Azure Reflections review

While it captures the look of a Shanghai Alice Touhou game, the gameplay may leave some fans wanting.

The Touhou Project series of shoot-em-ups started in the mid-90’s is one of the most well-known in the bullet hell (or ‘danmaku’) style, a niche subgenre which unfortunately doesn’t receive much attention in what we tend to consider the ‘mainstream.’ Communities around these games have instead propped up to discuss, dissect, and create fan works from this beloved creation by single-person ex-Taito developer Jun'ya Ōta AKA ZUN AKA Team Shanghai Alice.

Originally released in Japan as Maihana Soumakyou: Uniting Barrage Action in 2012 by developer souvenir circ., Touhou Azure Reflections is one in a line of fangames published on the PlayStation 4 as part of the ‘Play, Doujin!’ Touhou distribution project. Right off the bat, the presentation of the opening interface—from the snappy menu to the textured 3D backgrounds and decently-animated character models—make this seem like more than a typical fan project; it wasn’t until later that I, a Touhou Luddite, realized it was not in fact an official Shanghai Alice game.

In bullet hell games, the general goal is to shoot down enemies and not get hit yourself so as to make it to end of a stage where a boss fight often awaits. Simple enough, but this niche subgenre doesn’t carry its name lightly: you’ll have to fight tooth-and-nail to earn victory. Bullet hell games require a ton of patience; the name comes from the buffet of bullets which constantly proliferate the available screen real estate. Bullets move slowly, though. In fact, bullet hell has less to do with combat than you might think; it’s more about this particular sort of dance between player and developer-authored bullet patterns.

It’s important to stress this, because Azure Reflections is a fangame, so there’s an overall assumption here that you’re already in the know about all this stuff. But this being one of my first bullet hell games—depending on who you talk to, games I’ve previously played like Ikaruga and Jamestown may or may not count—I wasn’t quite prepared for just how hard these games can be. Unlike its spiritual parents which are played vertically, Azure Reflections is a side-scrolling shooter. You can press a button to shoot right and another to shoot left. Your hitbox weak spot doesn’t constitute the entirety of your character, instead merely a small dot in the center of your sprite visible only if you choose to slow your movement by holding down the focus button. Focus movement is critical especially for new players, as it will help you to thread the proverbial needle necessary for survival in these taxing scenarios.

It’s not just that Azure Reflections is difficult in the moment-to-moment sense, though. These are arcade-style games, meaning that the player is allotted a certain amount of lives per continue, with two extra continues. If you run out of continues, you’re sent back to the main menu and have to start all over. But Azure Reflections ups the ante by forcing you to get to the seventh and final stage without using any continues; reaching the fifth or later the sixth stage using a continue will stop you from seeing the end. This makes even a run on the easiest difficulty a challenging affair for bullet hell newcomers. As of writing this, after around twelve or so hours of play I’ve only been able to complete a full normal difficulty run once. There’s an unlockable extra stage, but it’s external to your main run.

From the start you’re limited to choosing series protagonist Reimu Hakurei with no customization options available, but you can later unlock mainstays Marisa Kirisame and Cirno the Ice Fairy upon subsequent playthroughs. Like any other Touhou game, players can also cast spell cards, area-of-effect attacks which crucially get rid of surrounding bullets and transform them into collectibles. Narrowly missing a bullet is called ‘grazing’ and gives the player points and increases their barrier gauge.

Azure Reflections attempts to stand apart from the original Touhou Project games in more ways than just its change in orientation. The other main difference here is the inclusion of the Danmaku Rush attack. Pressing the triangle button when your gauge meter is full spawns a barrier around the player which can absorb bullets. You can aim and hit triangle again to perform a dash in the specified direction, stringing together multiple dash attacks through enemies until your barrier gauge is depleted. The more bullets that touch your barrier, the stronger your rush attack will be, and mini bosses require rush attacks to be defeated so as to transition to the next phase of a boss fight. It’s an attempt at differentiation, but unfortunately Danmaku Rush makes all key fights feel homogeneous by making their use mandatory.

Taking damage in Azure Reflections also works a bit differently from normal Touhou games, reflecting one of my least favorite changes to the formula. Here, you get knocked back from any physical interaction. If an attack is a head-on collision with an enemy, you’re only knocked back and don’t lose any lives. If instead you’re struck by a bullet, you’ll be knocked back and stunned for a few seconds which inhibits your ability to shoot as well as limiting movement options. When attacked while stunned, you’ll be shot down and lose a life, respawning again with a limited period of invincibility. The knockback into stun very often may as well be an instant death, as the player isn’t invincible during the period of knockback, meaning you’ll often get knocked straight into a bullet regardless. You can also press the touch pad button to spend ‘P’ points and release a barrier which erases nearby bullets, but I had a difficult time using it in a practical environment due to the button’s distance away from the core facepad.

