Indie games have come a long way over the last few decades! Though next to your Minecrafts, Undertales, and who knows how many nights at Freddy’s, one name towers among them as a crown jewel of the independent gaming scene: the Touhou Project series! Created by a developer named ZUN all by himself in 1997, the Touhou series is predominantly a series of bullet hell games. These are top-down shoot-em-ups with a high emphasis on dodging bullet patterns so intricate that they could be hung up in an art museum. With 17 main games in the series currently released, it’s undeniable that this little indie project has spawned into a massive franchise! As you might imagine, with a series with such a massive legacy, many different kinds of fan work have sprouted from it. Hundreds of music remixes, entire fan-made anime series, and even full-fledged games set in the Touhou universe. Touhou Luna Nights is one of those games.
Initially released on Steam and later on Xbox One and Switch, Touhou Luna Nights is a 2D Metroidvania developed by Team Ladybug and Vaka Game Magazine, with publishing duties going to Why so serious?, PLAYISM and Phoenixx Inc. The girls of Touhou have almost as impressive a resume as Mario! They’ve had fighting games, racing games and I’m sure there’s a visual novel if you look hard enough. So how does the Touhou formula transition into this Metroidvania mold?
Touhou is rather infamous for being notoriously difficult to get into. This is a franchise with well over 100 characters and an obscene amount of media to digest! These characters all have characteristics, allegiances, and locations they call home, so it sounds like a nightmare to try and get your head around! Touhou Luna Nights wisely trims a lot of the fat out to make it more approachable.
You play as Sakuya Izayoi, the head maid of Remelia Scarlet, head of the Scarlet Devil Mansion… are you still following along? You awake in an unfamiliar location and are told you’ve been thrust into a pocket dimension created by Remilia as a means to test Sakuya’s abilities. With no means to escape and with your powers weakened, Sakuya has no choice but to go along with Remilia’s game to hopefully appease her.
Like most Metroidvanias, the story is not really the focus here. The fact that they had to play “the alternate dimension” card is already cliche and contrived, but if it serves as a means to explore a massive environment while combing its walls for all its secrets, I’m not complaining. What I can complain about is that the game expects that you’re somewhat familiar with the Touhou universe. Characters are introduced in each new area and various locations are referenced here-and-there, so it can get quite confusing keeping up with all of them. Some kind of glossary of all the game’s elements or an optional bio when each new character is introduced would have been ideal.
There are some twists I didn’t see coming which helped keep things interesting. There’s even an optional epilogue you can track down and provides the greatest challenge in the game! While I may not have gotten much out of the game’s narrative, I’m sure a lot of other people will be giddy to see their favorite characters in a whole new genre!
If you’re looking for a Metroidvania, Touhou Luna Nights has everything covered! Your task is to navigate the halls looking for upgrades to increase your traversal options and find keys to access more areas. Even the map is separated into the tried-and-tested grid format, with white borders indicating edges of a screen. Though if you’re thorough, striking hidden walls rewards you with more upgrades and abilities to give you more options.
The whole map is separated into 5 different sections (with a 6th unlocking after completing the main story), each of which has its own upgrades to acquire and boss fights to conquer. What I loved is that the game keeps track of all your upgrades in a handy grid by the map, even listing which ones were found in each area. This reduces the amount of backtracking if you’re aiming for 100% completion! Aiding this are warp gates allowing you to travel between areas; always handy if you need to find a save point since Touhou Luna Nights only has manual saving. While I would have liked locked doors to have been marked when you find them, the map is very well constructed!
So how do you traverse this massive environment? By running and jumping, obviously, but a lot of precise platforming is required. Thankfully, the controls are tight and responsive, so if you make a mistake, it’s entirely your fault. There’s also a wide variety of enemies to tend with, helping stave off repetition. While it has the basics down, there’s more depth to be found that gives Touhou Luna Nights its unique identity. Much like everyone’s favorite English vampire, DIO from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Sakuya has the power to stop time at will. You’re only able to move through stopped time for a brief period, with each movement reducing your time spent in this state. While it’s stylistically cool and adds strategy to combat encounters, it goes far beyond that.
Certain obstacles and enemies may be highlighted in a different color and these will have different effects when time is stopped. For example, purple objects still move even in stopped time, whereas green objects only move when time is stopped. And then there are your traversal options: pools of water turn into solid ground but freeze you in place if you happen to be submerged. And after acquiring a certain upgrade, you can even use your projectiles as small platforms in stopped time! The number of ways Team Ladybug was able to turn a simple gimmick into a central game mechanic is nothing short of astounding! But this is only just the beginning.
