For the sake of full disclosure I should start by saying that I am completely unfamiliar with the Touhou series, official or otherwise, so the fact that this is a fan made entry into the Touhou line means very little to me, and I have no way to compare it fairly to the other games. It’s understandable, given that this is only the second Touhou game to come to the West. It’s not an apology, but a simple statement of how I approached my own review of this game. With that out of the way, I did find Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity surprisingly fun, a delightful blend of a few genres and mechanics that makes for enjoyable gameplay, even if the story presented had a hard time catching my attention during its earlier hours.
Remilia is a 500-year old vampire that looks like a 12-year old girl, which puts American’s obsession with the Twilight series into some serious perspective. Sakuya is Remilia’s maid, a human with unique powers that make sure she’s up to the task of caring for the powerful and bored vampire. Together they live in Scarlet Devil Manor in Gensokyo, among a colorful cast of fantastical characters like fairies, wolves, animated plant life, and bugs. At the beginning of it all, Remilia faces a problem that many of us find on a daily basis. She’s bored. Her boredom isn’t as easily sated as ours, by browsing our favorite gaming websites or binging on the latest TV shows on Netflix. She’s bored because she is all powerful, and seeks to take on a challenge worthy of making her a legend. Fortunately a monster has been seen in Gensokyo, an enormous beast that soon leaves Scarlet Devil Mansion in ruins and sets Remilia and Sakuya off on an adventure; one that escalates from a cure for boredom to a full on tale of mystery.
Selecting from either Remilia or Sakuya, Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity presents players with a blend of hack-and-slash, dungeon crawling, JRPGs and bullet hell games. Levels vary from an overhead 3D adventure to an almost side-scrolling like beat ’em up, with environments ranging from forests to towns, and even mazes in a basement library. I was never starved for variety when it came to the content, as each stage brought some interesting new twist to the gameplay or environment that made it different enough from what came before. Enemy variety is such that navigating these levels can occasionally be a tricky affair, though I never found them altogether so difficult that I couldn’t progress. Taking an aggressive approach at the enemies directly was often more than enough to avoid their projectiles and get in close enough to take them out and keep the combo counter up (also of note, it looks hilarious on screen when it says “5 HIT!”).
The biggest problem I faced here was the contrast — or lack thereof — of the enemies to the environment, sometimes creating moments where I would unfairly lose my combo counter to an unseen fairy or sneaky frog. The combo counter increases gold and experience gains, so these losses are about more than just losing the high score. Still, the combat throughout each level never presented much of a challenge, being more fun and relaxed than most bullet hell games. Finally getting to the end of these stages presents the real attraction of Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity. The boss fights are a true exhibition of Touhou’s bullet hell roots, seeing patterns of brightly colored projectiles that must be carefully avoided in order to get in close enough for a few brief attacks, slowly whittling down their health until victory is yours.
While I was eager to see the story from two sides (Remilia’s and Sakuya’s), selecting from each one led to essentially following the same paths, same levels, and same encounters. It was disappointing that instead of two sides of the the same story, it was the same story path for both characters, just replacing one out for the other where the narrative required and slightly altering each line to fit. There’s a feeling that the length is artificially increased by plunking different characters into the same set pieces, and a lot of missed potential, like exploring where Sakuya was while Remilia was exploring the lake (or vice versa). Completing the story on one character does open up a bonus dungeon that reveals an alternate ending, but it still leaves the potential of having a two sided narrative incomplete.
JRPG at Heart
Luckily the gameplay is absorbing enough that the lackluster story didn’t need to grab me too much to keep me going. Though it does get vastly more interesting as it progresses, the character archetypes just aren’t such that they grab my attention. I have little desire to roleplay as a childlike ancient vampire or her strangely powerful human maid. I feel little need to randomly pick fights with fairies just because they are at the gazebo on the docks, or take down bugs that are just trying to be helpful in the forest. Later encounters make more sense, but the early game follows an expected series of JRPG goofiness that just doesn’t quite match the hue of my particular interests.
Speaking of JRPGs, the leveling and item system works much like anyone would expect from a JRPG. Various equippable items can improve your stats, and each character has unique abilities earned while leveling up. These abilities often give area of effect attacks or projectiles, putting you on an even ground with the attacks that your enemy will be firing back at you. These abilities are fun to use during traditional encounters but come in most useful during the boss fights, allowing you to keep your distance while still whittling their health down. The items give a sense of power, but unlike the equip menu that allows you to compare items, seeing which may be more useful, the store menu offers no such conveniences, making it difficult to determine if the purchase of an item may be for the better of your character.
Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity is an entertaining blend of genres that breathes a palpable life into bullet hell games, taking them from a niche variety to one more accessible for casual players. The narrative and characters fall into decidedly JRPG stereotypes, but the plot does evolve into a more coherent and intriguing mystery than it first lets on. It’s disappointing that each character offers a less than unique perspective on the story, but the fun action adventure gameplay and broad variety in the level design quickly make up for those particular woes, only a screen full of brightly lit bullets to grab your attention.
Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.