In general, the changes made to the core Touhou formula here seem to exist merely to make these games stand apart from their forebears. Azure Reflections often lacks much consideration for any design inhibitions its tinkering inherently creates. The change in orientation from vertical to horizontal allows the player to move across all of the available screen real estate as opposed to a vertical cross-section, but player speed doesn’t feel adequately adjusted to reflect this shift. Animations frequently interrupt the speed of play, such as during the shift in boss-fight phases or when you or your opponent casts a spell card. There are accessories you can buy using in-game currency you earn over time, but these reward not the most skilled players but instead those who’ve played the longest.

Even if you’re somebody who will cruise through to the end of their first run through Azure Reflections, you’ll still have to play through it multiple times to unlock all the different characters. But Azure Reflections dulls the senses after merely a couple runs. Despite their simplistic gameplay, the best shmup games tend to contain memorable stage designs and narratives, as well as variety in enemy and bullet patterns, all of which encourage replayability. Azure Reflections has merely four enemy types, in addition to two similar mini-bosses and a boss at the end of each stage. Stages are incredibly short, and a full playthrough of the game skipping cutscenes will take you just over twenty minutes. Each odd-numbered stage has literally the same exact washed-out extra-dimensional void look as the others; even-numbered stages, while more varied, are still a bit bland on the eyes. Bosses  feel similar to each other as well: each is a four-phase fight (the final two bosses being six phases long) where each phase loops through the boss firing off a corresponding bullet pattern for the player to dodge. Most of their attacks feel random and lacking in personality corresponding with the character, save for one boss’ bullets being shaped like swords and kunai as well as a unique off-screen dash attack.

The story of Azure Reflections feels tacked-on and, well, like a fangame. The ‘Scarlet Mist Incident’ has trapped our heroes, who are all too preoccupied with hunts for tea and snacks to notice. It’s complete with staid non-sequiturs and in-group references, not to mention everyone’s favorite: random fourth-wall breaking! Conversations between characters wink and nudge through a vat of prose figuratively written by a fan Discord channel riddled with anime avatars. It’s all competently-enough voice-acted and dialogue differs depending on the character you play, which is a nice and thoughtful touch. Still, it is difficult to adequately compare how Azure Reflections’ writing stacks up to an actual Shanghai Alice Touhou game, since all the native writing for those games is in Japanese with any English translations available only through fan patches.

It felt unwise for me to attempt to judge a fan work without at least some broader context for where Azure Reflections pulls from. So with an eye for scrutiny, I did my due diligence as A Critic: I downloaded the free demo for Hidden Star in Four Seasons, the most recent official Shanghai Alice Touhou release and the only one readily available on Steam, and played it twice. The difference was night and day. The first thing which struck me was its hazy, mesmerizing backgrounds. Whereas Azure Reflections slowly prods along its 3D environments, Hidden Star and other mainline Touhou games I sampled through YouTube Let’s Plays blitz along colorful, vibrant 2D backgrounds with reckless abandon. There are fewer gameplay elements in place, but what’s there feels tighter and more refined. Characters’ visual designs reflect less the current state of anime as a (fan) service and more developer ZUN’s unique sensibilities, with bullet patterns and individual bullet designs more indicative of a character’s given personality. Swaying particle effects give encounters flavor. I was struck too by how much harder Azure Reflections’ definition of ‘normal’ difficulty was versus Hidden Star’s.

“It’s these small touches which set the standard for what a Touhou game is and should be!” said the outsider, loudly and mostly uninformed. With flair and inclusive character designs, no wonder is it that the otherwise brutal Touhou series has attracted such a long-standing following. I love their resolute dedication, and in some ways I love that Azure Reflections exists, especially on the stage it’s been given on the PS4. Spending time with the game has led me down some weird corners of the internet which I never would have broached otherwise, some of which I plan on keeping tabs on. I’m grateful that it managed to bring me to shmup games in what I foresee as being a big way. But its brevity and roteness make it hard to recommend Touhou Azure Reflections to anyone but those who’ve managed to empty out the seemingly endless laundry list of fan releases. And even then, I suspect hardcore Touhou fans may flat-out not like it. Still, it’s not an incompetent release and has more layers of polish than it needs to. Azure Reflections then serves as a respectable if significantly flawed testament to the merits of communities in a hyper-curated age.