Not quite focused enough
Touhou has been around for a while now, gracing us with unrelenting bullet hell after unrelenting bullet hell, and entertaining us with its quirky and upbeat cast of characters. As the hit series has grown, however, it has started to test the waters with other genres, and sometimes even with other developers. Sure, bullet hells will always be Touhou‘s bread and butter, but there’s no harm in seeing if the franchise works well in other mediums too – and thus, Aqua Style’s Touhou Double Focus was born. A short, whimsical adventure game, and companion game to Touhou Genso Wanderer, Double Focus teaches us that… well… I guess my takeaway was that journalism and magic don’t mix, but I’m sure that there were other, more important, lessons as well. Anyway, let’s get on with it!
Double Focus’ lighthearted tale begins with Kozusu cleaning through her bookstore in the Human Village. After a bit of organization, she comes across a magical book titled “Book King” that she didn’t recall seeing before in her shop. Upon opening it, Kozusu realizes that Book King isn’t just another book – it’s a portal to another world! Realizing that she probably shouldn’t just leave something like this lying around, Kozusu begins pondering what to do with it. Her thoughts are soon interrupted, however, by Aya and Momiji who, sensing the book’s radiating energy all the way from Yokai Mountain, come down in order to investigate (you know how those journalists are). It doesn’t take long for Aya to realize that the book was the source of the strange energy and, before Kozusu can even begin protest, opens Book King, sending the group of hapless Touhou heroines into the book world and sealing away most of their powers.
Apart from the game’s amusing opening and closing comic-like cinematics, most of the narrative is a tad underwhelming. I felt that, rather than attempting to establish a new story, Double Focus made use of the fact that it was so well-known in order to fill most of the plot with gags and cameos – something that hardcore Touhou fans are sure to love, and are legitimately entertaining to watch, but will most likely alienate those new to the franchise. Given the fact that Double Focus is essentially just a companion piece to Genso Wanderer, I shouldn’t hold it too accountable, but it’s still worth mentioning.
Double Focus is an adventure-platformer that follows a very standard Metroidvania layout that those familiar with the genre should be able to grasp quite easily. Players are required to systematically explore a number of different areas, defeat said area bosses, and progress to the next area. Every location in Double Focus is storybook-themed, such as a king’s castle or a haunted forest, that, while not depicting a specific fairytale, utilizes familiar tropes (except for the port area which, for some reason, features enemies based on popular American horror movies).
Exploration requires players to frequently switch between Aya and Momiji, utilizing each character’s unique abilities in order to progress (similar to Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin’s Jonathan and Charlotte). The player’s options for maneuverability are somewhat limited (barring Momiji’s ability to run straight up walls) in the beginning of the game, but I’m completely okay with that. One of my favorite parts about this genre is the way in which it traditionally bestows abilities upon the player. Being able to get to a point where you can blaze through previously-difficult areas is a rush, so working my way up to that point is something that I enjoy. Unfortunately, Double Focus doesn’t really provide that. Although the player does obtain abilities in traditional Metroidvania fashion, they end up being more like specific-use tools as opposed to upgrades and, most of the time, end up forgotten by time you make your way to the next area.
Every seasoned Metroidvania fan knows to look for secrets. Be they breakable walls, invisible paths, or hidden rooms, most games in the genre feature plenty of out-of-the way areas that reward players for exploring, and Touhou Double Focus is no exception – unfortunately, they aren’t done too well. While Double Focus has plenty of secret treasures to collect (and is kind enough to mark rooms with treasure on your map), a good 90% of is unremarkable. To be fair, there are a few important items out there – such as copies of the Book of Souls, which permanently increase HP – but a lot of it is pretty passable. I get that not every single secret treasure has to be a one-of-a-kind item, but consistently rewarding players with low-level healing items – even in the later parts of the game – kind of takes the fun out of treasure-hunting.
Touhou Double Focus‘ disappointing collect-a-thon was somewhat smoothed out, however, thanks to the game’s unique take on the Bestiary. Ever the eager journalist, Aya carries her camera with her wherever she goes (after you find it, anyway) – allowing players to snap pictures. In addition to serving as a basic attack, taking a picture of an enemy or character adds it to a neat little gallery known as the Snap Archive. This archive contains unique artwork of every snapped character, along with background information and voice clips of/about them, making it a fun little addition to the game.
