NIS America is back with yet another Touhou spin-off, and this time the beloved bullet hell shooter franchise tackles the platforming realm. It focuses on two characters — Aya and Momiji — as they get sucked into a magical book, and must find their way out by battling any cute characters they come across. There’s really not much to the story (and it’s not helped by some pretty dull dialogue), but it sets up the stage rather well.
What separates Touhou Double Focus from other platformers is that players will have to use both Aya and Momiji if they want to be successful. This means switching between the two characters, which both have separate skills and stamina meters. While both are very capable offensively, I mainly used Aya to attack from a distance (she has an awesome snapshot ability that damages foes that are several feet away from her), while Momiji is designed to be played defensively as she has a block ability. It takes a little bit to get used to, but after battling a few enemies, I really got into the system.
When I first started the game, I immediately entered a medieval castle, spent about 15 minutes exploring, and ended up dying. To my surprise, this death meant I had to restart from the very beginning. Thankfully, after digging through the menus, I found out that the player can turn respawning on, which starts the character back at the screen they died on. I’m not sure either of these options are great (as you can essentially game the respawn system and just die if you want all your health back), but I quickly decided I’d rather have respawning on than have to backtrack to the hub area every time I made significant progress that I didn’t want to lose.
Either way you choose to play, players will end up seeing the “Game Over” screen quite often as Touhou Double Focus isn’t holding back when it comes to difficulty. It actually gets easier over time due to the player getting finding health upgrades and additional skills, but early on a few hits is all it takes to decimate the health bar. Challenge is fine, though, as long as the gameplay feels fair and responsive.
Unfortunately, that’s where Double Focus runs into issues. Unlike other Metroidvania titles on PS4 (like Axiom Verge or Shantae), the gameplay feels very unpolished. From shoddy hit detection to character movement feeling incredibly stiff, the game simply doesn’t control as it should all the time. This leads to a lot of rough situations in a demanding game where players will have to use one character’s special skill, and then immediately switch to another in order to be successful.
Touhou Double Focus Review (PS4) - PlayStation LifeStyle
While the clunkiness of the gameplay never quite goes away, I did get used to it after getting through the game’s first area (there’s only four). It was the first boss fight where the gameplay really got to shine, as it really took advantage of the game’s mechanics. As you can see in the gameplay video embedded above, the boss requires near-perfection from the player as one screw up will do a healthy dent to the health gauge. This means that players constantly have to switch between the two characters, and make sure that they defend attacks with Momiji.
There aren’t many boss fights (and some aren’t even really fights as one later one is merely an obstacle course race), but they do end up being the star of the game. Besides that, there’s not much to praise about the standard Metroidvania areas that players will be running around. The level design isn’t particularly interesting, and it mostly feels like filler until these big moments occur.
While the levels may not be that fun to play, they are pretty nice to look at. Each area has a different theme (my favorite being one based upon fairy tales), and all of the enemies in an area will be unique to it. For example, in the fairy area, there were characters dressed up like the big bad wolf, and other familiar tropes. It’s nice to see unique artwork, especially in a game that isn’t very long.
Too Little, Too Late
It’s really too bad that the gameplay isn’t more polished, as there’s a lot to like here. Sadly, the challenging boss battles (which are absolutely the best part of the game) and varied enemy design can’t overcome the sloppy execution. The switching mechanics that the game is built around could be a lot of fun, they’d just have to be in a better game.
It doesn’t help matters that Double Focus is very short, and only lasts about three hours (although players more skilled than I am will be able to beat it faster). Despite being very short, the game actually gets artificially lengthened near the end by sending the player on several extremely boring fetch quests. For example, players must find a pagoda in the desert area, and bring it back to the castle in order to make progress in the water area. The backtracking feels extremely tedious, and it feels like just another excuse to have the player trudge through areas again.
There are some really great ideas found within Touhou Double Focus, but they aren’t fully executed here. The gameplay needs to be tighter if it’s going to focus on difficulty, and it pales in comparison to other difficult platformers like Shantae. If you get this as part of the physical copy of Touhou Genso Wanderer then by all means check it out, but Double Focus leaves a lot to be desired by itself.
Review code for Touhou Double Focus provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4 Pro. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.