Review: Touhou Luna Nights
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It’s been ages since I last played a proper Touhou game, but the insane bullet hell action has stuck with me all these years. All that dodging and weaving and grazing prepared me well for other future bullet hells, but I never expected it to prepare me for a metroidvania. Whatever Touhou Luna Nights is to the rest of the franchise, it’s as perfect a translation of the gameplay into platforming as I can imagine, bringing with it some wickedly clever new mechanics that other games would do well to borrow. It really deserves to be bigger than what it is, but with action this good, I’ll take whatever I can get.
Sakuya Izayoi is a maid, servant to a vampire named Remilia Scarlet. On this particular day, she finds herself in a place very similar to her home of Gensokyo, but now filled with strange and aggressive spirits. Worse than that, though, is how her powers of time control seem to be failing her. After a kindly kappa helps her recover her temporal abilities, Sakuya sets off to find her mistress and uncover the true nature of this parallel world. Along the way she’ll meet several familiar faces, and expand her potent powers to make herself more than a match for anyone that stands in her way.
I can’t speak to the greater Touhou lore or the depth of these characters, and while there’s a fair bit of dialog at points it tends to be simple and roughly translated enough to not make much difference. The focus here is absolutely on the action, which is a wise move because it absolutely steals the show. Sakuya fights with an absolute embarrassment of magically-conjured throwing knives, peppering foes and covering walls with blades. They do drain her MP to use and she can run out, but MP and HP can be recovered by grazing enemies and their shots. Indeed, you are encouraged and even required to stray close to danger, especially when enemies get fast and the bullets get thick.
What really makes this work are Sakuya’s two time powers. Holding the attack button down charges up a time-slowing effect, making it far easier to graze hazards without harming yourself. There’s another button that does a full time stop, allowing you to evade impending doom or fill an enemy’s face with a cloud of knives for them to eat when time catches up. The incredible control this grants you over battles can lead to incredible clutch plays, like freezing bullets in midair to vault behind an enemy, or slowing down a hail of shots just enough to slide under them. Naturally, these time powers also feature heavily into exploration and mobility, with a mid-game power even allowing you to jump off of time-frozen knives. The map is filled with puzzles and challenges that interact with your time control in devilishly clever ways, starting with doors and switches, leading into the peculiar behavior of time-frozen water, and ending with traps that behave differently when time is slowed or stopped.
The real culmination of all these tight systems are the boss fights, which are some of the most thrilling challenges in any metroidvania. True to Touhou roots, each boss is a young woman with magical powers, specialized in throwing hellish waves of bullets at you. Luna Nights is probably more reasonable about this than you’re thinking, sticking with modest but tricky patterns to dodge at regular intervals. However, the pace of the boss fights demands the use of your time powers to have any hope of surviving, and the further in you get the more time-based gimmicks they’ll throw at you. You’ve got to be on point through the whole fight, recognizing patterns, weaving through attacks, and opening up with your own barrages when the time is right. It’s one of the rare games where I’d always be looking forward to new bosses and the crazy challenges each offered.
Between intense action and clever exploration, Touhou Luna Nights offers a lot you don’t normally get from metroidvanias. The time powers are an absolute game-changer, providing new ways to interact with the world and enemies. Bosses and puzzles are singular pleasures to overcome with these systems, though I would appreciate having more to face off against. My only real complaint is how short the game is, easily beatable in three hours or so, with not much more needed for 100% completion. There are only a few map areas and none of them are too complex, though they may contain tricky puzzle rooms or secrets. The art and animation is fantastic and the music is all the pumping beats you would expect from a Touhou game. Really it’s all very much what you’d expect from a Touhou game, transformed into a super solid metroidvania that deserves to be longer for how good it is. Even so, you won’t want to miss out on what thrills there are here.