When Highly Responsive to Prayers and Story of Eastern Wonderland were out at Comiket 52, ZUN said that his third game was 48% complete. However, at the time, it was another concept for a game, this time being a horizontally-scrolling danmaku game. By the time it was out though, on the 29th December 1997, it was still as SoEW was – a vertical scroller. It seemed as if ZUN had his idea set in stone – but this one came with a twist…this was Phantasmagoria of Dim. Dream.
Whereas SoEW was just Reimu dodging bullets and shooting things, PoDD saw two characters indirectly battling one another, by charging up attacks and bombs which then manifested themselves on the other character’s screen. If you’ve played a vs. puzzle game, this is something along those lines. Whether this was to stick around as the Touhou Project’s basic concept was yet to be seen, but we’d have our answer soon enough.
Damn, this character selection screen is surprisingly spacey. It’s hard to capture on camera, but those green dots are moving about in quite the flashy way. And the music for it is jolly good, too.
The game itself is quite hard to describe though. There is one thing that can’t be denied though – it is a whole ball of fun. Especially if you’re doing well, or if you’re keeping it tense. The first playthrough I did for this piece was with Ellen (I’m always most confident in any Touhou game with slower characters), and whilst I completely neglected the bombs until about Stage 5, I was still doing a damn good job in my eyes, which is one strength of the Phantasmagoria games. The normal elements of Touhou aren’t there, and you can concentrate on responding to your opponent. Also, rather than actively shooting at a big target, here you just need to wait it out until the opponent cracks. That’s more in keeping with my style.
But one thing kept bugging me throughout – and that was the difficulty. Now, word of mouth had told me that, among a few true purists, PoDD on Lunatic is as hard as Touhou games get. Obviously I wasn’t ever going that far, but I actually played this on Easy – a difficulty I normally always avoid, but here it’s the default so I just went with it. And the fact is, it felt mostly easy in places…and yet I didn’t get as far as I was expecting. I wasn’t using continues in this instance so I wasn’t ever trying to go the whole way, but I dunno. With my skill level, skill set and expectations I’m really not sure how to judge this game’s difficulty from my perspective. So that was always constantly a nagging thought throughout.
However, I then went for a second run, this time with Kana. She was even better, as it turns out, since she charges up as fast as possible. I swept through the first 7 stages with her, without a death. But the last two stages were properly hard. So that, unsurprisingly, is where the ante is at its highest.
Those last two stages bring me onto the best part of this game – the atmosphere. That is, to say, it’s incredible. Whilst the new characters aren’t that memorable – you have to fight yourself at some point, which is odd – Reimu, Mima and Marisa return for this game, so that’s all fine. But everything else is just brilliant. Reimu, Mima and Kana all have brilliant themes in this game, so theirs are my favourite battles. And I really, really like what goes on when the battle ends…just that chilling victory music, the logo and then a nice little bit of victory dialogue from the character. That’s done very well. Oh, and it’s all visually very impressive. Whatever ZUN used for this, he used it well.
But best of all is what ZUN did before the final two stages. In short, there are proper cutscenes to introduce Chiyuri and Yumemi. They’re both funny and meaningful at the same time, and we haven’t seen anything quite like it in a Touhou game since. So that’s brilliant as well.
Phantasmagoria of Dim. Dream was, to be honest, a game I hadn’t given too many chances before. But now I’ve had a proper session with it I can safely say I enjoy it greatly. But, as it happened, in terms of what the Touhou Project was to become, its fate had already been decided… Still, this wasn’t the last we would see of this style of game. However, I would absolutely love to see a versus shooter in the future…especially with the mass of characters we have now.