Touhou Mechanical Scrollery sends Reimu and Marisa soaring through three-dimensional spaces filled with mechanized enemies and dense bullet clouds. It’s often a visually opulent experience but is impaired by unwieldy action and repetition.
Developer: Miko-san Saho Team
Publisher: Phoenixx Inc.
Release date: April 30th, 2020
Price: $19.99 via digital download, launch discount price of $17.99
In the West, most lucrative intellectual properties are protected with litigious fervor. But that’s not always the case across the rest of the world. Case in point: in Japan, former Taito programmer Jun’ya Ota spurred an entire industry of fan-made games simply by adopting a flexible approach to his lore and characters.
Affectionately known as ZUN, Ota’s moment began with the creation of a collection of vertically scrolling danmaku, or bullet hell shooters. The efforts were exceptional enough to spur a succession of fan-crafted efforts. Initially, many of these were modeled after ZUN’s titles. But before long, doujin circles had contextualized the mythos across a variety of genres, thus forming The Touhou Project. Certainty, ZUN’s lack of formal licensing, and a mere request for acknowledgment, had much to do with Touhou’s meteoric rise in popularity.
A Promising Prologue
With the release of Touhou Mechanical Scrollery Miko-san Saho Team (巫女さん作法) makes an undeniably impressive first impression. The game’s title screen offers an impressive arrangement of Touhou favorite, “The Gensokyo the Gods Loved”, while a cutscene depicts an opulent interpretation of Forest of Magic. But quickly enough, the cinematic reverts to in-game action. It’s a juxtaposition of ambition vs. the actual, and with Mechanical Scrollery the divergence between the two can become distressingly wide.
Set after the events of Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom, the fifteenth official Touhou release, Mechanical Scrollery begins with a tutorial that imparts the fundamentals of flight. While there’s mouse-and-keyboard support built into the game, a controller is probably the best way to play. Nearly every button on an Xbox controller is used, sending Reimu ascending, descending, locking onto enemies, dashing, and issuing melee attacks as well as two types of ranged attacks. Reminiscent of the control scheme used by Zone of the Enders, playables Reimu Hakurei and Marisa Kirisame move briskly to player input. Expectedly, each offers a slightly different play style, with the latter moving a bit quicker and having a more powerful magical arsenal.
Plotline that Extends a Straightforward Premise
Narratively, the game employs character portraits for visual novel style storytelling. While characters like Reimu, Marisa, Kosuzu Motoori and Hieda no Akyu are only moderately detailed, they are animated with Live2D. The impetus revolves around Reimu attempting to pick up a book from the Suzunaan book renter. But seemingly, her preferred text has been substituted with a tome with strange passages. After perusing the book, strange mechanical spiders and bees start appearing in the Gensokyo forest, plunging the shrine maiden and magic user into action. While voice acting would have been a welcome addition, the focus here in on the action rather than the storytelling.
Soar through the woodland and you’ll soon discover a system that attempts to create a balance of attack styles. Melee strikes are a bit clunky, goading players into tapping a button until subordinate enemies signal their counterattack. But you’ll need these to power up your shot meter. That gauge regulates your ranged attacks. You can either send arching shots that automatically hit locked-on foes or improve your damage output by switching to sniping mode. Once you’ve toggled over to that system, you’ll aim with a cursor, watching damage statistics spring off from opponents. Alternatively, you can graze shots to power up your shot meter, but don’t expect to move with 2D danmaku pixel-perfect precision.
But Play that Occasional Falters
Occasionally, there are issues. When your character is too close to an environmental edge, you’ll often be staring at a wall instead of the action. Else, clipping ebbs away at the beauty of Mechanical Scrollery’s milieu. Then there’s the game’s hook, where players must evade intricate bullet patterns. While it’s a sight to behold and feels like being in the middle of a firework display, dodging projectiles isn’t all the elegant. Most of the time you’ll be utilizing the dash command, trying to find a safe place to launch a counteroffensive. Once you shoot enough enemies to fill your spell gauge, you can let loose with your own devastating attack. Seeing the health meter of tough bosses rapidly melt away is always a treat.
Other problems stem from a lack of optimization. Miko-san Saho is currently trying to remedy the control issues that plagued the game at launch. (Going into Steam’s setting, as changing the controller setting to an Xbox or PlayStation controller remedied this issue for me). As with some Unity-built games, there’s the occasional performance issue. While we were able to get a desktop with a GTX 1070 to delivery a constant 60+ fps, a laptop with a RTX 1660 Ti occasionally sputtered. Checking the Steam page for assistance, we weren’t the only ones with a vacillating framerate. If the team can overcome these impediments, consider the review score raised several percentage points.
The Dividends of Battle
Fortunately, there’s the occasional reprieve from the repetition of battle. Collecting parts from defeats enemies permits players to craft new weapons that augment your melee and ranged attacks. Each new weapon opens up new branches up a tech-tree that’s supposed to incentive mission completion, but the game’s environmental and enemy recycling can make progress a bit of a slog. Largely, change comes with each new chapter, so expect missions in the same locales with fixed enemy positions. There’s a bit of variation in spell cards and items to purchase, but the game doesn’t tell you about these (pause the game to use an item in your inventory). Like some of the games other components, you’ll have to explore and experiment to make it through the game’s eight-hour trek.
Collectively, the aforementioned grievances might make it seem that Touhou Mechanical Scrollery is a thankless affair. But there are moments of enjoyment to be found. When enemies cluster together, it’s gratifying to use your melee attack and strike at multiple foes at once. While enemy positions only change across chapters, enjoyment is found in target prioritization. Frequently, you’ll have to be quite deliberate in the order threats are eliminated.
There’s a number of Touhou fan games that feel like finished retail products. That’s not the case with Touhou Mechanical Scrollery which can feel like a work a progress. There’s certainly potential here, with the game’s 3D flying combat occasionally producing gratification. But a bit too often, there are reminders that this this is a small doujin team tackling a project that would give experienced developers a challenge.
Touhou Mechanical Scrollery was played on PC
with review code provided by the publisher