falls over. Everything felt very mindless and slow, to the point where I was actively trying to play with complexity and nuance, but it didn’t feel all that different.
Speaking of things that feel the same, all of the different modes available in the game might as well just be one mode, with the option of turning the story scenes on or off. All the modes are the same type of fight, which get boring very quickly. I’ve said in previous reviews before that fighting games these days should have more modes than just the bare minimum versus and online modes. This is especially said for indie titles, where they are not hamstrung by whatever a focus-tested flow chart says and have more freedom to be creative. Instead, we get something like Bullet Ballet, which contains only one idea that is not fully realized, to the point where not even its soundtrack can save it.
During my research into Touhou Project, it just so happens that fans really seem to like the music for these games quite a lot, and the same applies to this newest title. Unfortunately, in my experience, I had a lot of trouble remembering any song from the game. After searching for some of the songs on the Internet, I thought they were quite decent, but for some reason I have trouble thinking about them in relation to the gameplay. By themselves, they’re alright, but I thought the general sound of the game was very forgettable at the time of playing.
In the end, Touhou Gensou Rondo Bullet Ballet feels more like a $15 Steam Early Access game than a $30 PlayStation 4 game. The idea is there, but it is not fleshed out enough to be interesting or fun for more than an hour. The sheer lack of content, mediocre story, sleep-inducing tutorial and mindless gameplay makes for a very tough sell. If you are in any way interested in the Touhou franchise, then I highly suggest you go back and play the older bullet hell shooters, rather than bothering with this strange and dull spin-off that doesn’t properly represent why so many people like this property so much to begin with.