I can safely say that I am not the target audience for this title. What we have here is a game clearly made for fans of Japan's one-man developed Touhou series. I've heard of the series before, but I never sought out to play many of them as I'm not a huge fan of bullet-hell shooters.
From what I can tell, these Touhou games are immensely popular with fans not only for the intense, pattern-memorizing, and professionally designed gameplay that bullet-hell shooters demand, but they also specialize in their goofy storytelling. Cute anime characters collide with one another in a strange, supernatural world of yo-kai ghosts and giant centipedes, and while their battles erupt on the most outrageously epic scale, they argue over the most trivial and silly issues.
It's a universe that I can fully understand the allure of, especially for fans of flatline anime humor, and that is why the creation of this fan game further exploring this outrageous setup was an inevitability.
What remains a mystery is how such a minor game wound up with one of North America's most popular localizers. XSEED really doesn't overlook anything when it chooses titles to throw its support behind, so it must have a firm belief in this product, or at least in the fans rallying behind it.
A fan gets his shot at the big leagues
Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity began life as a fan game before being swept up into the official canon. It takes two of the series' popular characters, a vampire by the name of Remilia Scarlet and her maid Sakuya, and sends them down similar quests to hunt a giant monster wreaking havoc in the local establishments. Remilia only cares about fighting the monster to defeat her boredom, and Sakuya serves to only make her master happy. A random newspaper article tips them off, and that's all the game needs to provide an adventure much larger than either of them bargained for.
While their campaigns don't different greatly from one another, bumping into the same boss fights and toppling through the same dungeons, their combat sets the two characters apart. Remilia relies more on deathblows and haymakers, bringing down enemies with fierce attacks, and Sakuya, who I tended to use more often, picked away at monsters with combos, ranged attacks, and lighter hits.
Combat revolves around similar ideas found in the mainline bullet-hell games mashed together with dungeon crawling exploration and hack 'n slash combat. Recognizing bullet patterns, dodging projectile attacks, and waiting for the perfect moment to strike are all supposed to be the crux of Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity's gameplay. If we're being honest, this fun idea only works on paper.
With a proper set of equipment, these two main characters can soak up a lot of damage. Absorbing hits, replenishing health with frequent power-ups, spamming AoE attacks, and not overly caring about enemy patterns worked just fine when blazing through the levels. When it came to boss fights, only one proved to be a challenge that required precise memorization. The rest fell with basic combat tactics, and none of them brought me down once, a far cry from the difficulty found in the Ys games, of which comparisons are being made.
With the main Touhou series infamous for its difficulty, this was a really easy game.
Dungeons start off as a simple affair of running through halls and striking through hordes of monsters, but later dungeons manage to toss in light platforming elements and other complexities. I wouldn't say that they vary greatly in their design, but many of them drag on for far too long. Every time Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity begins to finally look like it will be adding a new element into the level design, that new element gets overused to the point of knocking the game back into its ruts.
Some corridors lead to dead ends that at least provide opportunities for treasure chests, most of the time coughing up loot that is weaker than the random bits you can pick up from enemies. The economy too plays very little into the game, throwing tens of thousands of coins at players, and very rarely providing items that are worth purchasing.
Graphically, it wouldn't be out of place to say that this game was on par with this year's hit I Am Setsuna in terms of the quality of the 3D. The art backing Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity comes up short, but they deliver the occasional moments of brilliance, my favorite being the flaming, floating lotuses through a forest stream at night and the game's central shop. Thoses have a nice touch that a majority of the other levels lack.
A dive into anime lore or an afternoon time-waster
I would be wrong to totally dismiss Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity. For as simple and crudely made as it comes off, I felt myself having more fun as the game peaked in the middle. The opening dungeon is a total turn-off, not at all representing the heavier action found in future levels, and towards the end, the repetitive dungeons, monsters, and attacks really start to take a toll. However, when I found a groove though most of the middle portions of the game, I was having more mindless, habitual fun than I thought I was going to.
The repetitive combat does feel solid enough, even after killing my seven hundredth fairy, and I could feel my character improving with each level and equipment upgrade, a must for any action-RPG.
$19.99 is a steep price for such a game, especially when I can think of better indie hack 'n slashes that don't come with such a cost, and I don't recommend it at that level for anyone other than a fan. If you can appreciate these characters on more intimate levels because you already like the series, then this might be the dive into the series that you are looking for.
Those who do pick it up and like what they see will be happy to know that there is bonus content, like a secret dungeon which will change up the endings if properly defeated. All the more reason to dive back in.
However, as an outsider looking in, I found a pleasant time-waster of an action game that provided not a lot of emotional or gameplay depth. I dedicated two solid afternoons to it, and found myself wanting to play Ys instead, a similarly styled series which does all that Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity does with much more finesse and a cheaper price tag.
Disclaimer: We were provided a review copy Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity by XSEED for the PlayStation 4, and we dedicated five hours to both campaigns before writing this review.