A Bewitching Bullet Hell Beatdown
Out of all of the games I’ve had the pleasure of covering for Hey Poor Player this year, Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet just might be the most unique one to land on my desk to date – and I say this just a month after reviewing a game where you zap love-starved schoolgirls into a state of crippling euphoria with a trusty pheromone blaster. That said, take my word for it when I say you haven’t played anything quite like what developer CUBETYPE has in store with this quirky PlayStation 4 title, which manages to fuse the adrenaline-pumping gameplay of a Bullet Hell shooter with a fighting game to deliver one of the most undeniably bizarre and addicting titles I’ve come across in ages.
While it may be a bit hard to believe, Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet isn’t the first game of its kind, but rather a revamped version of publisher and developer CUBETYPE’s 2012 PC release Genso Rondo (幻想の輪舞 Gensou no Rondo, lit. “Circular Dance of Illusion“). If you’re sitting there tying your brain in a knot as you try to understand what the hell a Bullet Hell fighter would entail, here’s the skinny: Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet takes the cast of the popular doujin shoot ’em up series and pits them against one another in fierce one-on-one arena battles. Rather than battling legions of exploding popcorn ships and other genre staples, the action in Bullet Ballet is up close and personal, pitting the game’s adorable cast of shrine maidens, maids, witches, and mischievous yokai against one another in aerial assaults that flood the screen with vibrant bullet patterns and hypnotic beams of lethal energy.
Rather than deliver the customary punches and kicks you’d expect from a fighter, the 10 flying femme fatales who make up the game’s roster each feature their own unique traits and bullet patterns that would look right at home in one of Cave’s manic shooters. The mechanics are simple enough to pick up but difficult to master: tapping the square button will unleash a regular shot, while pressing the X button will make use of your special sub weapons. Additionally, as you allow bullets to graze your character or collect power ups your Charge Gauge will fill, allowing you to unleash powerful Charge Attacks. Using these attacks will quickly drain your gauge though, which when fully depleted your character will enter a Charge Break phase, limiting your ability to unleash these punishing volleys of shots until the meter has been replenished. In addition to Charge Attacks, you can also sacrifice one full charge gauge and a bomb to cast spells. Spells radically alter the game’s dynamic by changing the arena from a 3D space into a more conventional top-down vertical Bullet Hell. During this phase the player who managed to cast the spell can unleash absolutely staggering barrages of bullets, called danmaku (which appropriately translates to “bullet curtain”), and they’re really a sight to behold, as hundreds of glowing bullets dance across the screen to punish your opponent. During a spell, the player on the receiving end of the attack also loses their ability to perform evasive dashes, meaning you’ll have to perform some careful dodging to avoid a pummeling.
Only having 3 attack buttons may make the number of attacks seem limited at first, but during your normal phase, evasive dash (which also lets you pass through bullets), and spell phases each attack is changed quite dramatically, essentially giving each character an impression selection of nine bullet patterns to use over the course of a battle. And while it may sound strange, the game also features a melee combo system, complete with counters. While not extremely powerful, a combo will send your target flying, allowing you to put them on the defensive. It’s a mechanic that does a good job of keeping fights strategic despite the game’s inherently chaotic nature, as opposing players dance around each other’s volleys while trying their best to stay out of their opponent’s melee range or deliver a quick combo to score some needed breathing room.
Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet’s potent mix of high-energy shootouts and defensive maneuvering is perhaps its most engaging quality. The feeling of winding your delicate hit box through a wave of bullets to deliver a crushing combo to your opponent is nothing short of exhilarating. The same goes for the rush you feel when dancing through waves of fire while both players are in Extend Mode, where the next successful shot will decide the victor. It’s times like this where the game’s “Bullet Ballet” title is truly fitting, as deftly avoiding enemy fire while unleashing your own onslaught of glowing pink destruction becomes a deadly dance that’s nothing short of hypnotic in execution, where one failed pirouette into glowing plasma can spell disaster.
