Touhou 14½: Urban Legend in Limbo

ZUN released a teaser to his next Touhou game in November 2014, at Digital Game Expo. A month later, he confirmed its identity, and it was, yes, you guessed it, yet another side game. This was the second incarnation of the current fighting game era and a chance to redeem itself after the shitshow that was Hopeless Masquerade. After a trial version was released at Comiket 87, the full game was released at the traditional time for a fighting game – Reitaisai 12. There, Urban Legend of Limbo was released.

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The concept was the same as HM, but ULiL sought to fix the jerkiness of its predecessor’s fighting, first of all. That was already a strong enough start, but with a new game came all new mechanics and this lot seemed better than what HM had. Chiefly, getting rid of popularity was one great big plus that no longer had to worry us again.

Not only were the new mechanics much less definitive, they were clearly a lot simpler to understand. The biggest factor was the Occult Orbs, central to the gameplay and plot. They appeared gradually over the course of a battle and you had to outdo your opponent in hitting them to acquire them – the one with the most hits on it in 10 seconds gets it (if it gets hit equally by both fighters, neither gets it). Getting an Occult Orb allowed you to use your Urban Legend, and collecting four of them gave you the chance to unleash your Last Word. The Occult Orbs also caused on-field effects when they appeared, in a manner identical to the weather of SWR and Soku.

Other than that though, it’s all just about the fighting for the most part. There’s a spell bar which fills up and lets you use your spell card, and a change-up in health which shows you how much you heal yourself when applicable. The big mechanic is crucial, but not utterly dominant over the fighting itself. And that’s good. This seemed a sign that Touhou was now out of its gimmicky phase of the past few years, which could only be a good thing at the end of the day.

Each of the characters from HM were back, naturally, and fortunately there were plenty of good additions this time to bring the roster up to a respectable level. New to this game were Kasen, out of the manga Wild and Horned Hermit, with Sukuna representing the newest of the new and a shocking return for IN’s Extra Stage boss, Fujiwara no Mokou. Many were pleased to see her return, but the new character for this game also raised plenty of interest; Sumireko Usami, sharing a surname with music CD protagonist Renko Usami. Her arrival brought the Sealing Club to the main games for the first time, and one wonders if the exact relation with Renko will be revealed… Either way, she was one very interesting new character.

But it had more than just the mechanics to fix from HM – there were plenty of other flaws that game had which ULiL simply had to better. So, had it worked?

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Weirdly, there’s not much of an intro to speak of this time. But at least the menu music is positively spooky this time. Certainly it’s rather atmospheric, though the character selection music is infinitely more epic.

I noted with HM that the number of patches it got through was pretty ridiculous, and all thanks to all sorts of stupid reasons. ULiL actually nearly got to a similar version as HM – the current version is 1.32. This time though, it wasn’t down to it being unfinished. Mostly, these were all just little updates throughout. The bigger updates merely made small, but important, changes to some of the gameplay, graphics and balance, although the netplay was cut off for everyone not in Japan after v1.30. Which is a shame. (The netplay was updated to a lobby system, and apparently it went a bit wrong.) These updates actually carried on for quite some time, thanks to factors I’ll explain at the end. Actually, the game is still being worked on even today. Hence why a beta for v1.40 is out right now. Pretty mad given that this game’s sequel has already been announced anyway.

But enough about the game’s history. The here and now is what I’m looking at, and in that regard…it’s pretty damn good.

It’s still not perfect. The flying feels slightly more natural, but sometimes it still doesn’t feel quite free enough. And I suspect the AI might be a little softer than games past. Either that or I’m just really good with most of the cast. But I can’t imagine that being the case, to be honest. But ULiL has some factors that maybe contribute to that. It’s not a very defence heavy game, and the controls are far more user-friendly than what HM had. That’s where the game’s many positives begin, and there’s much more besides.

The clock is no longer a factor, as it stops when an occult ball is about to appear and when it’s on screen. So whereas all the battles tended to go the distance in HM, forcing the popularity to come into play, each battle in ULiL gets decided simply on who beats up who the most. Which is how it’s meant to be. And the occult balls aren’t too intrusive a mechanic either. You can get away without picking one up, but it helps if you do. Urban Legends are just extra attacks for you, although a Last Word is obviously big if you get it. The effects are mostly fine, although the Yomotsu Hirasaka effect can be almost too game-shifting if you make the most of it.

Most important of all though, the action is properly good stuff. As I said earlier, defence takes a back seat in this game and so it’s all about giving the opponent absolute hellfire. In this regard ULiL is perhaps the easiest of the fighters to pick up, especially since spell cards are at their most prominent here as well. While it doesn’t feel quite as slick as Soku does, this is a good starter for the fighting games if you haven’t played one before. The controls cater very well to the style of play that works in this game, much unlike HM. Against the AI, it’s also the easiest fighter of them all.

