It took another year, and another summer Comiket, for ZUN to release another game. It had been a long time coming, but not only did we have a new game, it was finally another main game – the first in two years. It’s possible the reworking of the engine as previewed in GFW might have had something to do with it, but either way that was now complete, and it was ready for action in the all new Ten Desires. With such a good series of main games behind it, Ten Desires had to keep it up.
The outlook for the gameplay, however, didn’t get it off to the best start. Having put a gimmick at the forefront of UFO, one which didn’t completely take over the game but was still highly divisive none the less, you’d think ZUN would be less inclined to force a gimmick so much this time around. That wasn’t the case, though. Instead, he put one in that, if anything, ended up being even more prominent – because it was even more in-your-face than the UFOs. I’m talking, of course, about the Divine spirits.
On the face of it, it didn’t seem so bad – just like your basic power and point items, spirits were released when you shot enemies down. But, unlike those items, spirits hung around in the very spot they get flung out to. And they stay there, and if you don’t pick them up they dwindle away. But, to succeed in TD, you really do have to pursue them. And that means sticking yourself in places you have no right to be in. The problem is, they didn’t auto-collect when you went into the PoC, but that’s almost always where they ended up, anyway. Never had there been a game where you had to fling yourself into the PoC so often, so dangerously, and so deeply, to try and get as much as you possibly could.
As for the spirits themselves, the effects they had were, again, ordinary on the face of it, but overcomplicated by the little things. Blue spirits are the most common, and their main purpose is to add to the other gimmick that does this game no favours. I’ll get to that soon. Other than that, they increase the value of point items collected at the top of the screen…in what way, it’s hard to say. But that just amplifies my point about having to constantly attack the PoC more than the enemies you should be going for. Gray spirits are mostly what your character spews out like a virus when they die. They’re basically better blue spirits, as they give you maximum points no matter where you pick them up…again, whatever the maximum is. And they amplify the effect of ‘the other gimmick’ further.
Meanwhile, the life and bomb pieces are also now spirits, purple and green respectively. You now have to collect 8 to get an extra one, which is no big deal. What is a big deal is what happens with the life pieces: for some reason, every time you get one, the amount you have to collect increases the more you pick up using only spirits, typically 2 or 3 at a time. It’s hard to see why this was necessary, and it just makes it all very inconsistent. All I’m asking for is a bit of consistency, in this regard.
Mind you, it isn’t too hard to bring them up. Apart from certain enemies dropping those spirits, bosses will always drop 1 purple and 1 green spirit after every spell card. But remember, they don’t drop for you. You have to go right into their face to pick them up. And going right into a boss’s face is usually inadvisable. Also, as you gradually damage them, they all spill blue spirits, which would be fine…if you could pick them up. When they’re putting a wave of bullets in the way, you just can’t get to them before they go away. Which makes you wonder what the point of it all was. All the spirits even sounded annoying, no matter what they were doing. Luckily, this new way of getting items would be used more sensibly in the future.
Now, what was that other gimmick the blue and grey spirits were fuelling? Well, that’d be the most deeply confusing and somewhat game-breaking part of the whole game – the Trance gauge.
If you build up this gauge to its third level, you can activate the ‘trance’. What this lets you do is press a button to become an immense killing machine, invulnerable and get more bonuses from spirits. It is, in effect, a 10 second bomb for everyone, with the addition of being a huge score booster, except you press C to use it, and not X. What’s confusing about it though is that when you get hit, if you have at least one level filled, it automatically activates, giving you however many extra seconds of glory you picked up to do…something, and then you lose a life. Where this gets most silly is when you lose your last life. You enter trance, and then…your game is over. What is the point of it? That’s only of any use if you continue, and if you’re trying to beat the game properly, you aren’t continuing. Yes, perhaps you can get a life out of it to save your bacon, except this literally never happens. Ever. Also, if a dialogue loads while you’re in trance, it stops, so you can waste it really stupidly too. A super mode like this is already a bad balance breaker, but the way it’s implemented outside its intended use is utterly incomprehensible.
