I imagine many of you are reading this review with a working knowledge of the Touhou Project bullet hell game series and its various spinoffs. I don’t have that knowledge, and I’ll apologize for that up front.
Touhou Spell Bubble is the latest spinoff. As it’s my first game from the project, I’m not familiar with the characters or lore. Thankfully, I didn’t have to be. Although they’re introduced as if we should already know them, the story is mostly confined within the game. Basically, a few of the characters have created a new gaming console that’s taking the world by storm. Sound familiar? The currently trending game is called Spell Bubble, and we follow a shrine maiden named Reimu as she suspiciously dabbles with it, but soon finds herself participating in a tournament.
It’s light stuff, and although the story does branch beyond its initial premise both within the main campaign and via DLC, it remains goofy fun. This is important because Touhou Spell Bubble contains an awful lot of dialogue for a bubble popper.
Of course, you don’t have to work through the story if you prefer action over narrative. Touhou Spell Bubble also contains a Challenge Mode that puts you right into battles against strong enemies. Multiplayer is offered up via Battle Mode, and you’re likely to spend an awful lot of time there if you’ve got someone nearby to play with. Unfortunately, there’s no online option here.
The gameplay itself is helpfully explained via tutorials in story mode. At its most basic, you’re firing colored balls up into a field of bubbles in order to create strings of a single color. Connect three or more, and the bubbles disappear. Clearing the screen is not your end goal, however. Clearing large numbers with a single shot adds a rhythm component in which you must tap the button when rings collapse upon the bubbles. It’s easy, but fun.
The goal here is to fill up your opponent’s playing field with debris so that the bubbles reach the bottom. When that happens, you get points for the number of bubbles that were available on the screen. But even in defense, there’s strategy. Sometimes, getting a lot of bubbles on your side is helpful because it allows you to clear out more in a single shot. Each character you meet (and can then play as) also has special Spell Cards that you can play after a set amount of time, and using these will become key to gaining the advantage. There were numerous times when I thought my character’s Spell Cards were completely useless until they enabled me to snatch victory from the draws of defeat. Likewise, I couldn’t get past certain challengers until I took them on with the right character.
The gameplay and its required strategies are a bit more complex than what I’ve laid out here, and it can be overwhelming at first. I found myself at a loss after putting a couple days between the tutorials and my next gaming session, having forgotten the strategies required to stay on top of things. I decided to start over, and was then able to get a better grasp of how to advance. If you think you’re just going to get lucky popping bubbles, think again. There are numerous elements to master here. And considering each character has different abilities, it becomes quite fun to play as each of them as they’re unlocked. It’s also fun to see the girls’ personalities permeate the gameplay.
But the fun doesn’t stop there. Because there’s a rhythm component, you know there has to be music, too. In this case, it’s mostly synth-based J-Pop stuff from Touhou Project. 48 tracks, to be exact. The high-energy music melds perfectly with the upbeat action, and levels don’t end until the songs do. Whoever has the most points when the song finishes is declared the winner. A timer counts down to the end, and the game becomes wonderfully hectic as you’re trying to score those final points before you reach zero.
This all combines into an explosive mix of audio, action and color that’s quite infectious. Multiplayer is certainly the way to go if you’re able to engage with a friend or family member on the TV. However, the various solo modes and difficulty levels make Handheld play a nice diversion when you’re on the go.
My only real issue with the game is its asking price. I won’t say Touhou Spell Bubble is not worth $54.99, but simply that similar titles are available for much less if you’re only after the core gameplay. That price tag is especially problematic when Taito also wants $9.99 for each of the three available DLC packs, all of which provide six additional songs and challenge stages.
Is it all worth it? There’s certainly enough built-in gameplay to make it so, and it’s addictive enough to keep even Touhou Project dilettantes entertained for a while. But if you’re not a serious fan of bubble poppers, approach this purchase with caution (or wait for a sale).