Touhou 15: Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom

Touhou was in a strange place in 2015. Its last three games had been pretty solid, but they weren’t as exciting as the series’ very best and they hadn’t done much to cover a sense that it might have been getting a little stale. Certainly, Touhou’s best years seemed to have passed. And it was being proven on a fanbase-wide scale as well, as fans took interest in more and more new up-and-coming franchises threatening to take Touhou’s spot as the creme de la creme.

It was possible that Touhou maybe just needed a new lease of life, and a revisit to the very elements that, deep down, made it so great in the first place. And so, ZUN went down his usual route for announcing a new game; after announcing it on his blog, and releasing a trial at Reitaisai 12, Touhou’s fifteenth main game – 20 years after ZUN finished his first – was released at Comiket 88. And that’s how Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom came to be.

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Gameplay had been a real case of hit or miss for Touhou’s most recent games, largely thanks to gimmicks. But LoLK’s were possibly among the biggest yet, or at least that’s how it seemed when the game was first announced. Chiefly, the discussion was dominated by the biggest shift in formula by far in any Touhou game: Pointdevice Mode.

What Pointdevice Mode was, was a mode that abolished lives and continues in favour of checkpoints you respawned from when you died. Additionally, it saved your progress if you quit and then re-selected the difficulty and characters from the menu. There are many ways to look at this huge shift in gameplay. On the one hand, being able to fail as much as you want means you should, in theory, get through it eventually and get to the end (with a guaranteed good ending, it should be noted). You get to learn each wave more and more this way, too. And there’s still bombs to keep you alive, obviously (of which, more later). But on the other hand, I just get the feeling that Touhou isn’t meant to be played in anything like this way. Not in a way that ZUN said was inspired by I Wanna Be The Guy, which kicked off the modern trend of games that let you take one hit and respawn from a checkpoint. While it’s nice to see ZUN evolving the game in line with modern alternatives, the games it’s inspired by are hardly the greatest in the world. Not by a long way. In fact, where I mostly only see them is in the hands of YouTubers screaming their dignity away in the name of views/money/etc. They’re not the type of person you want to see trying a Touhou game.

It’s not like the concept is bad. After all, Touhou was doing this in a way from MoF to UFO, by making continues infinite. But losing all your lives there put you back at the very start of the stage so they had enough incentive to make you not want to die. And the idea works well if the deaths respawn you right back where you were, so you can just give it another shot straight away. But checkpoint systems like what LoLK has are not the way to go with it. Getting stuck on hard ‘chapters’, as the game calls them, just turns them into repetitive annoyances. This is only a real issue on stages – each non-spell and spell is its own chapter on a mid-boss and boss. But, for a reason you’ll find out when I go into the game itself, this is a big issue with LoLK. So frankly, Pointdevice Mode is a sound idea, but done wrongly. So I won’t be concerning myself with it too much in this write-up. All it does, for me, is serve as part of a plot point.

Luckily, Pointdevice Mode isn’t the only way to play Touhou. ZUN was never going to ditch the good old way of playing Touhou so readily, and so, in Legacy Mode, as the game calls it, you can play Touhou in the way we all know and love. So with that nugget of relief behind us, let’s get to the actual in-game changes to LoLK.

Touhou games are often defined by one big mechanic, and LoLK is no exception. This time, the game’s big theme is grazing, which goes from a useful mechanic to a game-defining one. The most initial benefit of grazing is how it slows the fall of all point items, an effect that makes itself very noticeable on a visual level. Continuous grazing of a bullet will give you 5 extra points at a time once you do it for long enough, and finally, your graze gets counted up at the end of each chapter (the concept is still present here, but is only used in the name of tallying up your score and resources). If you earn enough graze points and shoot enough enemies down in a chapter, you get a life piece at the end of it (or a bomb piece in Pointdevice).

By the way, you only need three life pieces to get an extra one in this game (five in the Extra stage). With how many chapters there are per stage, this means you have plenty of chances to bag some in a stage. If you’re a really good player, getting lives is, if anything, far too easy. But if you’re not, like me, the grazing theme still has its positives. Mostly, it encourages you to be brave and get right next to the bullets, a habit that serves you well in most Touhou games. Of course, if you’re like me, you’ll probably just end up getting too close too often and just end up with a bullet hitting you square in the face instead, but it’s the price you have to pay if you’re aiming for the best. Incidentally, in the trial, you initially got bomb fragments in Legacy Mode as well, and you needed five of them to get another one, which made resource-getting closer to DDC than the final game. In an update of said trial, it was changed to life pieces, but you still needed five. By the time the game was out though, you only needed three. I’ll let you make up your own mind on what could have been with that simple, but critical, change.