Basically, the mass reliance on gimmicks meant that this was, on the gameplay front, a good Touhou game ruined. This wasn’t like the UFOs, which were just sort of there to be had – this game was being shifted completely by its own mechanics. Touhou had managed fine through 9 other shmups without any of this, so why change it quite this radically? There’s trying new stuff out, then there’s just plonking extra layers on top of what’s already there. Something like an RPG can experiment with how its system is meant to work. With a shoot-em-up there’s no need to overcomplicate how to shoot stuff up best. TD upset the applecart too much. And this was all intended. It wasn’t like MoF’s bombs, which ended up being far too good by accident – that was ZUN trying to experiment with the system properly, but getting a little bit wrong. This, though, was all a big slip-up by ZUN, and so unlike him at this point at this point in time. What was he thinking?
Still, while the gameplay had been spoilt, there were still the other traditional elements of Touhou to build on, and on the character score ZUN made an effort, by featuring, for the first time since IN, four distinct characters and shots. Reimu, Marisa and Sanae were back for another round, but who was joining them this time? Why, it was an old favourite – it was Youmu Konpaku! Her inclusion caught most well off-guard, although the plot was very much relevant to her interests so that gave her a good reason to be in. Mind you, I don’t like her all that much, but I’m not everyone, so she was welcomed back heartily. However, each character now had only one shot type to play with. While IN had four core teams to play as, they consisted of two shot types in one, shots which could be played with separately. This was more in the mold of Mystic Square, and either way it made each character rather more unique, even if it meant less dialogue to read than what SA and UFO had. Mind you, that’s not just because there were less shots to play as…but more on that later.
The pressure on TD was already pretty great, and it already seemed like it wasn’t quite up to the standards set by the three games before it. Still, there should be plenty of bits where it could save itself, and still be a good game on the whole…right?
While it’s hardly the most important thing about a Touhou game, I’m not taking any arguments here: TD’s menu theme, Spirit of Avarice, is easily the best of any game. It’s utterly awesome, especially the opening section before the pianos. Before you get into the game itself, a first impression like this promises a lot. Really a lot.
The problem is, none of the four characters’ shots are really that good. With them only having one shot each to go around, elements of their different shot types are combined, but none of them are really working at full tilt, it seems. Reimu has her homing amulets when unfocused, but her needles when focused. This isn’t exactly a great combo to switch between, as while the homing amulets trivialise a lot of stage elements, switching between the shots really messes up a lot of attempts to combine both attacking and dodging on bosses. Also, the amulets are a bad thing to have on one particular boss. Marisa has her laser unfocused and her missiles focused, both of which are actually rather good in this game, and her trance is even more broken than the norm and she can collect items easier, so she’s probably the best of the lot, albeit probably for the wrong reasons. As for Sanae, well, you saw how great she was in UFO, right? Just take most of what SanaeB had and she’d have been good. Not here, though. Sanae instead gets a wide shot which turns into a weird-looking shot which crosses over on itself when focused, and a new bomb. However, she is, to be honest, fucking dreadful. The only saving grace she gets is a faster-filling trance gauge, which isn’t much of a saviour at all, really. Youmu’s shot is at least pretty awesome, though. Her normal shot is the same as the trailblazer she had in IN, but instead of a focus shot, she gets an attack to charge up when you focus. Then you unleash it and it’s a bunch of sword slashes, which reach further the more power she has. She doesn’t have any frills to do with her trance either (Reimu makes spirits come to her in it, another rather broken factor), so she might be the most genuine way of playing this game…which is weird to say given how hard her unfocused shot is to make use of. And the fact that her focus shot is more suited to someone who’d spent their time playing GFW, ironically. Still, turning that game into something more akin to Mega Man X made it fun, and that makes Youmu a lot of fun to play as in this game too. Whether the tactics you have to adopt are much good, though, is up to interpretation. Obviously, I gave all four a go.
The lack of good shot types doesn’t do much to change the difficulty, though. Although weirdly, it’s hard for me to comment on the actual difficulty of the game. Mostly this is because it’s another Touhou game I’m very poor at playing, and it’s because of…yes, you guessed it, the gimmicks. I like to charge up to the PoC as much as the next man, which does me no favours in most of the games normally, but in TD when there’s so much inviting me to come and go up to get it, I’m even more suicidal than usual with it all. And yet despite this, the game is still easy. That alone is a disappointment after the great challenges the past three games gave everyone, but there’s a lot of reasons why it’s this easy. The trance factor already makes the whole game that little more of a breeze, but even without that…there just isn’t as much going after you. Whether in the form of there being less bullets, or more forgiving patterns, it’s easier to survive. And that’s even with the old continue system being brought back, which I love whilst I still have continues and despise when I run out and the game doesn’t let me go further – and you only got 3 this time. But that still didn’t make it less easy. Even other factors like the difficulty in gaining resources don’t make it any harder on the face of it. Anything that wasn’t so easy tended to be more obnoxious than difficult, which wasn’t good either. This easiness did not go unnoticed, and it was used as a scapegoat by many for the entire game in general. Yes, SA and UFO were hard, but this swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Much like the gameplay took its gimmicks too far. As an aside, Spell Practice, something that had only previously been in IN, was back, which was a nice bonus in all of this at least.