You can also count on plenty of combat in Touhou Double Focus – although, this too falls a bit flat. Both Aya and Momiji each have their own special attacks and passive abilities, and will add more to their arsenal as players progress through the game. Crow Tengu and roving reporter Aya is a ranged attacker, fighting by creating tornadoes, firing those oh-so-familiar projectiles, and even using her newspaper as a weapon (knowledge is power, after all). Wolf Tengu and faithful sidekick Momiji, on the other hand, is a close-combat specialist. By making use of her sword and claws, she is capable of dealing more powerful hits than Aya, and also comes with a nifty shield. Conceptually, the characters are great. Each boasts a nice number of skills which compliment the other’s quite nicely. The ability to set certain skills up and switch characters in order to perform combo attacks is also fun and well-executed. So, what’s the issue here? Stamina, my friend. Stamina.
Along with HP, both Aya and Momiji each have their own Stamina bar. Stamina recovers naturally, and quickly, so long as your character isn’t doing anything that actively consumes it – unfortunately, nearly everything, from fighting to running, does. Because of this, it’s easy to find yourself at the mercy of the game quite often. As you progress, you’ll find more powerful skills for Aya and Momiji – skills that you want to use. Naturally, because these skills are more advanced, they take up more Stamina. That would be fine if there were a way to compensate for such grievous Stamina loss, but there isn’t. Both characters’ maximum Stamina in the beginning of the game is 100 and, unlike with HP, there is nothing in the game to increase the maximum value. There are also no items that can be used to instantly restore Stamina (which makes sense I guess, because using that item would also require Stamina). The inclusion of Stamina in Double Focus isn’t something deserving of criticism in and of itself. After all, it’s essentially like MP in the Castlevania games. The difference between the two, however, is that Castlevania doesn’t cancel out your ability to dash or climb when you run out of MP.
I understand that needing to stop players from being able to spam the powerful skills bestowed upon them late-game is essential (as combat would be incredibly skewed in your favor otherwise), but Double Focus ended up tipping the scales too much. I was so concerned with proper maneuverability, that I never tackled bosses with anything but my basic attack, a healing spell, and a passive skill or, in Aya’s case, her camera – even during the last boss. And I mean it’s cool I guess that I was able to beat them like that, but it’s not how I wanted it to go. Like I said before, being able to show off all of your neat tricks is part of what makes a Metroidvania so fun, so not having that was really disappointing . The Stamina mechanic basically just dangled skills in front of me like you would a carrot in front of a horse – I tried making use of them, but I never really got there in the end.
And, of course, there’s the overall execution. The Touhou series has managed to pump out some pretty nice games over the years, so playing an action-platformer with all the nuance of a high-profile Newgrounds flash game was a little disappointing (even if this was developed by a different company). Don’t get me wrong, nothing was inherently bad. The problem was that nothing was inherently good either. Nothing ever didn’t work, but controls often times felt floaty, and the need to constantly switch between movesets in order to solve same-y “puzzles” became tedious rather quickly.
Audio and visual doesn’t get a whole lot better, either. While Double Focus begins and ends with some extremely cute comic book-like cinematics, actual gameplay visuals looked, if I’m being honest, cheap and rushed. Nothing ever looked or felt entirely fluid. I also noticed that certain parts of repeating backgrounds were askew. I’m no graphic artist, but stuff like that really shouldn’t be going on. The music wasn’t much better, turning out to be about as cookie-cutter as each of the worlds themselves and are hardly worth remembering.
I have a lot of respect for the Touhou series and I want it to succeed, but I would be lying if I said that this was a boon to the franchise. Featuring a short, bland adventure, a nearly-nonexistent plot, and diverse characters that are ultimately bogged down by the in-game Stamina mechanic, Touhou Double Focus probably won’t satisfy anyone who isn’t a diehard Touhou fan.
FINAL VERDICT: 2.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Vita ; Publisher: NIS AMerica ; Developer: Aqua Style ; Players: 1 ; Released: March 21, 2017; ESRB: T for Teen
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Touhou Double Focus given to Hey Poor Player by the Publisher