Touhou 14: Double Dealing Character

With two pretty terrible games being the last additions to the Touhou series, you could be forgiven for thinking the series was past its prime in 2013. Certainly, this seemed to be the case in terms of the fanbase. Whilst the old fans were still very much there, it didn’t seem to be getting as many new ones as it had in the glory days of Touhous 10-12. Mind you, when Hopeless Masquerade came out it probably didn’t seem that way. And that’s because ZUN had actually announced the 14th main game in the series, two weeks prior. A three-stage trial had been released at the same Reitaisai where he released HM, and less than three months later, at Comiket 84, the newest Touhou game was out and ready. This was Double Dealing Character.

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Right from the outset, things looked good for DDC. That’s because ZUN had learnt from the gimmickry filled disaster of TD and gone for far more simplicity, to the level of something like EoSD and SA. Really, this was just the same old Touhou as we knew it now. Just firing bullets and hitting stuff. And that’s good. Nothing wrong with that at all. 3 life pieces made an extra life, 8 bomb pieces an extra bomb, and unlike TD this never changed over the course of the game. And it was an actual piece now like everything else, not a bloody spirit as it was made into in TD.

Of course, there had to be at least one notable mechanic, but again this one was just plain simple. When you auto-collected by going into the PoC, using a bomb, or reaching/defeating a boss, you got bonus points and resource pieces based on how many point and power items you auto-collected. Getting at least 20 got you a bomb piece (but every fifth bomb piece was replaced by a life piece), and getting at least 60 got you a life piece.

Among other little things, the native resolution was doubled, from 640×480 up to 1280×960, as Touhou’s in-game visuals improved ever more.

Meanwhile, on the character front, the choice was more plot driven than it ever had been before. Mostly, this applied to the shot types more than anything, but it also allowed for the unlikely reintroduction of a long neglected character in the shmups; tagging along with Reimu and Marisa, Sakuya Izayoi was back! The last time she was around in a proper shmup was IN, which was a whole 9 years ago. Naturally, her many fans rejoiced at the news. She was a welcome re-addition to the series. Additionally, with only three characters playable, they all had two shot types once again, having been limited to just the one in TD.

So all this was looking very good for not just this game, but Touhou as a whole. It’d had a rough ride of late, but DDC seemed like the kind of game that would get it on the right track. So, would it?

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This start screen theme is rather calmer than most of its past variants. It’s also a little boring to be honest, even if it does pick up later. It’s a good tone-setter for the game, mind you.

I had a go with all six shot types on this occasion, partly because most of them are really very interesting in some way. Thing is, whilst the unfocused shots of each of them are the same for all the characters – Reimu has her amulets, Marisa her lasers and Sakuya her great, great wide shot – the focused shots and bombs are where things really get interesting. The B type shots have more conventional focused shots – Reimu has her needles and Marisa the Magic Missile, whilst Sakuya has a simple straight shot which just so happens to steal green score items. But the A types all have some damn cool features. ReimuA’s focus is a homing, spinning wheel of death. MarisaA gets something along the lines of the frost-throwers she had in MoF, but this one throws fire, travels with her, is all by itself and, naturally, reaches a lot farther. SakuyaA’s focus shot is particularly brilliant. She fires silver blades which home in on an enemy, slow them down and then explode.

But it’s the bombs where things really get unique. The only one not out of the ordinary in this game is ReimuB’s, which is the classic Fantasy Seal. Mind you, MarisaA’s is basically the Master Spark, except in this game it’s all dark, which makes it even cooler. But the rest are really worth noting. ReimuA’s bomb is a swinging rod which murders everything at close range. MarisaB’s bomb is a magic circle which generates power items for every 5 bullets it touches. If it absorbs 300 of them, it gives you a life piece. If that sounds implausible, bear in mind how long it stays on the screen. You can stay inside it for a long time and stay protected, and makes a mockery of dense bullet patterns. The only exception to the bullet rule is during enemy spell cards. The spell itself looks like a compact version of one of MoF’s bombs. It’s slightly difficult to use it well, but if you can get the most out of it, you can basically get resources like no tomorrow.

Sakuya’s bombs are especially noteworthy, and not just because they both do no damage at all. SakuyaA makes a barrier around you, like in PCB, whilst also clearing bullets around you. If you get hit with it up, every bullet on screen vanishes (by the way, auto-collection is triggered both when you make the barrier and when it get hit). If you keep the barrier up for 10 seconds, it gives you three bomb pieces back to pick up yourself. This is a brilliant bomb, and simple to use as well, and when combined with her shots SakuyaA can be a masterful character for survival. Not surprisingly, she’s my favourite to use in this game. SakuyaB’s is a weird one, which freezes every bullet in place, then turns it into a point item. You can still graze the bullets whilst they’re on screen, which counts for your score even more. It’s a bit like the Perfect Square bomb in PCB, I guess. And in case you couldn’t tell, SakuyaB is designed solely to be a scoring machine.

Anyway, the stages themselves. Stage 1 is about as calm as one has been for a while, continuing the sea change towards simpler Stage 1s after the action-packed ones of Touhous 10-12. This one’s fine though, albeit nothing too special. Stage 2, though, turns up the ante considerably. The music feels more befitting of Stage 4 than Stage 2, and the action is turned up noticeably as a result. Sekibanki has some tricks with her head as well which make her a fair old nuisance, too.

Stage 3 is in the classic location of the Bamboo Forest, and the stage itself is suitably epic. Filled with action and with rocking music, it’s a strong point for the game. But the boss rather isn’t. For some reason, Kagerou’s non-spells are really non-threatening, but some of her spells are just plain annoying and she can be a troll as well. She does weird wolf things which also happen to be too dense for comfort sometimes, and her last spell can have her just run right into you. Which is cheap. Also, the wolf noise is just annoying. So she’s getting no love from me.