For the most part though, playing the game was about as close to an ordinary, bog-standard Touhou game as there had been for many years. All you had to do was a little more of something that was already a pretty good thing to do anyway. So much for the “very different” gameplay ZUN touted at first – instead, he created the most back-to-basics Touhou game for a long time. Which was a very nice, and welcome, change from the last few games. DDC required an unusual approach to take advantage of its resource system. UFO had you chasing its mechanic down in all sorts of inadvisable ways. And TD forced you go in all sorts of ridiculous places. But, in spite of all the complexities around it, when you’re just pressing buttons and playing, all you have to do in LoLK is dodge the bullets and shoot up the enemies. And that can only be a good thing for LoLK. Because, deep down, that’s how a Touhou game ought to be.

But from the very start of LoLK’s life, from when it was first announced, the best thing about it was the characters. ZUN had gone back to four characters, with just one shot for them, combining all the favourite elements of their characters. He had a chance to make good shots like these in TD, but came up short. In LoLK, he absolutely nailed it. Reimu and Marisa are here as always, the former coming at us again with her amulets and needles, the latter with her lasers and missiles. And, of course, their signature bombs, the Fantasy Seal and Master Spark. Sanae made her return after missing out the last game, and after her disappointing shot in TD, she was back on form with a remix of her best from UFO. The devastating bomb-frogs were her normal shot, the homing snakes her focus shot and, for her bomb, the simply superb Wily Toad nuke made its glorious comeback. But the fourth character was in uncharted territory, by her standards. We’d played as her in shmups before, but not fully-fledged ones like this. Sure enough, a plot filled with Lunarians was enough to see Reisen Udongein Inaba make her debut as a playable character. Many of her fans, me included, rejoiced at her inclusion. The Stage 5 effect lived on, and the result was as good a roster of characters as Touhou has ever seen.

With these elements, LoLK already looked like it was to be the best Touhou game in a long time, a long-awaited return to its best form. Some of the most vital pieces were already well in place, and it gave LoLK the chance to be something truly great. All it had to do was use those pieces, and more, as well as possible.

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This is the most flat-out epic start screen music in a while. It’s not the absolute best, but it sure as hell gets you pumped up.

Obviously, I had to give this a try with all four characters. And it’s worth noting that the shot types are as widely unbalanced as they’ve ever been in Touhou, but not in a bad way. Reimu is about as ordinary as it gets in this game, but her small hitbox happens to be a very useful feature in this game, so she’s fine. By contrast, Marisa is really left wanting. Her shot hinders her horribly on stages and her hitbox really isn’t what you want most of the time.

But Sanae and Reisen are utterly incredible. Sanae has all the elements that made her B-type shot such a wonder in UFO, with a superb homing focus shot to boot this time. But there’s more to it than that. Thanks to the resource mechanics, her play style becomes even more beneficial. The focus shot can take care of the enemies, whilst her bomb makes grazing a formality. Simply go where the bullets are whilst you’re invincible and you’ll get all the graze you need to rack up life pieces. Played right, this can put the entire game into your hands. As for Reisen, her shot is quite literally a scattergun, but whilst it tries to act like a wide shot, it isn’t one really since at full power it’s just four options covering a certain spread. And when focused it’s just an unremarkable straight shot, which is nothing special. Where she earns her kudos is with her bomb. What it does, is put up three barriers which let you wall three bullets without dying. The benefits of this are obvious, although you’d think it would benefit her most in Pointdevice, where one hit does you in. But there aren’t enough resources to get there to make it worthwhile. Instead, Legacy Mode is where she benefits from it, as she can simply get her bombs back by dying. And, of course, with all the lives you can get in LoLK, you can make Reisen nigh unbeatable.

Of course, none of these elements would count for much if they were put into bang average stages. Luckily, in this regard, LoLK doesn’t disappoint. Not by a long way.

You’ll know that with TD and DDC, ZUN had edged back towards calmer Stage 1s after the action-filled bunch from the second trilogy. LoLK goes in completely the opposite direction again. It’s filled with fun and excitement from the get-go, and plenty of bullets come at you from the start, the enemies are toughened up and face Seiran twice as a mid-boss. She’s not too hard a boss though, once you get her down. She’s basically giving you a free life with her non-spells and last spell. How nice of her.

Then there’s Stage 2, which is as epic a Stage 2 Touhou has had for a while. It’s up there with IN, MoF and DDC amongst the best Stage 2s, whilst Ringo is a boss who can really catch you out at first. She’s got her fair-share of micro-dodging spell cards all over her fight, so she’s not too bad. Then you get to Stage 3, which for the most part is utterly mad. Filled to the brim with bullets, it’s the first real taste of the rest of the game to come. And the boss, Doremy, is just plain crazy. Her spell cards are of a like unlike any other in Touhou, and they’re hard. Boy, they’re hard.

