The Touhou Project games have followed an odd sort of course outside of Japan. The doujin games inspired by the original vertical shoot’em ups are the ones that have received the most attention and appeared more often than the main entries or ones that stay true to the spirit of the actual games. Azure Reflections changes that. This Souvenir Circ and Unties game is a bullet hell game that really attempts to keep what made the first Touhou Project games so special intact.
The premise of Azure Reflections involves an unknown incident, as is usual in Touhou Project games. A callback to Team Shanghai Alice’s Touhou Koumakyu: The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, the Scarlet Mist has returned in Gensokyo. Reimu figures Remilia is behind the incident again and heads to the Scarlet Devil Mansion. However, along the way she discovers other famous characters are there, invited by the house’s master, and strange dimensional anomalies are keeping everyone from leaving. Eventually, other characters like Marisa and Cirno also find their way, with slightly different stories. While the idea of the mist is menacing, the series retains its trademark humor with characters leaning into their defining personality traits to hopefully make people smile. Reimu is blunt. Marisa can be opportunistic. Cirno is… well… a bit of an airhead. Sanae has a very high opinion of herself. Patchouli is sleepy and keeping secrets. It all works well.
Even more important than the story staying true is the gameplay. While it is not a vertical shoot’em up, it does recreate the bullet hell in a horizontal way. Reimu, Marisa, and Reimu can each shoot a constant flurry of bullets either left or right, with people choosing the general spread or tendencies before beginning a run. You go through hordes of standard enemies that approach from all sides of the screen, until you reach an iconic character acting as a boss. Your center hitbox heart is the part of your avatar you must protect, with people able to hold a trigger button to slow your movement slightly, display the hitbox, and better weave your way through the bullets. You can use Spell Card special attacks, to deal additional damage and have different sorts of bullets appear.
In short, Azure Reflections can be as intense as an actual Touhou Project game. But while difficulty is important, aesthetics are too. The bullet patterns for bosses can be quite beautiful. Nitori has these blossoms that go out, where you get to see the projectiles arranged in petal-like patterns as they head toward your prone character. Sakuya’s bullets actually turn into blades for certain attacks, spinning around to encircle and trap your character. Patchouli surrounds herself with circular walls at one point, with larger circles appearing from time to time that bounce around the screen. It is challenging, but also quite gorgeous.
Another way in which Azure Reflections is like the original Touhou games is that it includes multiple endings. To get the best ending for each character (and unlock other playable characters), you need to resolve incidents without timing out Spell Cards by defeating bosses in certain periods of time without continues. This might be difficult the first time, but beating the game once with time-outs and continues will unlock a Practice Mode, which lets you test yourself against all of the bosses and get better so you can beat them. What is especially nice about all those endings is that you can earn them on all difficulty levels. If someone is having trouble getting better, but wants to improve, they could buy and equip ability-boosting accessories with in-game cash and play on the Easy difficulty to finally see the true ending.
As an aside, Azure Reflections also seems to try to beef up the experience. This is a quick game that can be beaten in under two hours. Marisa and Cirno are unlockable characters, with people able to use Marisa after completing Reimu’s story and Cirno after succeeding as Marisa. There are four difficulty levels (Lunatic unlocks if you can beat Hard.) If you manage to beat Cirno’s campaign, there is also Stage Extra: The Vampire Sleeping in the Basement. That lets you fight Flandre. All of these things can really help a lot, especially since you need to really become a Touhou master to get through some of the game’s different challenges.
Azure Reflections is a taste of what a real Touhou Project game feels like. All of the elements from the bullet hell games are there. The characterizations and story feel right. There are even different endings that can trigger, depending on how well you play. It might prove educational for people who were wondering what the main games might be like after only playing rogue-like or Metroidvania spin-offs.
Azure Reflections is available for the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 worldwide. It is available on the PC in Japan.