Still, even with all this, as long as it was fun to go through, that would paper over the cracks pretty well. If it made you feel good inside. Well, unfortunately, in perhaps its biggest failure of all, TD couldn’t do that either. After how brilliant the last games felt, there really was no excuse for the presentation here. Not even updating the game engine. (Which you can notice in how the game initially loads itself up, by the way. I like how spooky that starting sound effect is, by the way. Although the menu hadn’t changed up from GFW, so evidently that was already set in stone…for some reason.)
Stage 1 isn’t too bad a start, but it’s a different sort of start to what the last three games had. They were rather hectic affairs, but this Stage 1 is a lot calmer. Nothing wrong with that, we were overdue one anyway. What is bizarre is that Yuyuko is the boss, but luckily she’s not what she was in Stage 6 of PCB, despite throwing three spellcards at you, which is one more than average. None of it is very hard, though. Thing is though, neither is Stage 2…all of that is just a lot of slow stuff coming at you, and it’s all too easy. No part of the boss fight with Kyouko is even slightly hectic, and the only way she walls you is by how much she moves about. Stage 3 is better, but again the bullets coming your way are too slow to be a problem. Yoshika definitely epitomises this slowness with her non-spells, although she is really just an odd fight. She has an annoying spell where she brings back her life with spirits, which makes beating it interesting. Also, quite why Kogasa shows up I have no idea. Her ‘surprises’ aren’t even any good.
Stage 4, meanwhile, is just bizarre. Stuff appears in what is completely the wrong place, which makes things fun for anyone not named Reimu. And even though there are more bullets, most of them aren’t anywhere near you most of the way. As for Seiga, she is another odd fight, solely because she brings Yoshika in with her. She adds more bullets, but also gets in the way of yours, which makes her really annoying. She can blow up for five seconds, but just comes back. She’s just a bullet sponge, really. Getting right in the way of the meat and potatoes you’re trying to aim for. As for Stage 5, it amazes in how completely unremarkable it is. Stage 5s are normally very memorable, but this one is just sort of there. All I can remember is how Futo seemingly spawned bullets on top of me for her last spell – the cheap old bastard. At least the final stage is alright, and Miko’s fight is fairly entertaining, but it still just feels weird, especially when Tojiko and Futo come in and fire bullets, and speak, for no reason at all. At least they don’t block your bullets this time. And again, Miko is really not very hard for a final boss. Finally, there’s the Extra stage, which is a little interesting in terms of its boss fight with Mamizou – you don’t get birds and dogs shot at you too often – but otherwise it’s really nothing special.
There is one thing to note in amongst all this – the special effects. These are probably a product of the reworked engine, and they mostly look good. But they’re only little things, not really close to making the game any better. And they don’t improve what is actually a very lifeless atmosphere – and not just because most of the bosses literally are dead. There’s just no real soul to any of it, nothing memorable in any of it. Again, given how good ZUN had made the last three main games feel, there really wasn’t any reason this should have been different. But it just ended up being so. The big, unquantifiable x-factor the previous three games had is missing from all of Ten Desires, and it means, ultimately, the game is doomed.