You’re also able to slow down time to get through fast-moving gates or dodge enemy projectiles. This works especially well with the other unique mechanic in Touhou Luna Nights: the Graze system. As you attack enemies, you’ll notice you’ll lose magic points and when you run out, you’re unable to attack. By narrowly dodging enemies or their projectiles, the game rewards you for grazing past danger and refills your magic. If you happen to do this when time isn’t stopped, you’ll also get your health refilled. Sakuya is a glass cannon and it’ll only take a few hits to bring her down, so the game actively encourages you to learn enemy and boss patterns to ensure your survival!
Speaking of which, let’s talk about those bosses. Each one is a fan-favorite Touhou character and each of them has distinct patterns you’ll need to learn. Each pattern runs in a cycle that repeats constantly, so if you keep trying, you’ll soon get to grips with how each boss functions. After the boss losses half of their health, they’ll add another more powerful attack to the cycle that you’ll need to learn. I loved all of the bosses in this game! The sheer variety is great on its own, but each boss provided a unique challenge and it was a joy to learn all of their patterns! After finishing the game’s epilogue, you can unlock a boss rush mode, which goes to show that the bosses are undoubtedly the best part of Touhou Luna Nights!
There are some issues though that sadly mar the overall experience. Game balance is something most games should strive for and in terms of difficulty, Touhou Luna Nights is perfect. It has a solid difficulty curve that peaks during the game’s epilogue, as it should. The problems come in regarding the skills you can find like lobbing chainsaws or having a sword that automatically targets enemies. Normally, these skills cost magic points, but stopping time makes you use your remaining stopped time instead, so these moves can very easily be spammed. The worst example is a skill called Thousand Knives; this skill lets you not only throw an unbelievable amount of projectiles towards your opponent, but you’re also fully invincible! But what makes it worse is that if you activate this skill when you could have taken damage, you get all the bonuses from the Graze system, thereby completely breaking the game in two! In a game where twitch reflexes are central to the game’s appeal, having a skill like this ruins this.
And then there is the currency system. Enemies drop a wide variety of gems when defeated, which you can then trade in for money at the game’s store. The game states that you can horde these gems to improve certain stats, but no matter how many I collected, the effects were negligible at best. Honestly, you’re better off just selling them to get useful items like health restores. There’s a leveling system too, but all it does is mildly boost your damage, so it doesn’t make too much of an impact the further you get into the game.
The game will take you around 5-7 hours to complete, depending on if you’re searching the map and how adept you are at the game’s combat. Some may scoff at that with its $18 price, but I’d argue that the game is very replayable. Many different types of runs can be done: a 100% run, a speed run, a run where you can’t buy items, and so on. Add to that the previously mentioned boss rush mode and Touhou Luna Nights is definitely a complete package!
Sprite-based games are a dying art, with only a few developers like IntiCreates and WayForward still adopting the style. This is unfortunate since modern sprite games have some incredibly polished art and animation; Touhou Luna Nights is no exception! The game is drop-dead gorgeous with all the animations being unbelievably fluid! Special mention should go to Sakuya, who has two unique idle animations for when she’s in combat and when she isn’t; and that isn’t getting into all her other animations! While the characters all look fantastic, they aren’t that expressive, with them mainly just standing by each other as dialogue is shown.
Each location you explore has a visual motif and they all look stunning! The level of detail in the architecture and even background elements is almost ludicrous and helps enhance the experience! The game plays at 60 frames-a-second in both docked and handheld mode on Switch, no small feat for a game this visually striking! Though near the end of my playthrough, I somehow got stuck within the game’s geometry thanks to a glitch. This only happened once, but I needed to acknowledge it.
Touhou games are known to have legendary soundtracks, and while Touhou Luna Nights’ music is pretty good, I feel like it’s being held back a bit. I have no issue with MiDi music, but the SoundFont used here isn’t the best, with the sections using horn instruments sounding pretty funky for all the wrong reasons.
Creating a great Metroidvania is no small feat. You need a solid progression system, challenging map and enemy design, and a way of rewarding the player for exploring the entire map. Touhou Luna Nights does this and so much more! It does fall short in regards to its balance and certain systems, but this is a quality title that you could compare to other greats in the genre like… well, like Metroid and Castlevania. Even if you aren’t a fan of the massive Touhou series, the game’s quality stands on its own, with the source material serving as the cherry on top for fans of the series! If you’re looking for a new Metroidvania to play, Touhou Luna Nights should be high on your list!
TOUHOU LUNA NIGHTS IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks to Phoenixx Inc for providing a Nintendo Switch review key for this title.
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