While this will almost certainly be the first that most Western gamers will have heard of the Tohou Project Series, it has actually been around since 1996 in Japan and has spawned something on a multimedia empire. Ok, ‘empire’ is probably a tad strong, but with anime, manga and video games aplenty, the Tohou Project is undoubtedly a known commodity in its native Japan. Here though? Yeah, nobody has a clue.
As you can imagine then, news of NIS America bringing, Cubetype’s incredibly niche, Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet to the West came as something of a surprise. Oh, and when I say niche, I really do mean niche. Rather than a standard bullet hell shooter, Bullet Ballet delivers a bullet hell/beat-em-up hybrid in which you take on a number of 1v1 battles that combine core bullet hell mechanics with simplified close range beat-em-up controls.
It might sounds bonkers (and it mostly is), but this isn’t the first of its kind we have seen in the West. G.rev’s, little played but incredibly fun, WarTech: Senko no Ronde arrived on the Xbox 360 (a console home to a surprising a number of Japanese curios) back in 2007. That game was built around a similar combination of these too traditionally disparate genres, only, well, that game was much better.
It wasn’t what one might call a huge hit over here (the games’ sequel never made it to these shores), but Senko no Ronde was a largely fantastic game – something that sadly can’t be said of, Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet. That’s not to say that it’s a bad game of course, it’s just a bit scrappy, and despite mostly solid core mechanics, it doesn’t deliver enough in the way of depth or balance to establish itself as a long-term proposition.
Of course, the vast majority of gamers will be new to this somewhat unique hybrid of genres, so, as you can imagine, the tutorial is of great importance. It’s delivered in a charming enough manner here, but it is completely non-interactive with no ability to cut to specific gameplay tips. If you want the tutorial, you’re going to have to watch the whole 10 minute video. That’s not terrible first time around, but if you want a quick reminder of how one of the games’ many system works, it’s a massive pain to have to go back through the whole thing. Simply put, it’s a terrible design choice – something that seems all the more bizarre given the clear effort that has gone into the tutorials’ charming presentation.
Still, despite its distinctive gameplay, once you get your head around the core mechanics, things soon start to fall into place. Like the best fighters out there, you can actually button-mash your way to a certain level of success, but inevitably, if you’re going to progress or, God forbid, take the fight online, you’re going to need to learn the intricacies of its systems.
While unlikely to concern the more cultured likes of either genre (this is no King of Fighter XIV or Ikaruga), there is still enough depth here to make experimentation and practice worthwhile endeavours. From distance, there are three attack types; main, sub and charge. Each attack is character specific, but the command for each is universal with tactical depth added more via timing rather than thumb cramping combos. On top of those three attacks are three modes of movement; normal, turbo and slow. Depending on the speed you are moving, the subsequent attacks are changed, thus meaning the initial three is multiplied to nine. Sure, you can get by with the standard set of three attacks, but if you planning on mixing it up online, you’ll soon find yourself using each of the different movement styles and thus quickly figuring out the unique benefits of each subsequent attack.
Turbo is rather obvious in that it gives you a quick burst of speed to get out of trouble, but as one might imagine, it doesn’t do wonders for your control – a poorly timed dodge can see you stuck in the middle of a mountain of bullets. Slow probably sounds less useful, but in practice, it’s one you’ll find yourself using more and more as you progress. Not only does it give you tighter control when the screen is busy with bullets, but running close to projectiles while in slow mode (or grazing as it is known here), refills your power gauge, subsequently allowing you additional special attacks.
The special attacks themselves turn the screen into a more traditional horizontal shooter set-up with the attacker at the top and the enemy down the bottom. This leads to a sort of mini game in which you’ll need to dodge the incredibly intense bullet waves moving across the screen. These attacks are arguably used too often, but they do at least create a unique spectacle while changing up the pace of battle.
The other core attack is via close range melee attacks. These are set-up in a similar way to the long range attacks; there are three attack types, and while relatively simplistic, play out in a rock, paper, scissor style that combines skill with an element of luck. The close quarters combat certainly plays second fiddle to the long range stuff, but it does offer up an additional style of attack, making this a notably more memorable game than it otherwise might have been.
Despite the universal move list and solid core mechanics, it’s disappointing that many of the games’ 10 playable characters feel so horribly unbalanced. Some are simply far more powerful than others, and in a game in which the standard move-set is identical, that immediately takes a large number of the already relatively small cast directly out of commission. It’s not game breaking in so much that variety comes more from the gameplay rather than the roster, but it still a shame that the time hadn’t been taken to level the playing field…..or at least make the majority of characters genuinely viable options for competitive play.
Speaking of competitive play – beyond the standard versus mode, Bullet Ballet is home to ranked and player matches, and while matches can be found, it should be noted that the online infrastructure is somewhat anachronistic. It works in the most fundamental sense, but it’s far from being a user-friendly experience.
As for the other game modes, there is a standard Arcade mode, a Story Mode that is largely paper-thin and almost utterly nonsensical and a Boss Rush Mode that plays out exclusively in the special attack (spell card state) and essentially turns the game into a more traditional bullet hell shooter (albeit it a 1v1 bullet hell shooter). It’s relatively short-lived fun, but it’s an entertaining distraction and does help pad out what is an otherwise slightly lightweight package.
It may have been done before, but to many in the West, Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet’s unique mix of bullet hell shooter and traditional beat-em-up gameplay will be quite unlike anything else they have played. It’s a tad short on content and the gameplay does have a number of balance and technical issues, but despite these problems, Bullet Ballet is an enjoyable if ultimately short lived experience. Its low rent visuals certainly don’t help, but if you can enjoy it as an arcade-style curio, there is still quite a bit to like here.
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