A lot of Touhou Project games have managed to make it out of Japan. A few are traditional shoot’em ups that pay tribute to the main series, but more tend to experiment with different genres. Gensokyo Defenders is one such game. It takes a lot of elements people might be familiar with and tosses them aside, instead providing a rather rudimentary real-time strategy game that happens to have some characters you might recognize taking part in “war games.”
One of the ways Gensokyo Defenders decides to toss away everything we know about Touhou Project as a whole is how it handles its story. Rather than dealing with some new incident, the characters decided they wanted to participate in some war games. Namely, the fairies from the forest decided they wanted to compete, and all sorts of Touhou Project characters get involved. (Though, I suppose you could consider that an incident.) Also, while Reimu and Marisa take us through the first tutorial level, we are left to go through the initial stages with Cirno, a secondary character, rather than one of the primary heroines. (Lots of other characters are eventually playable, including characters like Marisa, Remilia, and the three fairies Cirno first faces.) On top of all this, it has a barebones story with a poor localization. It made skipping over all story segments a very feasible (and preferred) option when I played.
Gensokyo Defenders also abandons the traditional Touhou Project gameplay in favor of a tower defense game with twin-stick shooter elements. Each brief level has a base you must defend from a set number of enemy waves. Before each wave, your character’s health is restored and you can set traps, which can cause damage, inflict status effects, or force opponents to a certain area. When you decide to begin a wave, your current avatar can move around the map to deal normal bullet damage (autofire is in effect) or use various special abilities like Spells and Last Word to deal damage or hinder opponents. It is a trial and error sort of affair, since you do not have any warnings about possible enemies. (For example, finding out flying enemies would completely bypass a part of the map and fly over inaccessible areas as a shortcut threw me off.) The real problem is that the aiming does not feel precise enough for a game where you are fighting through hordes of enemies. It is very different from the main series games or even some other spin-offs.
Gensokyo Defenders does a terrible job of conveying information. There are brief tutorials for when you are playing as Cirno, which tell you how to place traps and why. The game doesn’t explain what would happen if you fall, though, leaving you to waste precious seconds while you wonder what is going on. It also doesn’t explain exactly how the trap upgrades work. You’re left to realize on your own that you are leveling up different elements of it, if you so choose, when you acquire enough points. This is the video game equivalent of a parent deciding the best way to teach a child to swim is to toss them into a lake. Likewise, it offers no context for its adventures or characters, so you won’t get much out of it if you are unfamiliar with the people here. Other games do a bit more to help ease people in.
One of the few areas Gensokyo Defenders stays true to the source material is when it comes to the different characters. Each one has movesets that caters to her specialties. Reimu is a shrine maiden who is supposed to defend the Hakurei Shrine. So one of her skills, Warning Barrier, actually sets up a temporary wall to help hold back the flow of enemies. Cirno, an ice fairy, uses ice attacks like Insta-Freeze Beam to inflict damage upon enemies and freeze them in place. One of Sakuya’s abilities, Deflation World, slows down enemies that walk through a specific area and sends them back to a different area, as a nod to her ability to manipulate time in the series. The variations acknowledge the series’ lore. They would also come in handy for the online mode, where you can play as different characters with other people.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you anything about its online mode. I have been attempting to find other people to play Gensokyo Defenders with for about three weeks now, but I have never seen another living soul in the online lounges. I have tried the servers for the United States, Europe, Asia, and Japan. I tried making my own room and waiting. Supposedly, if you can find someone else, you could play together to go through the stages, but I suppose it was just not meant to be for me.
Gensokyo Defenders tries something different. It attempts to mix things up by putting characters people hopefully recognize in situations where they need to defend bases from hordes of fairy-related enemies. It has an unexpected twin-stick shooter and tower defense formula with controls that are not as precise as they could be. It also has an online mode that seems abandoned. However, it bring in a number of familiar characters and lets people use skills that call to mind their established abilities, which is a nice reminder of what these people can normally do.
Gensokyo Defenders is available for the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4.