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Touhou: Luna Nights - Review


Now this may offend a lot of hardcore fans of the genre, but I’ve never been into bullet hells. Not that I think these games are bad or anything, but they’re just not for me. The only one I think I’ve ever liked was Furi, and if you really want to count them as bullet hells then include Undertale and Cuphead on that list. However, these are loosely bullet hell games. Furi is an action game focused on one-on-one dueling, Cuphead is a run and gun game, and Undertale is a story driven RPG with a tiny little bullet hell minigame placed in-between it's turn based battles. None of these I would say are fully bullet hells. I did attempt to play Enter The Gungeon, what is considered by many to be one of the best. I played it for four hours and ended up giving up immediately. These games are just punishing and not in a good way. It feels like difficulty most of the time is based on how much stuff you can flood the screen with instead of offering a fair & approachable challenge. A decision choice I've complained a lot about in the past. It's just visual clutter for the sake of making things feel more intense for a short bit. I struggle to keep up with what’s happening on screen and just before I get an idea my character is dead. Now I could be wrong, but that’s why I never liked them.


Which now brings us onto today’s subject. Touhou: Luna Nights, a metroidvania RPG developed by indie studio Team Ladybug and is a fangame of the long running bullet hell series Touhou. A complete curve ball from everything I just stated. I have no knowledge of Touhou besides that it is a bullet hell series. I have no idea what it is about and what is going on, but from what I have gathered it’s about magical anime girls navigating death courses designed for men probably loaded on ritalin. So for the sake of this review, I decided to do a quick google search only to discover that this series has twenty-five f*cking entries. With six of them being set in between the events of the mainline games. What surprises me the most is how all of these games were developed by one developer. He had some help along the way, but he’s responsible for every aspect of these games The core gameplay loop, writing, music, everything. He developed twenty-five Touhou games and gained a huge following over the years. The amount of fan content online is enough to make an average indie developer’s jaw drop down and hit the table they’re sitting at like a bowling ball.


So Touhou has been a massive success, continues to be a success, and of course receives a whole handful of fan content. One of which ended up being a fangame, Touhou: Luna Nights. It was so good that it got approved by the creator and published as an official product. It was released into early access in 2018 and reached its 1.0 version just about a year later. It has a staggering amount of praise currently having an overwhelmingly positive user score on Steam. Making it one of the best indie metroidvania games to play in the market. If you don’t know me you should know that my favorite game genre is metroidvania. Always end up having a good time with these kinds of games, and even the weakest entry is like a decent 7/10 for me. Was debating whether or not to try Touhou: Luna Nights. On one hand I love metroidvanias, but on the other hand I do not like bullet hell games and I don’t care about Touhou. That’s been made very clear by now. However, I’m on spring break right now and decided to buy a couple of short indies for the trip. This was one of them and so I spent the last two days nailing away at it until I beat it hours before writing this. Touhou: Luna Nights is pretty good. I had a very fun time playing this and enduring all the madness it had to offer. However, I don’t think it’s one of the best in the genre and its attempt to throw in bullet hell mechanics and bosses may turn players off. Still, this game is good and I'm happy to have tried it. Let’s talk about Luna Nights and why it deserves your attention. 


Story


As stated in the intro, I don’t know what Touhou is about nor the backgrounds of the characters. I will though do the best to offer a brief explanation of what the premise is. You follow a skilled maid named Sakuya Izayoi. She spends most of her days taking care of her mistress’ manor, but one the mistress Remilia Scarlet sends her to a parallel universe. This universe contains a manor very similar to the one Remilia lives in, but it is overrun with monsters. Sakuya had the magical ability to stop time, but when she tries to use it against the monster they prove to be worthless. Turns out the mistress has removed Sakuya of her powers and she wants to test her skills. She has developed this alternate universe to test Sakuya’s fighting capabilities. Only by exploring the manor and recovering her powers can Sakuya fight Remilia, prove herself, and return home. It’s a test. A game for which Sakuya must master. However, there's a secret lying beneath it all. A truth for which Sakuya will uncover. A truth... that most likely you'll not care about like me since it's done right at the end of the game.


Gameplay


In Touhou: Luna Nights you explore a vast world with maze-like level design, fight foes, pick up upgrades that allow you to venture into different parts of the world, grow stronger, and get closer to where you need to be. There’s a leveling system and it’s very much like how leveling works in Symphony of The Night. Kill enemies, gain experience points, and your attack power increases. Unlike a majority of metroidvanias though combat is projectile focused, but not in the sense of a game like Metroid Dread or Ghost Song. Since this is a Touhou game you’ll be firing a barrage of projectiles at your foes, and vice versa. Sakuya will throw a handful of knives at enemies, and whenever she does so it uses a little bit of the mana bar. Every attack in this game consumes a bit of mana, and when it’s gone you have to wait for it to recharge or gain it back. How do you gain it back you may ask? Well, it’s more complicated than you think. Unlike Metroid where killing foes will sometimes drop ammo refills in Luna Nights you have to get up close to enemies and their attacks. If you get close to them without being hit you get health points. For mana on the other hand you have to do almost the exact same thing, but only when time is frozen. Now here comes the interesting part.