Stage 4 is a slightly calmer affair, but it certainly has its moments. And Sagume can cause plenty of worry. Most of the stage is spent hoping you aren’t going to get hit in the face by a laser. But take the ‘downtime’ while you can, because then comes Stage 5. And it’s just utterly insane on every level. So many bullets fly at you at such stupendous speeds, you do sometimes wonder if you could possibly dodge them. And yet the stage is nothing compared to its boss, Clownpiece. She’s one of the most astonishing fights in all Touhou history, make no mistake. Never has a Touhou boss brought me so utterly to my knees in amazement at the sheer firepower they have. There’s supposed to be a way to dodge all her stuff…but having faced her, I don’t know what any of it is. I’m not even mad, her stuff is just amazing.

But at least she doesn’t get quite blatantly and ridiculously cheap. At least, you can’t tell with everything she fires at you. The final stage is a nasty bastard. By Stage 6 standards the stage is a long one, but not necessarily hard. It’s just an amuse-bouche before the finale, this time with Junko. Her spell cards are designed purely to kill you. They don’t look all that good for the most part, but what they do look is impossible to dodge. And so it proves to be, most of the time. Some of her stuff will at least give you a few more pixels to work with, but most of the time? Nah. And her last spell is remarkable. It seems easy enough to start, and gets nice and hard as she throws in more bullets, but then suddenly she throws in her super-fast bullets in her last phase and you wonder why on earth she had to take it quite this far. Of course, there’s a reason she does all of this (the plot)…but is it art? Not really, no. Still, it’s a very strange sensation going through her fight. It’s not the most spectacular fight, but it still feels suitably epic.

And completing the general bizarreness of this game is the Extra Stage, which is again unlike any other before. The stage itself isn’t really all that, its challenge not matching the rest of the game, but the boss fight is where things really get different. Hecatia is meant to be the boss, but she is joined by Junko who steps in for a couple of non-spells and spells. It has plenty of difficult attacks within, and whilst it isn’t the very best Extra stage in Touhou, it’s pretty good. The main game has better stages, though.

But it doesn’t really matter. Because at its very best, LoLK succeeds in the one area it matters most. With TD and DDC, ZUN had failed to recapture the feeling of playing through Touhou that made MoF, SA and UFO such great games to play through. With LoLK, he finally found it again. And in an incredible way. The main game is an absolute rollercoaster of action, the enemies come at you with full force, and you’re playing Touhou with its most iconic elements at hand. Reimu, Marisa and Sanae may not be equal as shot types, but playing as them feels so…right in this game. Or you’re playing as Reisen in a new and faintly ridiculous way, which is great too. I mean, it’s Reisen! Most of all though, the atmosphere of the whole game is wonderful. It feels epic right from the start. The middle sets you up very nicely for the onslaught to come. And the last two stages are the definition of what makes Touhou so lovably crazy. In short, LoLK has everything that makes Touhou what it is. Just playing it is an experience to relish. It’s absolutely magnificent. Brilliant. Maybe as good as Touhou has ever been…

And it helps too that ZUN went out of his way to put back in some truly, truly difficult enemies. If you take everything, the difficulty is odd to judge. If you play as Sanae or Reisen, the difficulty almost disappears if you play well enough. But if you just look at what you have to face, it’s the most difficult a Touhou game has ever been. Right from the first stage, you’ve got a lot of bullets facing you, and some strong enemies to boot. And from there on it just snowballs until you’re facing stuff that is nothing short of ludicrous. Yes, sometimes, it goes too far. But Touhou’s biggest signature, on a gaming level, to a general audience, is its difficulty. Why not demonstrate that in the biggest possible way? That’s why LoLK’s brutality does it far more good than bad. SA was the sole biggest representative of Touhou’s famed difficulty. It remains a great example, but LoLK stands as an even better one now.

But perhaps the most notable contribution to LoLK’s general brilliance is its characters. Primarily, the maddening appeal they have, especially compared to Touhou’s most recent efforts, prior to this new magnificent seven. DDC’s characters weren’t particularly bad, but by Touhou’s standards they were incredibly plain. This lot…really aren’t. I mean, just look at Clownpiece. She’s wearing the American flag. When everyone found out about her, the Western fanbase lost their shit over her completely. I mean, that’s what a Touhou character should be like. Not a plain Jane like the lot that had been thrown up recently. The significance of her appearance and personality is also not lost in today’s world, especially since ZUN seems only too happy to bring ‘the Outside World’ further into Touhou’s canon. Elsewhere, there’s Junko, who comes not only with a wild Chinese outfit, but also a backstory deeper than any Touhou character seen for a long time. There’s Hecatia, who is an implausibly three-formed goddess with clothes straight from Hot Topic, and even Doremy looks pretty funky.