And not only that, but TD gets the crucial little things wrong that were previously so right. GFW debuted the idea of characters having speech bubbles into which they spoke their dialogue, and this was retained for TD. That’s fine, except that for some reason, ZUN seemed to take the smaller size of the bubbles as an excuse to write much, much less dialogue. Again, I raise MoF, SA and UFO as points of comparison. They had nailed length of dialogue, with just enough nice little points to make it pleasant, and a nice balance of plot to go with it as well. With TD, the speech bubbles meant all the small points in dialogue vanished, even though the length of the text you can put into one bubble really, really should not be a limitation to how much dialogue you can put in. Now, there wasn’t enough to make what the playable characters said special, and not enough to build a lot of character for all the new bosses. The sooner ZUN realises this, the better, because he has not yet solved this issue. Also, in another experiment/special effect not seen since TD, small dialogues showed up in the Stage 6 fight when Tojiko and Futo showed up, and after they left Miko had one too. This didn’t really add much, and only distracted from the bullets (like a lot of new stuff in this game, really…), which probably is why it hasn’t been repeated. But there was one more problem with the dialogue that probably said it all: previously, you could skip it quickly by holding the focus button. Now, holding the shot button, which is normally what you advanced it with line-by-line, skipped it as well. So you could easily miss bits of it, or just go through it entirely. More than anything else, I think that’s a sign ZUN didn’t care about dialogue any more. And indeed he hasn’t bothered with it much since.
Those weren’t the only issues the new characters had, by the way. If you recall, I said UFO’s characters have rather screwed over the introduction of a lot of new characters since they came about, and TD’s characters are the reason. The game is based at Byakuren’s new base, the Youkai Temple, and all the new characters become her rivals. Basing new characters around another one meant ZUN was forced to build around her, and as a result they all really lacked a special kind of feeling. There’s another problem they brought, too. Kanako’s arrival had brought a lot of religious context in, and Byakuren had amplified it on her side. The theme was already saturated by that point, so bringing in a third faction just made it all too prominent. Apparently, the plot tries to connect the last three games together, but I don’t see that at all. Which is why I consider that a ‘second trilogy’, not including Ten Desires in that lot, quite apart from the fact its engine is notably different. And with this set of characters failing to catch the imagination, their failure has proven a hindrance to new characters since (although, if I’m being honest, this isn’t entirely Touhou’s fault). By themselves, some of the characters would be a lot better without the connotations they all have. Seiga would be alright by herself. Futo’s Shakespearean speaking amuses me and with those sleeves she will almost certainly be a playable character one day, you mark my words. But the rest of the characters are not that interesting, even without the themes they’re all carrying.
To complete the misery, even the music, something which can save a game for Touhou fans in itself, wasn’t up to snuff either. It had its moments, but they were few and far between. In game, there isn’t a properly good song until Let’s Live in a Lovely Cemetery, which is…well, lovely. The best song in the game is easily Desire Drive, an absolute rave of a song which is so good, it’s actually the credits theme as well. Other than that, the only good song is Starry Sky of Small Desires. Notably, there are no good boss themes at all. The closest thing to one is Ghost Lead, but everyone else’s theme is just background noise. Which is usually interrupted by every sound that shouldn’t be there. And the way every song changed up when in Trance made that even more of a distraction. Maybe ZUN needed an excuse to make twice as many songs.
At least his art was on the way up…
…Oh. On second thoughts, perhaps not.
There’s no other way of putting this – ZUN cocked up completely. This wasn’t worth waiting an extra year for, not even slightly. ZUN’s last three main games had been the best games to play through, both in terms of actually playing it, what to play as, what you were facing, what it all felt like, and even to read and listen to. There was no reason to believe Ten Desires shouldn’t have been anything like them. Instead, it was nothing like them. It was still like a Touhou game as everyone knew it, in every way, but none of it was as good as it should have been. How had ZUN lost his touch just two years since he was still making brilliant games? The last time he took two years to make a game, MoF was the result and that set Touhou on the path to brilliance. TD made it turn off into a completely jammed city street. And, at the time, he could afford to leave it lying for two years. Now, with all the characters Touhou had, maybe he shouldn’t have waited two years this time – because it ended up getting that little bit staler in that time. Maybe he shouldn’t have spent so much time changing the engine only slightly – last time he rebuilt it all again, here he’d just spent two years fiddling with it. Maybe there was nothing wrong with it to start with. Yes, moving it on was a strong move, but giving it its full debut with a basket case of a game was a terrible idea. Looking at what he made TD into, it seemed like he was trying to show off what he could now do with a Touhou game – but in the process, he completely forgot to put back in what had made Touhou so great before the turn of the decade. Perhaps, above all, that’s why Ten Desires was such a huge disappointment. And people weren’t afraid to say it was so. Two years ago, it really looked like ZUN could do no wrong. Now, he had to fix Touhou up, and fast.