In terms of gameplay modes, the Story Mode is where most players will cut their teeth on the fundamentals of danmaku. It’s here that players choose from one of the game’s 10 pugilists and participate in a series of battles that’s cobbled together with a brief vignette for each character. The stories themselves are nothing to write home about, and are pretty much just nonsensical and lighthearted excuses for the game’s cast to engage in bullet battles. Then again, what more could you hope for from a game that pits a shrine maiden against a nuclear-powered hell raven over a mishap involving boiled eggs. It’s silly and shooty, and pretty much exactly what fans of the doujin shooter would want.
Apart from the game’s story mode, Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet also includes an Arcade Mode, which truthfully comes across like a bit of a misnomer, as it functions much more like the Survival Modes typically found in other fighting games. It’s here that the player takes on successive waves of opponents, recovering only a small fraction of her health between bouts. This mode offers a solid challenge thanks to its “one and done” design philosophy, and it’s great fun see just how far you can make it with each character.
There’s also a Boss Rush mode that’s accessible right from the start, which once again seems to be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. Rather than taking on bosses per se, each match up in this mode begins with your opponent casting a spell. The goal here is to survive the deluge of bullets until the time expires or defeat the boss outright. This mode offers a real challenge, forcing players to carefully dodge insanely dense waves of fire and conserve their bullet-clearing bombs for when the absolutely need them. It’s a cool mode that kicks you in the teeth, and will have even the most seasoned shoot ’em up aficionados coming back for more.
Overall, all of these modes are satisfying in their own right, and the fact that the scores for each mode are uploaded to the game’s online leaderboards should definitely sweeten the pot for shmup fans looking share their high scores for the world to see.
While Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet’s single player experience certainly shines, adding another player to the mix in both local and online multiplayer is where things really get interesting. Competing with human opponents in the game’s tense 3-round shootouts is hugely entertaining, as each match unfolds with all of the spectacle of a carefully choreographed fireworks display of carnage. Outflanking your opponent to shoot them out of the sky or carefully grazing streams of oncoming fire to unleash an explosive spell is an absolute blast. And the mind games that ensue when two skilled players compete creates a spectacle of firepower that’s nothing short of trance-inducing.
Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet may feature a host of adorable leading ladies, but unfortunately the game itself isn’t quite as easy on the eyes. The game’s dumpy polygonal models provide only the most basic animations, and the bland background architecture would look right at home on the PlayStation 2. That said, the dated visuals do work to the games favor at least in one respect, as they do little to distract you from the endless waves of bullets that you should be paying attention to. And at just $30, it’s hard to really hammer the title to hard for its lack of stunning visual fidelity.
Things are a bit of a mixed bag in the audio department as well. There are a handful of catchy tracks sprinkled throughout the experience, but I found far too many of them repeat over and over, which is no surprise considering the review build we were provided with for this review clocked in at well under one gig to install. Similarly disappointing are the sound effects that accompany each match, as they lack any distinct punch as well which would have really helped add to the experience. Worst still, some sound effects are just grating – especially the harsh noise that signals the start and conclusion of each round. However, the voice samples are pretty entertaining for what it’s worth, and there are a few uptempo electronica tracks that will keep your head bobbing from time to time. I just wish there were a few more of them to spice things up.
Though these shortcomings in presentation are certainly sad to see, they ultimately do very little to take away from what Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet aims to do: deliver one hell of a one-on-one shoot ’em up experience, and it’s here the game succeeds with all the flying colors of a million pulsating bullets.
When all is said and done, you’ll be hard pressed to find another game that rivals Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet’s bizarre yet captivating premise in the PlayStation 4’s library. While it may not be much of a looker, don’t let the scaled-down presentation fool you: CUBETYPE and NIS America’s latest release is a high-energy mashup that fans of both fighting games and shoot ’em ups who are looking for craving something a bit different should definitely add to their collection.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 ; Publisher: NIS America ; Developer: CUBETYPE; Players: 1-2 ; Released: September 6, 2016; Genre: shmup/fighter; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on review code supplied by the game’s publisher, NIS America.