Despite not having the branding in its English title, Azure Reflections is the latest Touhou Project spin-off to see a worldwide launch. Unlike many of the releases, which have ventured into different genres such as fighting games and 2D platformers, this one stays true to the series’ shoot ‘em up roots. There is one major difference, though, in that it’s a horizontal shooter rather than a vertical one and players can choose to shoot enemies from either the left or right side of the screen.
Many mainstays of the series’ all-female cast of characters return as bosses, although only three of them (the shrine maiden Reimu, the magician Marisa, and the ice fairy Cirno) are playable. Each of the protagonists bring slightly different statistics (such as item pick-up radius and movement speed) and attacks to the table. This adds a nice layer of nuance to be mastered beyond the actual bullet hell stages that make up Azure Reflections’ short story mode.
The actual levels are probably the most disappointing aspect of the game. They only take a few minutes to get through, and there’s not much enemy variety beyond a few floating magical tomes and fairies to blast away with magic attacks. Making matters worse is that there are only a handful of levels in the game, so it’s not even a matter of quantity over quality.
Each of Azure Reflections’ levels lead up to a boss fight, and these are definitely the highlight of the package. Every boss encounter is filled with tricky bullet hell patterns to memorize, and they ultimately require the player to use the shooter’s more unique mechanics to succeed. This includes using a special rush attack to absorb bullets and then use that energy to ultimately damage the boss once their shields are down. It’s a really satisfying sequence to pull off, and it ties together with the in-game spell card system, which serves as special attacks that can be a literal life saver due to the brief invincibility that comes with it.
While these boss fights are a challenge, defeating each character only takes a few minutes. Azure Reflections is a very short arcade-like experience that takes about an hour to finish, and any sort of value is ultimately determined by how much the player cares about additional difficulties (there are four total including an unlockable lunatic mode) and chasing high score leaderboards. There is a story that is different for each of the protagonists, but like other Touhou spin-offs it isn’t very memorable.
With there being so many great shoot ‘em ups available on consoles and PC, it becomes a difficult proposition for players to spend their time playing a rather middling one over and over again. Even though Azure Reflections has a colorful aesthetic, it doesn’t offer any sort of innovation in the genre. It’s not an experience that draws the player back in for more after the credits roll, even though there are a few quality of life additions such as unlockable accessories that have in-game effects tied to them (such as a smaller hitbox or autofire).
Considering how forgettable and few the stages are, the game would almost be better if it was just comprised of the boss fights. In its current state the few highlights are all padded between boring levels, and there aren’t enough of them to make Azure Reflections really worth playing. Unlike its contemporaries like the Raiden series, there aren’t dozens of paths to the story or reasons to really experiment. You’re just playing the same experience over and over, and there’s little enjoyment in that when the gameplay isn’t all that stellar to begin with.
Azure Reflections Review (PS4)
Game Reviewed on: PS4
Game description: Now on PlayStation®4: A side-scrolling bullet hell fangame based on one of the hottest shooting game series to come out of Japan, the Touhou Project!
While fundamentally sound, Azure Reflections struggles to truly captivate players due to its disappointingly short levels. The enjoyable boss fights and a cute aesthetic manage to salvage the experience for those that love a good shoot ‘em up, but it’s far from an essential offering within the genre.