Title: Touhou Spell Bubble
Release Date: October 29, 2020
Reviewed On: Switch
Genre: Puzzle Action
Touhou Spell Bubble is a puzzle game with a clear, derivative inspiration from the Puzzle Bobble series. The objective remains the same, clear bubbles from the top of the screen by pairing three or more of the same color. However, Touhou Spell Bubble has its own flair of mechanics reminiscent of its home series that exudes a different feel from other games in its genre.
Touhou Spell Bubble’s main differences lie in its Spell Card system and the addition of a rhythm mechanic. Each stage lasts three to four minutes, with the rate at which you can shoot bubbles depending on the BPM of the song. This gives the incentive to try all kinds of songs since they offer a different speed of play.
The other aspect of Spell Cards makes for a more head-to-head fight, as each character has a unique power that can change the tide of battle. In that sense, the game feels more engaging when on the offensive than titles like Tetris, where the only interaction you have with your opponent is to complete your puzzle. The gameplay gets a bit more complicated than this, with field effects and special bubbles appearing from time to time, but there isn’t anything a beginner won’t pick up on after a few rounds.
With the matches being so long, it would be discouraging if your board filling up with bubbles resulted in immediate defeat. Instead, you receive a short penalty of having to clear a board filled with unusable rock pieces. This was a pleasant surprise, leaving games open to comebacks and letting beginners continue to play even when they make a mistake.
The feature gameplay of “bubble popping” has a clear audience, with its addictive yet straightforward gameplay. While the music-based shooting tempo is interesting, it isn’t an incredible innovation to the genre. It is not beating Tetris or Puyo Puyo in direct comparison. Still, Spell Bubble offers a rare look into the Touhou series for those who are scared off by the hectic nature of its Danmaku dodging counterpart.
Touhou Spell Bubble’s first song is “Bad Apple!!,” closely followed up with “Marisa Stole the Precious Thing.” These songs are iconic to both Touhou and internet culture, bridging the gap between the two in an easily accessible manner.
The game’s story is low impact with a few Touhou plot references, so it is painless to get into the humorous tournament arc between Gensokyo’s residents. The short, VN-style conversations between characters show their personalities, while their Spell Cards provide hints at their powers.
Given that this is not developed by ZUN or Team Shanghai Alice, Touhou’s original creators, but rather, Taito, you can be assured of its quality as a bubble puzzler, considering they created the original iteration of Puzzle Bobble. Touhou games are often created using ZUN’s original characters, and they are allowed to do so, but it is not often that a game gets direct approval from him. As a fan of either game series, these seals of quality are the best that you can get.
The song selection does not stop at Touhou songs that are present in popular media. For more invested fans, Touhou Spell Bubble is a who’s who of fan work circles, from creators such as A-One, IOSYS, and Akatsuki Records. They will find the pleasant voice acting and bright art style to be a fresh rendition of the residents of Gensokyo.
For those who are new to Touhou, the often sarcastic, ridiculous dialogue flows pleasantly, and it is clear that these characters have more depth and storied backgrounds than just what this game offers. This makes Spell Bubble worth it if you are interested in learning about Touhou at a less breakneck speed.
By default, the Story mode begins on the “Normal” difficulty. This can be lowered to easy, and later on, Hard and Lunatic mode becomes available. The difference between difficulty modes is the beat timing and the intensity of the opponents. By the end of the campaign, the normal difficulty felt just right, as the difficulty ramps on par with their “power” within the series.
Your incentive to continue playing comes in collectible songs and Spell Cards for the unlockable characters to use in battle. You gain about 300 in-game currency for each completed battle, with the items being worth 500 to 1,000, which is an acceptable pace of achievement. There is a Challenge Mode, which asks you to defeat an enemy character. While it is a way to broaden a player’s playstyle, it does not add much in terms of content that was not already available.
Finally, there is Battle Mode, which allows you and one other player to fight against each other. This is where the majority of the replay value lies. Playing against a CPU can be fun, as with many other puzzle games, but with Spell Bubble’s battle-oriented Spell Card system, mixing and matching the effects of spells against each other is more interesting when applied with a real person’s logic and skill. That is why the absence of a wireless mode is quite unfortunate, especially when it is standard for similar puzzle games.
For veterans of the Touhou series, Touhou Spell Bubble is a no-brainer. Voice acting, pulchritudinous artwork, and a side story featuring Touhou’s main characters will be sure to please. For newcomers, this is a great way to learn about the setting in a bite-sized adventure.
There are three to four hours of gameplay within the main campaign, with an additional story afterward. So, in addition to wanting to learn about Touhou, it would be advisable to have a friend who would enjoy duking it out with you, lest the game collects dust once the story is over. Overall, Touhou Spell Bubble aims for a specific demographic and does that very well.
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