Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet (PS4)

Admittedly I went into this review rather blindly. I knew little of the Touhou anime universe, or the characters that resided therein. Despite this lack of series knowledge I do know my shmups though. I've played every possible kind of shoot 'em up from the bullet hell type to the side scrolling type, and even the top down variety. I've also played old school, and newer shmups from various publishers and developers throughout the years. Yar's Revenge on the Atari 2600 included. The thing that's always drawn me to the genre, and it's sub-genre offerings has in each case been the challenge, and the accompanying top score goals. Everybody wants to be the best at a game, but in the shmup genre this aspect of gameplay really does show, and you really do have to work hard to earn your placing among the honorable few. It's kind of like pinball in that sense. Looking back at my review playthrough I can definitely see those core values, and similarities in this game as well.

When it comes to this latest NISA release known as, "Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet" you'll find that it brings with it an all encompassing variety of shmup mechanics. By that I mean even though it is a top down shooter it uses every mechanic known to the genre, and then some. The power-ups, the bullet barrage, and even the scoring are included in the mix. While it does stay true to those more traditional elements it in some ways also seems to blend fighting game offerings with it's fleshed out character roster, story driven content, and the melee system that uses two colored rings as a way for players to dish out melee combos instead of the traditional bullet hell attacks. There's definitely a lot to this budget bullet hell title, and for what it's worth it may be one of the more interesting shmups I've ever played.

In "Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet" you'll find a decent roster of 10 playable female characters that each come with their own bios, personal details, and accompanying BGM (Background Music). These ladies of various species, and backgrounds are each drawn into the heat of battle from their Touhou upbringings for their own reasons which are at times petty, or insignificant when it comes to the more grand anime schemes. Included in said roster is Reimu, Marisa, Sakuya, Sanae, Youmu, Remilia, Alice, Yuyuko, Utsuho as well as the unlockable Aya. Among them you'll find deities, shrine maidens, yokai, and creatures of fantasy among other things. Each with their own intertwining character to character relations that are made known through story mode panel art, and the textual dialogue contained within the story mode.

As far as game offerings go the main menu holds within it a listing of modes that are basic to both the fighting game, and shmup genre as well as some multiplayer modes set aside for those willing to take their shmup prowess further. Among these modes is a Story Mode, an Arcade Mode, a Tutorial, a Boss Rush mode, and a VS (Versus) mode in the COM, Human (Local), and Online varieties. In the Story Mode you'll choose from one of the initially available 9 characters and click through their dialogue centered encounters before, and after each 1 - 3 round match. Next up is Arcade. The Arcade Mode, which is listed just below Story is not quite what you'd expect as a fighting game enthusiast, or a shmup player, but instead holds a sort of survival focus where the amount of wins you receive are tallied, and uploaded to the global leaderboards after you lose. For those of you familiar with shmups you'll likely know what the following mode which is Boss Rush is all about. In this mode you will face off against the boss characters (basically all normal characters) in their spell form. A sort of Space Invaders style match where the boss is at the top freely shooting various types of bullet hell down at you as you move side to side at the bottom of the screen trying to deplete their vitality gauge with your own attacks. As far as the VS modes go they are basically single match encounters between you and the computer controlled player, you and a friend, or you and someone else playing on the PSN. In the latter case you will find that the online mode harbors basic matchmaking with skill levels in mind, and the player and ranked match selections made available. As with every other mode in this game your high score records will be uploaded to both the online leaderboard servers as well as to your local "Archives" menu which holds both online, and offline score statistics.

When it comes to the battle in this "Bullet Ballet" you'll find that your chosen character, and the enemy character will be placed (in chibi form) within a circular arena with each of you surrounded by two colored rings. One ring being blue, and the other red. Both of which involve the interesting melee mechanics within the game. Along with these melee rings (which only work when crossing the other players rings) you'll have several governing gauges tied around your health (Vitality), Charge, Bombs, P Items (Power-Ups), and the Main & Subs of shooting and melee. Your base goal is to mind all of these elements while using your bullet hell tools to fully deplete the opposing players' Vitality gauge. The first player to win 2 rounds through complete Vitality gauge depletion wins.

The tools of which I spoke of just a moment earlier revolve wholly around the danmaku ("bullet curtain" or "curtain fire") side of the game, and the melee mechanics which are also included. As any given character you can shoot up to 9 different types of bullet hell depending on your movement speeds. These speeds include Normal, Slow (L1), and Dash (R1). Each of which not only effects your movement speeds, but also changes the type of bullet hell you are shooting, and in one instance doubles as a means to take advantage of grazing (barely dodging bullets to build charge meter). The latter example being Slow movement specific. When it comes to attacks in general the SQUARE (Main), TRIANGLE (Special), CIRCLE (Charge) each come with their own type of bullet hell effects. The main, and special attacks don't use up charge meter though, and can be used freely like the main, and sub combos tied to previously mentioned two rings. Speaking of the melee your melee attacks also come in a trio of sorts. You have the main melee which is tied to the blue outer ring, and sub-melee which is tied to the inner red ring. Once your blue ring or red ring crosses the other players' rings respectively, and touches the character within you can perform a melee combo using both the main melee (SQUARE), and the sub-melee (X) attacks. To utilize the charge melee you'll once again need charge meter to work it though, and will have to press (CIRCLE) when your rings are overlapping. Only the main and sub melee attacks can be combo'd into though.

Along with the melee, and bullet hell options you also have what are known as Spells (L2). In the game you can use one bomb, and one charge to activate a sort of character to character battle mode where the game kind of plays out like old Space Invaders type shmups. At the top of the screen will be the stationary character that activated the spell, and at the bottom the player on the receiving end. As the spell caster you have a limited time of unlimited bullet hell abilities which can be spammed until the timer runs out or until your characters' Vitality gauge has been fully depleted. On the receiving end of the spell the player can only move left and right, and has to dodge as best as they can while shooting at the spell caster. Also at the receiving players' disposal are the bombs which can be used in the more traditional manner to more quickly deal with the threat at hand. Supposing the spell caster wants to change their bullet hell aim a bit for added effect they can also press (R2) to to rotate the shots. Thus are the mechanics in a nutshell.

While I may not have hit the nail on the head with all of the mechanics explanations you will find that there is a guided visual tutorial which explains everything through textual dialogue, a controller display, and character interactions between Youmu & Yuyuko. The only downside to said tutorial being the fact that the player gets no hands-on experience during it.

Mechanics aside "Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet" is a visually pleasing spectacle. The mixture of 3D elements, different perspectives, and vibrant colors make this budget bullet hell title shine. Even the character specific BGMs, and characters themselves will no doubt be attractive to anime fans across the board. With that having been said though the online seems to be a virtual ghost town at the moment with the matchmaking made obsolete through a dwindling player base. Despite this NISA, and the developers have plans to release future content including new characters, character stages, and character BGMs at respectable DLC prices. For those of you who are still interested.

The Verdict ...

The question that remains is whether or not I think this game is worth a purchase. I'd say for $29.99 it's not a bad deal. Even the marked up $69.99 collector's version isn't all that bad considering the NISA exclusives you would be getting. I just hope for the sake of those who already bought it, and those who intend on doing so that the online picks up in popularity, and is kept a viable part of the package deal. Otherwise you'll be left with the offline modes only.

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