Touhou 18: Unconnected Marketeers Review – In The Business of Innovating Bullet-Hell

    Title: Touhou 18: Unconnected Marketeers
    Developer: 上海アリス幻樂団
    Release Date: May 3, 2021
    Reviewed On: PS4
    Publisher: Mediascape
    Genre: Bullet-Hell

Touhou 18: Unconnected Marketeers is a bullet hell game of a well-established series. This time, the chosen protagonist must piece together the mystery of who is distributing magic cards imbued with the powers of past Touhou characters.

The gameplay of Touhou 18: Unconnected Marketeers is spread between six levels, split into a “Stage” portion and a “Boss” portion. The stage portion presents waves of enemies, dropping either a power item or currency. This currency is tied to the new mechanic of Unconnected Marketeers, in which you may use your funds to buy ability cards after every level.

While the extensive number of enemies is alarming, the boss battles are the apex of difficulty in Touhou gameplay. Normal enemies act as the teaching mechanism for bullet hell fundamentals and are tested at the end of the level. Boss attack patterns often look impossible but are like puzzles to solve and managed with fundamentals learned through practice.

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The player is given three lives to start. Upon getting hit by any kind of bullet, common enemy attack, or boss barrage alike, the player loses a life. After losing every available life, a Game Over is received. While this disqualifies the player from obtaining a good ending to resolve the plot, they may decide to continue playing, akin to using a quarter at an arcade cabinet. By encouraging players to beat the game without losing all their lives but not preventing the further practice, Touhou 18 achieves both a sense of nostalgia and fairness.

Boss encounters swiftly introduce new characters to grill for information and promptly beat down. They feature bombastic, thematic attacks that are fun to watch and terrifying to dodge. The character designs themselves look a bit goofy, but the art style has been ingrained into the game’s culture itself. The card art itself is drawn by the game creator’s wife and has a homemade fashion that contrasts enough to make it believable that a character within the game itself crafted it. The dialogue is sharp, presenting a quick conflict of interests that demonstrates each playable character’s tone.

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The most impactful change to the Touhou formula is the inclusion of the ability card shop. This rogue-like mechanic allows players to make meaningful decisions to change the way they play dynamically. Options such as Active cards introduce a new, rechargeable button to press. In contrast, Equipment and Passive cards provide bonuses, whether that be a direct increase in damage per second or a reward for playing in a certain manner.

The player may bring any three cards with them at the beginning of a new playthrough after the first purchase. Certain cards have synergy together, such as Great Tengu’s Barely Rice, which boosts power, and Spirit Power Sample Bottle, which relinquishes a power level to erase all bullets on screen. The option to create builds and the excitement of putting one together on the fly as you progress increases the replayability of a bullet hell game dramatically.

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Other than Active, Equipment, and Passive cards, some cards give immediate benefits, such as a bomb or a life. At the most extreme is the Phoenix’s Tail, which bestows three lives with no strings attached. Clearly, these are meant for players that would like to clear the game without using continues but do not have the experience to do so. While it initially seems like a breach of in-game balance, the choice is simply to ignore such cards for more interesting options.

Many of Touhou 18’s strong points differ from a standard arcade game, as well as its predecessors. The bullet hell genre, and by extension Touhou, has long been a paragon of video game difficulty. But with the inclusion of powerful tools to help less skilled players, Unconnected Marketeers has unparalleled accessibility to beginners of the genre.

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Other Touhou games attempt to remedy this by adding mechanics such as chasing power-ups, but those components simply replace one facet of skill with another. With currency raining down from simply defeating common enemies, even beginners can participate in the card collecting fun. At the same time, veteran players can afford the more expensive cards to build a cohesive strategy.

The main game is available to play in four difficulty settings, ranging from the relaxed, easy mode to the aptly-named lunatic mode. The normal difficulty should be enough to satisfy bullet hell enthusiasts, with easy mode having an acceptable incline for beginners.

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Further choices include which human character you play as which affects your shot type’s damage and special ability, and the efficacy of your bomb. These effects range from homing and spread shots to bombs that can completely blow away a boss’ HP bar. This also changes the dialogue between the bosses, as each playable character has a different motive to find the culprit behind the magical card trade.

Touhou 18 has several unlockables, such as a hidden ending, boldly releasing all of your ability cards right before the final boss. After a successful one no-continue run, a special card that features your character’s shot type becomes available, as well as an Extra mode featuring a lunatic-level boss. Between ability card builds, the different shot types and dialogue, and in-game secrets, longevity is at a premium here.

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Touhou 18: Unconnected Marketeers takes the usual side mechanic and uses it to transform the genre. Card collecting is addicting, and picking them up during a run is the facelift the bullet hell series needed. Utilizing the ability card system, both series veterans and beginners can enjoy the frenzied sidestepping and iconic, snarky characters that Touhou is known for.

Review copy purchased by outlet or reviewer

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