I’ve never played a Touhou game before, but I’ve heard plenty about the characters of this fan-driven video game series, and seen some terrifying videos of final bosses on YouTube. There have been several Touhou games released on the Switch already, but Azure Reflections is the first shooter in the famous shooter series to be released on the system. After a week of dodging bullets flung at me in ridiculous patterns, I can finally conclude: I am bad at dodging bullets. Also, it’s a pretty fun game.
You play as Reimu Hakurei, the protagonist of the series, as she travels to the Scarlet Devil Mansion in order to determine why the mysterious Scarlet Mist has been released. You can also unlock two other characters, who have their own reasons for traversing the mist. As Hakurei travels, she encounters and battles several familiar faces, and discovers that time and space seem to be looping on themselves. The story is kind of silly, and the writing is a kind that I really dislike (silly characters being excessively and pointlessly silly, with no real meaning to anything that’s going on). Perhaps the story is someone else’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly not mine. Fortunately, it’s not very important to enjoying the game as a whole.
The game is a horizontal bullet hell shooter, so half the game is spent flying through the sky, shooting down enemies and dodging their projectiles. You can shoot in both direction (not at the same time), so you’ll have to watch out for enemies behind you as well as in front of you, which isn’t standard in side-scrolling shooters and I appreciated. The normal levels are pretty bog-standard; you shoot enemies and collect the power-ups they drop, in order to increase the number of bullets you can shoot at once, as well as to acquire currency that can be spent later on upgrading your character.
The real meat of the game, however, comes with its boss battles. You’ll battle several other girls from the Touhou series, and when you do your entire screen will be filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of bullets of various shapes and sizes. The game’s difficulty comes from having to dodge very intricate bullet patterns that give you almost no room to maneuver. In some ways it’s actually quite pretty watching the bullet patterns move across the screen, as the patterns are small works of art in themselves. Of course, this makes them all the more distracting. Having to dodge these is very tense and requires some major focus, but being able to survive a massive boss onslaught without being shot down is quite satisfying.
The game offers you a couple of reprieves, however. While your character takes up a large portion of the screen, your actual hitbox is very small, so it’s possible to slip through the small gaps in the bullets. Also, when you get hit, you enter a stunned state for a few seconds; you won’t actually be shot down unless you get hit a second time while you’re stunned. This doesn’t help much during some attack patterns, but it helps the game feel a lot more fair.
You have some other tools up your sleeve, as well. Your most powerful move is your Danmaku Rush, which is the only attack that can defeat bosses. With this attack, time slows down, you stay in place, and you absorb all of the bullets coming at you for a period of time. You can then use the absorbed attack power against your opponents by dashing into them, which also renders you invulnerable to attack for as long as the attack lasts. After painfully dodging a boss’s massive attack pattern while whittling away at their health, it is extremely satisfying to dash through their annoying bullets and smash into them to end their attack phase.
You also have a couple of other options at your disposal. As you play through the game and defeat bosses, you have the opportunity to capture spell cards with powerful abilities, which you can later use when times get tough. It’s not easy to get a spell card, as you need to defeat a boss’s spell phase within a certain amount of time without getting shot down. You also have a barrier attack that you can use as an absolute last resort, which has some powerful effects (like neutralizing all bullets) but it weakens you for a little bit as a result.
As you can imagine, a game where the entire screen is buried in bullets gets pretty difficult. You have three difficulties at the start (Easy, Normal and Hard) and while I managed to “beat” Normal Mode while using a handful of continues, I never managed to complete it. If you don’t beat the game’s first five or so stages well enough, you’ll be sent back to the start of the game and forced to try again; only the highly skilled players will do well enough to see the final boss on Normal Mode. I did beat it a couple of times on Easy Mode (which has no such restriction), and the difference is extremely stark, so if you’re having trouble with Normal Mode, give Easy a try. Likewise, Hard Mode is extremely punishing, and I never made it past the second level. Also, once you beat a mode, you can play it again on Ascetic Mode, where you go down in a single hit, which is too extreme for me. And let’s not even talk about the unlockable Lunatic Mode, mainly because I'm not good enough to see what it's like.
The game’s looping structure is tied into the game’s story, which talks about how time is looping perpetually; I thought this was a bit of a clever touch. However, this is mainly an attempt to mask the fact that this game is astonishingly short. Each stage is only a couple of minutes long, and while the bosses are more engaging, they only take five or so minutes normally. There are a total of seven stages, and while you probably won’t get to the end without several attempts, that still leaves you with a very small amount of game. You can collect currency to give your characters upgrades that makes the game easier, and collecting all of them will take you a lot longer, but that will just leave you playing a rather short game over and over. It’s enjoyable, but if you aren’t dedicating yourself to completing the nightmare that is Hard Mode, you might find yourself getting bored.
The game looks fairly nice, at least. The characters are well drawn and animated in-game, the environments are fairly nice to look at, and the boss’s bullet patterns are often very visually appealing and colorful, which helps mitigate some of the frustration. The game’s music isn’t memorable, and the game’s voice acting sounds fine, but that might be because it’s all in Japanese. There are subtitles most of the time, but for some reason a lot of dialogue during battle just remains in Japanese, untranslated, even with subtitles on.
Overall, Azure Reflections is a really fun game to play. The boss battles are extremely engaging on any difficulty, and the desire to master Normal Mode will probably keep me coming back for a little while longer. I just wish there was more game here; the game is just too short, and if you want to get any major playtime out of the game you’ll have to replay the same levels and bosses over and over. If you’re really itching for a bullet hell game on the Switch, and you don’t mind some repetition, this game is worth checking out.