Bullethell, Danmaku, Curtain Fire. These are all titles explaining a very niche subgenre of shooters that fill your entire screen with bullets – and death! These games are rough, or should be rough, meaning it’s a genre that should live to its name and description. Despite all this, there’s a certain appeal to them that’s difficult to explain to outsiders. It could have something to do with their overwhelming nature, or the feeling what’s happening onscreen seems impossible to finish. Perhaps it’s the absurd difficulty that requires a forethought of what to expect from the levels and patterns.
Who knows why we’re such gluttons for punishment in our video games but it’s certainly a thing that has been around for ages. One such game is Azure Reflections, a “fangame” title based off the long-established Touhou Project series of sexy anime girls and yōkai demons from the one-man developer known Team Shanghai Alice. I’m not joking about the solo thing – the Touhou series even earned a spot in the Guinness World Record book for being the “most prolific fan-made shooter series.”
These games have been since 1996 and I’ve somehow avoided all of them. My main bullethell game was Treasure’s Ikaruga and it was always a fascinating thing to witness. Knowing now that there are over 20+ games in the main Touhou series I’m excited to go back and take a better look all thanks to my experience with Azure Reflections.
So how does Azure Reflections set itself apart? For starters, it looks wonderful. The bright colors and designs of the weapon fire is entrancing albeit intensely overwhelming, and the familiar look of the Touhou franchise is on full display. It’s a shame these games have you staring primarily at your character as you try to dodge oppose to everything else but that’s usually an inherent design flaw found in the subgenre.
Unfortunately there’s a lot of confusion even amongst the confusion. While dodging through the waves of bullets you’ll also find yourself shooting down and killing enemies. With each kill, the enemies will give little tokens to collect. Your brain may not process them within the frantic and often chaotic action the first time through, but with patience – and experience – learning to scout them out effectively will give you major advantages.
Speaking of learning, the ability to dodge the bullets is marred slightly by the size your character. It takes a little time to “master”, but the relationship between hitbox and character seems wildly disconnected. Bullethell games require pixel-perfection and when you have a very specific hitbox, in this case your waistline, it’s jarring to have a bullet fly right into your face without the game registering that as a hit. This can be remedied by turning on a visual hitbox (a heart) to help you see exactly what to avoid but they could have done better to just make your character a bit smaller to help you weave through the waves of projectiles without the weird clipping.
With everything going on I found myself forgetting early on about all the mechanics. The short tutorial explained the things I needed to know, but as soon as the hellfire started I forgot most of it and then died frequently. It wasn’t until I took a breath and remembered simple things like being able to slow the movement down with L-button to “expertly” maneuver through the chaos. It’s always possible to cheese your way through a game without using all its mechanics, but Azure Reflections seems to really enforce you to use them. Almost requires it, actually.
Something I noticed early on is that there’s nothing wrong with setting a game to easy (at least that’s what I tell myself) It’s always easy to set pride over all else and keep dying but there’s something to be said about taking a step down to really hone your skills and then work your way forward since even easy can prove to be challenging.
Death isn’t immediate. Get hit once and you’re essentially stunned, but get hit again and you die. Die a few times and say goodbye to your continues. Use up all your continues and you’ll get to experience the game all over again, right from the beginning. Yes, its old-school difficulty that we’re talking here, something modern gamers may need to adjust their frequencies to before the controller goes right out the window.
If you’re looking for a crazy experience and don’t mind dying a few (hundred) times, give Azure Reflections a try. Fans of the Touhou Project series will be right at home here, for all the right – and wrong – reasons, though hardcore bullethell fans should find plenty of colorful chaos to keep them happy as well. I played the Nintendo Switch version, which seemed like a perfect fit for a game like this, though it’s also available on the PlayStation Store. Either way, get ready for lots of grin and rage-inducing death – that you’ll probably love!