In amidst all the wild new characters, the most popular character from the game actually turned out to be its most ordinary, comparatively speaking. Sagume Kishin’s design is simple but very, very sweet. She’s great and her one-wingedness brings to mind lots of silly stuff to do with other supposedly one-winged beings. Even her last spell’s called ‘One-Winged White Heron’. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it… Mind you, FF7 isn’t the Final Fantasy I’d compare this to. But I’ll save that for the end.

And finally, rounding out a great game, is some great music. It took me quite a while to warm to it, if I’m honest. But that’s probably just me having to get used to it. Once you listen closely enough there are some fantastic songs here. The first two stages have some particularly excellent themes. Both of Stage 1’s songs are full of joy, and both sound terrific when you’re playing the game with them on. The Lake Reflects the Cleansed Moonlight is arguably the best Stage 2 theme in Touhou, with its epic tones. That’s one of the best the game has to offer. Stage 3’s songs aren’t the strongest, but Stage 4 gets a good pair. The last two stages get some of the best, though. The Stage 6 song is awesome, whilst Pure Furies is a strong final boss theme.

But it’s Stage 5 that gets the best of the bunch. Faraway 380,000-Kilometer Voyage is already epic enough by itself, but like the stage itself, the boss music overshadows it by being completely brilliant; The Pierrot of the Star-Spangled Banner is the best theme any boss has had for years. Not only does it capture the mood of the battle, and Clownpiece herself, perfectly, it even brings to mind somewhat the days of PC-98 music with its composition. In particular, I think it’s the closest song yet to another Stage 5 masterpiece, Doll of Misery, the best song of the era. But actually, if you listen closely, a number of the songs take themes from the past and apply it to LoLK. The Rabbit Has Landed is filled with old-school ZUNpets, Pumpkin of September uses several familiar instruments, and The Frozen Eternal Capital mixes a whole range of old and new instruments in. But there’s a lot of new styles in there too, reserved for significant songs like Pure Furies. The one slight letdown is the Extra Stage’s songs, which are relatively unremarkable, but the good songs throughout the soundtrack are so outstanding that they cover up any real weaknesses.

So, the result of all these brilliant elements is a brilliant game. Legacy of Lunatic Kingdom is the best Touhou game since UFO. And yet it’s so much more than that. There’s no denying it: Touhou needed a game like this. The series’ best form had passed it by and it had showed with its last two main games. Time had seen Touhou’s popularity start to slip, not helped by the rotten spell its games had between 2011 and mid-2013. Touhou had seemed nigh-untouchable for years, but new pretenders to its throne were coming along and actually knocking it off its perch.* Touhou needed something big to stop its decline. And it got something big. It got LoLK. And it’s one of the best things to happen in the series. Which puts it on a par with the best games in the series.

Mind you, it’s not the very best game in the series. That’s still SA, because that was the crown jewel of Touhou’s peak. LoLK is nowhere near as perfect as SA, not by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, while everyone mostly found it great at first, there are actually plenty of black marks that hurt it, in some people’s eyes. The immense difficulty is clearly fake in places, especially Junko, who takes her fair share of cheap shots. The characters are perhaps an acquired taste to some now, great as they were when they were all new and fresh. And there’s even a couple of bugs within, which has caused some to question whether ZUN properly tested the game ahead of time, coupled with the considerable difficulty.

But all of those flaws are put behind you, by how wonderful it is to just sit down and experience LoLK for yourself. Before LoLK came about, I thought ZUN wouldn’t make a Touhou game as good as his best again. I thought he was past it, too occupied with other things to really concentrate on making the games great again. LoLK proved me so, so very wrong, and I love him for it. Everything just feels right about it, deep down. Even if it isn’t all fine behind the scenes. But look. Final Fantasy 8 had a lot of bizarre stuff in it, and it too was flawed in several ways. And yet not only did many people still love it, it’s my personal favourite in the series. It’s one of my very favourite games ever. LoLK is kinda like that. Yeah, it’s got its problems, but when was anything ever perfect? It’s the heart and soul that counts. And that’s why I love this game. In fact, this game reminded me of why I love Touhou. And for that, I give ZUN, LoLK and all of Touhou my ever-loving praise. Long may it continue…

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*I’m not naming names. Only one that begins with K and ends with antai Collection.

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