The enigmatic Touhou Project series of bullet hell shoot-em-ups is either one you are a hardcore fan of or one you simply haven’t even heard of in the slightest. It has a very long history, dating back to 1996 as an independently developed game for NEC’s PC-98 series of personal computers popular in Japan throughout the 90’s. It has grown significantly since then, of course, amassing what can amount to a major corporate brand in terms of recognition (in Japan), yet is still independently operated by the sole creator, ZUN. As a result, various fan-created media has been made, from comics to music and, as we are here to discuss with this review, games. Touhou Luna Nights is one such game, one of the few that has made its way to Switch, and it is a sight to behold.

Touhou Luna Nights
Nintendo Switch
Developed by Team Ladybug
Published by Phoenixx
Released: 17th December 2020

Luna Nights is a Metroidvania at its core, a dime a dozen genre for indie developers that normally takes a lot to stand out from the crowd. If you’ve ever played a game of its kind, like Metroid or Castlevania (the namesakes of the genre), then you know what to expect. Traversal of a map that you gradually uncover as you get new abilities that unlock previously impassable obstacles into new areas, to summarise in a sentence. But what sets Luna Nights apart from just being a run of the mill copycat is its unique mechanic, time manipulation.

You play as Sakuya Izayoi, maid to the vampire Remilia Scarlet, in possession of a stopwatch capable of stopping or slowing down time and armed with dozens of throwing knives. Time manipulation is key to success in this game, forming the foundation for every puzzle and combat encounter in the game, and it feels magnificent to dupe your foes by repositioning yourself out of harm’s way and throwing a dozen or so knives which will reanimate themselves once you resume time again. It’s not an all-powerful ability that can be abused at will though, you have limited time that gets eaten away gradually and drops even faster as you move and throw knives, so it’s something to be used wisely.

If stopping time was the only gimmick to the game, it would get old fairly quickly, but fortunately it doesn’t end there. Another mechanic Luna Nights presents the player, lifted straight from the source games, is performing a graze. By positioning yourself close to enemies and projectiles, you can recover HP and MP, which is very crucial seeing as MP is used for all of your attacks and sub-items, making it an extremely valuable resource as waiting out the clock as it recharges manually is time consuming. Whilst time is stopped, you can only recharge MP and the time counter, just so you can’t abuse free healing when everything is frozen in place.

However, it is a very challenging game, also owing to the reputation of its bullet-hell inspirations. Grazing can be a risky endeavor, as while your hitbox is intentionally small to make the act of grazing easier, you can just as easily take a hit if you’re too imprecise or get too cocky. Sakuya is rather brittle too, taking an awful lot of damage even from enemies early on in the game, so it’s possible to get even more hurt while trying to graze for your health back. The risk-reward dynamic in play makes for a lot of tense scenarios and miraculous comebacks. The combination of time manipulation and grazing make for a game just teeming with depth.

However, all of this hard work would all be for waste if the rest of the game wasn’t well designed, and thankfully I can say that it is. Plenty of care was put into each and every room, even the enemy gauntlets that exist to test you. The boss fights in particular are by far the highlights of the game, owing to the franchise history of memorable bosses. Numerous fan favourites mostly stemming from the sixth Touhou game, The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, all bring some wonderfully varied attack patterns that are each a thrill to overcome. However, they do get progressively harder and harder, with the final boss of the game being immensely overwhelming, though exceedingly satisfying to finally nail down.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the last two points this game has to offer, the visuals and music. Luna Nights has gorgeously rendered 2D sprites with frankly sublime animation, feeling very natural with nary a single stutter or lengthy inbetweens interrupting the gameplay. The music is also gorgeous, being remixes of fan favourite tracks, again mostly coming from The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil. The arrangements themselves are exceptionally well done and extremely faithful to the source tunes, sounding almost like official music. They even have the infamous “Touhou trumpet” for some tracks, another love letter to longtime fans amongst the many already present.

If I could give any downsides, there would be only a few, but they might be total deal breakers to some. For starters, it isn’t a particularly long game, even by Metroidvania standards, with about five hours of content on average. The difficulty is also something of a hurdle, and potentially off-putting for people as there are no difficulty options to speak of. But I think the single biggest deal breaker would be the subject matter. The Touhou Project series is fairly niche in the west at best, absolutely unknown to many at worst. Luna Nights has an expectation of the player already being familiar with the world and characters, with the plot hinging on their knowledge of the series as a whole. While this doesn’t affect the gameplay in any capacity, it can certainly neuter anyone’s engagement.

Touhou Luna Nights is by and far one of my favourite Metroidvania experiences due to being a longtime fan of the series, which is the game’s biggest weakness. On its own, it is a neat and challenging game that can be exciting from a gameplay standpoint, but the worldbuilding is absolutely sold only to fans of the series and doesn’t put any effort into being an introductory game.

Final rating – 4.5 out of 5

Touhou Luna Nights is available now for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PC.

Long time fan of Nintendo and games in general, I always lean on the quirkier and unique sides of things in particular. It all started when I was lucky enough to get a Gameboy Color and Pokemon Yellow for my tenth birthday and it’s been going strong ever since. I’ve always had a need to get my voice heard and share anything I find interesting with the world.