Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity - Review  

It's a Lack of Curiosity That Killed This Cat
by Pascal Tekaia

Less than 20 Hours
+ Some nice particle and visual effects
+ Engaging post-game bonus dungeon
- Banal plot
- Repetitive in virtually every single detail
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Scarlet Curiosity is the second RPG to come out of the Play,Doujin! project, which brings to a wider audience fan-made games set in the fictional Touhou universe. Based on the popular bullet hell shooter games in the Project Touhou line-up, this game takes on the unenviable task of marrying characteristics from that genre with action RPG elements, producing some light story-telling and exploration, character leveling, and loot drops. But with a niche property whose setting and characters many simply won't be familiar with and a homebrewed concoction of gameplay styles that produces very little actual fun or challenge, one can't help but wonder what audience this game is truly aimed at.

   The game can be played from the viewpoint of one of two heroines: Remilia, a demon-slaying vampire living in the province of Gensokyo, or her maid and servant, Sakuya. Recent newspaper reports tell of sightings in the area of mysterious yokai, supernatural beings. Always on the lookout for a worthy opponent, Remilia sets out to track down and slay these demons, including a hulking monstrosity that's only been glimpsed through a mysterious scarlet mist. The search takes Remilia through about a dozen stages filled with foes, each culminating in a bullet hell boss fight. Sakuya's path is the same, as she scouts ahead for Remilia; with the exception of some changed dialog, a different moveset, and distinct gear, her story plays out the same as Remilia's.

   If this sounds at all like an entertaining premise for a game, rest assured that it isn't. From combat to stage design, from enemy variations to story, every aspect of this game has been hit with the blunt end of the repetition stick. Once the opening screen gives way to the first stage players must take on enemies like floating faeries, black wolves, and cantankerous fungi, dealing them swift deaths using one of three available attacks. A physical attack can be performed at will, while all other attacks consume a certain amount of the magic gauge, and can't be used should the gauge ever fully deplete. Luckily, it recharges rather quickly, and can be upgraded by equipping gear with better stats, dropped occasionally by enemies.

Boss battles serve as a reminder of the game's bullet hell origins. Boss battles serve as a reminder of the game's bullet hell origins.

   The fairies, along with most enemies in the game, shoot out orbs of magical energy, approximating the game's bullet hell influences. However, there aren't nearly enough of them to truly fill up the screen with projectiles, and are simple to dodge or jump over. Health drops are in plentiful supply, so the biggest drawback to being hit is that the combo counter resets to zero — which has minimal impact on combat itself — unless the player immediately strikes another enemy and keeps the combo going. The trouble is, the same enemies encountered when starting the game are the exact enemies filling each stage all throughout the game, up until and including the final level. Along the way, new variations occasionally appear, but are few and way too far between. Instead, players will find themselves fighting the same birds, plants, centipedes, fairies, mushrooms, wolves, and frogs ad nauseam.

   Not that Scarlet Curiosity's other features are any less dull. Much more variety is definitely needed in the stage design, which, for most of the game's dozen or so hours, consists of generic forest paths, canyons, and caves. An underground library stage seems as if it was designed to win a Dullest Level Layout award. Only the last stage or two show more dedication to creativity, but by then it seems like too little, too late. Many stages are expansive in scale, and serve as much as mazes as anything else. Perplexingly, the game provides maps for some of these boards, but not for others, seemingly at random. At the end of each stage, a boss, most often a character from the franchise, awaits to make a brief cameo appearance. After some brief dialog to prod the inane story forward and segue to the next level, the battle ensues. These are the only times in which Scarlet Curiosity approaches its bullet hell roots. The bosses' attacks are fast and furious, sending out barrages of projectiles that clutter up the screen. These battles represent the only real challenge found in the game, and some may need to be attempted more than once. Dying works as a battle reset, restoring all health, though oddly leaving magic power at the level it was at the moment of death. In fact, if a boss battle is initiated at less than optimal health, dying can actually give the player an advantage by providing an automatic heal.

   Not that there's much dying to go around. Scarlet Curiosity fails to progress past its laughably low difficulty threshold during the main campaign. It's not just the lack of enemy variety throughout the levels; though the enemies scale with player level, they are quickly outpaced. The majority of enemies will go down in two to three hits, and after spending some time in an area, one-hit kills also start piling up. This has the unfortunate side effect that some of the game's main RPG elements — unlocking new moves to use during combat — feels totally extraneous; the game can easily be completed using the same basic moves from the start all the way through the final boss. A low difficulty isn't necessarily a bad thing, but going on to classify the game as "bullet hell" just feels wrong; bullet kindergarten is perhaps more appropriate. The low challenge compounds the problems caused by the dull story and repetitive level design. Ironically, after completing the game, a twenty-floor challenge dungeon is unlocked. This area is the first one in the game that, while still guilty of stale level design, does offer some challenge and more of a variety in enemies and environmental hazards. It doesn't add a whole lot to the experience but the effort to offer something more engrossing is appreciated all the same.

Occasionally, the game manages to bring some pretty vistas to the forefront. Occasionally, the game manages to bring some pretty vistas to the forefront.

   Despite its design flaws evident elsewhere, the game is decent enough to look at. The story is told through still images and silent dialog, but the art style is appealing. Character animations are fluid, there's ample use of color, and some particle effects do look quite nice, particularly during boss fights when lots of objects fill the screen. However, some slight slow-down is noticeable in the final dungeon, when a large number of enemies fills the screen. It's worth noting that the game doesn't fall prey to objectifying its all-female cast of protagonists. The music, too, is pleasant enough to keep from becoming a nuisance during the drawn-out levels. Actual voiced dialog, however, is noticeably absent. In all, the presentation, while nothing to write home about, doesn't have any considerable flaws.

   In the end, there doesn't seem to be much reason to think of Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity as more than a left-field oddity. Newcomers to the established universe will be nonplussed by its cast of characters who lack all introduction and its fly-by-night story. Repeat visitors to Gensokyo will still be hard-pressed to locate any challenge or semblance of fun within its dreary gameplay and level design. The poet Dorothy Parker once said, "The cure for boredom is curiosity." In the case of Scarlet Curiosity, on the other hand, lassitude seems woven into its very design fabric.

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