Unfortunately, that last factor also makes it hard to judge just who the best character in the game is. In my hands, they all seemed terrific. I was winning with all of them. Apart from Byakuren, for some reason. And Sumireko, who didn’t seem all that good either. It’s a shame about Byakuren because her Urban Legends are among the game’s most legendary.

577She’s on a bike and it’s all good. It’s also fanservice up the wazoo but HM started that off so that ship had already long sailed. Most of all, Ichirin seemed the most capable of absolutely murdering an opponent, but it’s hard to say because my main test of her was against…Byakuren. So she could be hopeless, for all I know. And Mokou’s Resurrection factor seems perhaps a little broken, even though it’s balanced out somewhat nicely. Either way, all the fighters have all their goodness and fun attacks to hand so there’s something for everyone here.

The action rivals the very best that any Touhou fighting game has ever offered, on a par with what Soku can manage, but while ULiL is a lot of fun to play, it’s just let down by the ever so slightly imperfect movement. Make no mistake, though, it’s vastly better than what HM could muster up. Fittingly, given their relative positions in the fighting game hierarchy, ULiL makes HM redundant in the same way SWR made IaMP irrelevant. Except whilst IaMP was still a decent game, HM was nothing of the sort. You have no reason to touch it with ULiL around.

Even the little things HM got wrong were done rather better this time around. Regarding the art, Alphes paid the price for the utterly bizarre eyelashes present in HM’s art, and Moe Harukawa, she of Forbidden Scrollery fame, was put in charge instead. Her stuff is pretty cute. Certainly, the expressions she draws are very lovely indeed. Mind you, this writer would like to see another Touhou manga artist have a crack at some portraits for the characters… But with Moe’s stuff, a lot of the art you see in stuff like the cutscenes is really nice. By the way, about the cutscenes, it helps that the dialogue seems to be very good again. That makes it all a little sweeter. Meanwhile, the in-game models are taken from HM for the characters originally in the game, which is mostly fine. I still have my qualms with some of it, but most of it is fine really. And there’s nothing wrong with the new ones.

There was always going to be one strange decision in one quarter though, and this time it came in the form of the music. ZUN and U2 Akiyama did something unusual for ULiL. What they actually did, was get several doujin artists to make remixes of a large majority of the fighting songs in the game. The only arrange U2 provided was the Little Princess remix, and they provided all the out-of-battle music too, whilst ZUN kept his tradition of making the new original songs, in this case themes for Kasen and Sumireko. The fan-made remixes are an interesting one to judge. On the one hand, it can be seen as ZUN finally embracing the biggest legacy Touhou has left in any way, shape or form. On the other, you have to wonder why U2 couldn’t be arsed to make more remixes for songs this time around. Even though SWR had much the same themes as IaMP, they felt it right to remix those songs again. So why not HM’s for ULiL? Mind you, it might not have mattered if most of the arranges were really good, but by and large they are just plain average. Emotional Skyscraper ~ Cosmic Mind and Hartmann’s Youkai Girl get the best remixes, but they have the advantage of being really good songs to start with.

Oh yeah, and that thing about having to use low specs because of my laptop still applied here for ULiL. But it makes a far smaller difference than before. The backgrounds are less notable this time, so I’m fine with them standing still and not looking that good. Mind you, there is one thing that would make all that redundant…and that’s because of what ULiL has become beyond a simple Touhou fighter.

Strangely, rumours of ULiL coming to the PS4 appeared to be realistic. What? Touhou, on something other than a PC?! What is this?! In February 2016, ZUN confirmed that it was indeed being worked on. Some time after the original release, yes. But, on a series-wide scale, any date was good for a flashpoint of this magnitude. It took a long while for it to be released, but eventually, in December 2016, it arrived, in Japan only. And it wasn’t just the bog standard PC version…it just so happened to have a new character come with it too. For the PS4 only, Reisen Udongein Inaba became playable. This was all very significant for a reason I haven’t yet written about yet, but her appearance also prompted the arrival of an ‘Extra Mode’ to be her own story, a new stage in Eientei, some new music, new modes and the arrival of 1080p resolution, the first Touhou game to support it.

Coincidentally, I just happened to get a PS4 a little while ago. I think I’ll give it a fresh ULiL disc to play with. And maybe I’ll write about it a little here, too. As I mentioned, there has also been a v1.40 beta released very recently for the PC, which I’ll touch on along with the PS4 version too. It’s less than a month old as of this writing.

As for ULiL itself, it’s safe to say it was a resounding success. It brought back the fun to fighting games that HM had taken away and continued Touhou’s track back to glory, the sort that resulted in fighters as good as SWR and Soku. This isn’t as good as those two, but it’s still a strong game. It’s just a shame that it, too, is soon to be made redundant by a new fighter, coming to us soon…maybe, though, ULiL will still be worth playing even after that’s out.

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