There was a period around the turn of the decade when Flash was the platform of choice for casual and low-budget gaming. it was a pretty great time, and you’d be surprised at the kind of quality games that came out of Flash development. As the indie development trend picked up, consoles began courting indies and Steam opened up its walled garden anyone who felt like calling themselves a game developer, though, the idea of making a game and giving it away for free lost a lot of its appeal.
Many games I’d have loved had they been free browser offerings will often now go for $20 or so; Touhou Double Focus is a great example of a game that feels like it’s a free browser or downloadable game from an earlier era, only now carrying a price tag from 2017.
When Aya and Momiji, a pair of tengu, are sucked into a mysterious book, they need to explore the strange world they’ve found themselves in to try and find a way out. This results in lots of exploration, battle and cameo appearances from the usual Touhou suspects. You don’t go into this kind of game expecting Shakespeare; you go into it expecting to see familiar characters, and on that front Double Focus delivers.
You’re able to switch between the tengu as you’d like, and you’ll often find yourself doing so since they have different specialties. In particular, Momiji tends to work better in close combat while Aya is more of a nimble, ranged character; suitable given that they’re a wolf and crow respectively. As you collect upgrades you’ll expand both characters’ repertoires, but the need to switch remains present throughout the game. Synergy between the two tends to be crucial to success.
Given that this is a Metroidvania focusing on switching between two characters, you wouldn’t go amiss in comparing Double Focus to something like Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin. This doesn’t quite reach the heights of a bona-fide Castlevania game, though. The controls feel a little loose and awkward and the game as a whole feels unduly difficult.
In particular, the game doesn’t have a whole lot of health restoration available, and dying sends you back to the hub world with your progress gone unless you turn on what could be considered a cheat option. This is brutal and came as a nasty surprise the first time I encountered it. When Double Focus works, switching between characters and using their specialties to block and dodge then counterattack feels great. When it doesn’t, it’s a little too punishing for what it is, but at least the game is relatively short at around five hours.
It’s also not too bad to look at. While the character animations are a little stiff, the game’s art is on par with what you’d expect from a Touhou game. The character design is as adorable as ever, in other words, and that even extends to the enemies. I’m especially fond of the knights whose helmets fall off to reveal that they’re actually just tiny girls in huge suits of armor. There’s some voice acting as well, though it’s all Japanese so I’m forced to assume it’s good!
Anyway, given that you’ll probably get Touhou Double Focus included as a bonus with a physical copy of Touhou Genso Wanderer, it’s difficult to be too down on it. Still, the idea of a solid Touhou Metroidvania is a good one and I’m left wishing that Double Focus had done a little more. It’s not exactly a bad game, but even in the halcyon days of Flash gaming where I wasn’t paying – or expected to pay – for this level of quality, I don’t know that it would have kept my attention for long.