Stage 4 gets it back in the best way possible, though, as it’s a top-class stage. It’s built-up all very well, the bullet patterns are great but never unreasonable, and the atmosphere is the best in the game. The boss again lets it down just a little, though – or at least, the one I played against twice was. Thing is, the boss changes depending on what shot type you have. A-types face Benben, whilst B-types face Yatsuhashi. Alas, both my main playthroughs were with ReimuA and SakuyaA (although I really should’ve reached the boss with MarisaB if I even remotely knew how to use her properly), so I haven’t taken in one of the boss fights for this. Oops. Yatsuhashi would probably be a damn sight better than Benben, mind. Partly because she’s much cuter. And partly because Benben has some annoyingly trolly lasers that will come out of nowhere to kill you towards the end of her fight.

The rest of the game is mostly fine, though. Stage 5 has a pretty good atmosphere, and is a really nice stage, plus Seija is a strong mid-boss in it too. Then you get to actually fight Seija herself and face a return against a long, long forgotten Stage 5 boss staple – a gimmick. In this case, you see your screen flipped over, and your controls with it. Horizontally, vertically, sometimes both, and sometimes flipping constantly in the middle of spellcards. It’s a real challenge to navigate and makes for a fun fight. And Stage 6 is a decent finisher too, the short stage being a strong one as well and Sukuna having both some unique spellcards and her own gimmicks as well, chiefly making her bullets bigger and you bigger as well. So the main game is pretty nice on the whole. And then there’s the Extra stage to finish up, which is a pretty good stage to go through as well, an atmospheric one as well, and then finishing up with a fight with Raiko, a very good boss to face off with some wonderful spellcards, particularly her time-out spell.

Thing is, though, whilst all the stages are very good fun to play through, most of them don’t feel quite as special as some of the past Touhou games. Sure, it has its moments, with Stages 2 to 4 being particularly strong, but none of the bosses stand out from that lot. Stages 5 to 6 are pretty good all around, but not in the top rung of stages at that level. I just think it’s something to do with what you’re facing. It all feels a lot less threatening. And that’s probably cause it is. The difficulty has been upped from TD but it’s still far from the hardest game in Touhou. Mind you, that’s only with Normal, which I played. Lunatic difficulty is supposedly a madness, although obviously I didn’t dare go that far. Some of the dominant shot types might have something to do with that, except they’re not that broken. MarisaB can be really, really good, whilst SakuyaA and ReimuA are both great shots period, but ReimuB is mostly bang average and MarisaA is a poor shot, whilst SakuyaB is designed solely for scoring.

Mind you, the whole PoC thing is both a blessing and a curse for someone like me. I love heading up to the PoC as much as I dare, so a game that relies on that is plenty of fun to play for me. But when I just have to go for it at times it can also be my downfall sometimes. I’m not sure why, but DDC really likes spawning shit right next to me or right on top of me. It’s an awful way to blow so many resources and it’s the only real qualm I have with the gameplay. That’s just me, though. Overall, the game still isn’t as big a challenge. But it’s not just the difficulty factor in play here – I think the characters have something to do with it as well.

Some of the characters are rather good – I personally like Yatsuhashi and Raiko, and the latter, along with Seija and Sukuna, has retained a decent following. But there’s also some characters I really don’t like – Kagerou and Benben come to mind. On the whole, though, this lot just don’t feel all that special. Yes, they are working up against seven previous games’ worth of characters, so they’re up against it from the start – but that still hasn’t improved their fortunes. The big problem I have with them is, I don’t think they make particularly convincing antagonists in terms of this game’s plot. This lot are all fairly plain compared to some of what we’ve had in the past, and it says something that we haven’t heard much from them in the three-and-a-half years since they were introduced. Yes, one of them got their own side game, and another appeared in a different side game. But I think ZUN knows he could have done better with this lot. The dialogue isn’t helping matters either – it’s just all too simple, again too far a cry from past Touhou games, which were filled with it to really give each character some personality to behold. This lot don’t say much of anything at all.

The music is interesting to evaluate. For the most part, it’s pretty strong, and especially so from the start. But it has a couple of duds as well. Stage 1’s themes are both pretty strong, whilst Stage 2 has two excellent themes, and Stage 3’s theme is an absolute thriller. But Kagerou’s theme is the first big miss of the lot, so that’s a black mark. Luckily, its best showing comes immediately after, as Magical Storm is my personal favourite from the soundtrack, and not only does it match up very well with its stage, in a way no other Touhou song has really done, it even sounds epic by itself. Sadly, it too is rather let down by the Tsukumo Sisters’ theme, another unremarkable song. From there on out it rather balances out, as most of the songs from there are merely pretty good. Reverse Ideology is a standout though, and Raiko’s theme, Pristine Beat, is another top-drawer theme. Again, like the atmosphere of the game on the whole, the music has its immense high points and its brooding lows.

Which means DDC, on the whole, is a very odd game to judge. At the start, the stages are as good as any in all Touhou, but the bosses are unusually poor. Towards the end, the two are about as good as each other, but neither end up being that spectacular. So in the context of every other Touhou game, DDC is still pretty good, but left wanting at times. It’s not a bad game to play, but others do much the same thing better.

But look at it in the context of its release. Touhou needed a good game to get it back on track. This wasn’t its strongest showing, but it was good enough. Good enough to catch more outside attention, anyway. Indeed, the game would later get a digital download from Playism, initially made available in Japan in August 2014, before being brought to the west in May 2015, albeit not in an actually western language. However, whilst DDC might have done a good job in terms of keeping Touhou alive and well, had it been good enough to keep Touhou relevant amongst a plethora of other up-and-coming works from elsewhere…?

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