You gain the time slow ability pretty on, and when you press it button it allows you to send time into a complete halt. Enemies stop moving and attacks will linger. You can regain mana points during time slowly, but there’s more to it than just that. You can also attack on your own during this time. Prepare a flurry of knives so that they damage your foes when you decide to unstop the time freeze. Attacking during time freeze does consume mana points at all, so feel free to punish foes. Preparing knives or moving around consumes a bit of the time freeze counter, so try not to over utilize it. There are a couple obstacles to be wary of during your travels. Some objects may not stop when you activate time slowly. Some may only move when it is active, and others will move backwards. There’s even this red mist which drains your time slow counter quickly so try not to touch it. Over time you’ll pick up a variety of upgrades. A double jump, health and mana increases, keys to open doors, or the ability to stand on your knives during a time freeze. One of the most important pickups has to be alternate attacks. They consume more mana than regular attacks, but knowing when to whip these out can give you the edge during hectic battles.


There are five areas to explore in this game and at the end of each one is a boss. These aren’t the typical metroidvania bosses where you have to use your newfound abilities to outmaneuver the many attacks they throw at you. No, this is a Touhou boss transferred into 2D format. They will unleash a plethora of projectiles and cover the screen, and you have to do your best to avoid all the bullcrap they throw at you. Nail away at their health bar and eventually you will bring them down. Only then can you proceed deeper into the manor. Besides that, there’s nothing much else for me to say. Hopefully you can find lady Remilia and prove the strength you had lying within.


Thoughts


Touhou: Luna Nights is a brilliant attempt at mixing metroidvanias with bullet hell mechanics, for the most part. This is a very fun and addicting game to play, and even though it can get crazy at times it didn’t stop me from cracking away at it until I beat the final boss. There’s some pretty clever design decisions, but I will admit not a lot of metroidvania fans will probably love this. It being a Touhou game it has some moments that make you wonder how an ordinary player would manage to beat this. The mana and health system is risk reward. Having to dangerously place yourself close to the enemy and their attacks creates this adrenaline rush. Knowing how to avoid them, but not play too carefully so that you can regain the supplies needed to survive. The fact mana can be gained during time freezes, but health can only be regained by placing yourself near actively moving projectiles gets you to switch between abilities and time flows often. However, this can be quite cruel at times. Sometimes the health you regain isn’t enough, and enemies can hit you like a truck at times. You get stunned easily, and all of this is made more frustrating when it comes to boss fights with huge health pools and spewing crap everywhere. Final boss I almost quit entirely due to it's sheer length and how you have to do up to two phases in one fowl swoop.


Time freeze is gonna be the main hook for a lot of Luna Nights players. How a chaotic scenario can be made much easier if you simply flick time freeze on. There are some puzzles every now and then that test your use of time freeze, and it feels great when you overcome these obstacles. Yet, this comes with a caveat as well as sometimes it feels like you’re switching in and out of time too much. It can get really repetitive, and sometimes this constant switching makes you fumble a bit during play. One ability I completely forgot the game had was to do a soft time slow. Hold down the attack button to simply slow down objects around you, but not completely stop them. This ability is used for a puzzle midway through the game, and I forgot it existed because the game did not make good use of it. I don’t like how you can aim forward and up, but you can’t aim diagonally. You can aim diagonally downward, but that’s only if you are in the air which is a really weird design decision and is not good when there are hazards in front of you. Meaning sometimes you end up launching yourself into hazards when trying to attack diagnolly downwards while falling.


The pixel art is good through and I like how the whole world is inspired by Japanese architecture. Touhou has always been praised for that aspect, and while it can get stereotypical at times it is very nice looking. Enemies fit the part, but there’s two enemy types I don’t really get. One of the many monsters you may casually fight are quite literally Frankenstein, which absolutely does not fit in with the setting they are going for. There’s fairies operating turrets, which makes even less sense for the setting and magical anime girl theme. Music is energetic and good enough to keep you hyped. Weakest part of Luna Nights has to be the narrative. I don’t think it’s a bad narrative or that it’s overly complex. Far from it as Luna Nights is about a bunch of girls trying to have fun fair play. It’s more like I failed to care about what was going on. These characters aren’t all that very interesting to be honest, and I feel like you were supposed to have some Touhou knowledge to get the significance of some of them. I know there’s a good handful of players who don’t play games for the story, but this feels below the bare minimum when it comes to narratives. 


I don’t want it to sound like I hate Luna Nights. I liked this game enough and I do recommend it for the gameplay and frenetic combat alone. Once you get into the groove of things combat is really fun. The exploration is satisfying enough with secrets lying in corner you'd least expect. I don't think the world all too hard to traverse through and backtracking is made easier when you accumulate all your powers. Boss fights I think are a true highlight of this game despite how crazy they can become. The game doesn’t overstay its welcome and takes simply five hours to beat, which is a good runtime because any more would have probably led to frustration and me not giving it the soft recommendation I’ve given it now. It does enough interesting stuff to make it stand out from numerous other genre entries, but when it comes to being one of the best metroidvanias I kind of disagree. Again, I don’t want to be too harsh, especially since this game was originally a fangame made by a team of passionate indie developers. In a world where the Triple A industry is in utter shambles right now and developers are getting ready to unionize due to crunch culture or the mass amount of layoffs it’s best to support the little guys right now. That’s why I’m gonna be reviewing indie games for a bit, so expect bigger budget releases to not be as prevalent in the future. In the end I give Touhou: Luna Nights an 8/10 for being pretty good.



This critique was written by the single man at Review on. Stay tuned for more content and feel free to check more reviews out over at my site!

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