Things are looking up for the Touhou franchise this year with the release of not one but three different Touhou fan games for the PS4 and Vita via Sony's Play Doujin! program, which allows for the publication of Japanese indie games on Sony hardware. Bullet Ballet is the first such title to make its way to American shores and is something of an oddity. While most Touhou games are straight-up top-down shooters, albeit ones that replace spaceships and warplanes with cute girls, Bullet Ballet is instead a one-on-one vs game that uses mechanics from the series to pit players against each other to see who can shoot down the other first.
Before we move on, a bit of context for those not familiar with Touhou as a franchise; Touhou as a series has had a cult following for years, but has largely been ignored by the mainstream. Part of the reason for this is that every game in the series has been released only in Japan until last year's Double Dealing Character. The 14th game in the main Touhou series was via Playism's website, but the game garnered little fanfare, most likely because it wasn't translated into English. Even though a fan patch exists, the game was left to be enjoyed primarily by its already established fans.
Bullet Ballet's combat is fairly simple. Players are placed in a square arena in which they can move in 360 degrees of direction and are armed with three kinds of attacks. The main weapon shoots a stream of fast bullets at the enemy, sub weapons have a unique effect depending on who you are playing as, and charge weapons are more powerful attacks that use up the meter found below the player's health.
Each of these three attacks can then be modified by employing them either during slow movement, a state that allows for more accurate dodging, and dashing, which causes a character to move quickly in the current direction they are facing. On top of these basics, players can also access a Spell Attack by consuming all of their charge gauge and one "Bomb" item in exchange to turn the playing field into a traditional Touhou boss fight with the player using the spell as the boss and the opponent as the player attempting to stop them. By utilizing all of these attacks, players must reduce their foe's health to zero in a best of three fight, much like those found in fighting games such as Street Fighter or Blaze Blue,
The fights in Bullet Ballet are best described as frantic. Between both players the screen is more often than not filled with dozens of bullets, lasers, and other attacks that resemble a fireworks display at times. Dodging these attacks is as much an art as it is in the mainline Touhou games. It takes great skill to move, dodge, and fire at the same time, and you must achieve this if you hope to win against experienced players or high-level computer opponents. While Bullet Ballet is difficult and often hard to grasp as a game, it is also a rewarding one that produces tense and fun gameplay that is varied despite its relatively small roster of characters. The game also manages to be fun and replayable far beyond when you've finished every character's story mode and optional content such as the arcade mode or boss rush, in that it is a game you can drag out and play for a few hours with friends even after you've beaten the rest of the single player game's content.
Bullet Ballet is a good representative of its series, but it is also a very flawed game in terms of its lack of content and unpolished look and feel. Being that this is an indie game of sorts, one has to expect it to be a little rough around the edges, but Bullet Ballet offers a worthwhile experience that is lacking in options. For example, the game only has five stages and ten pieces of background music, which can lead to battles looking repetitive when you are forced to fight on the same stage and listen to the same music over and over. This is coupled with a mere ten characters drawn primarily from early Touhou titles (though Okuu from Touhou 11 is present over more popular characters for some odd reason), which only helps to shed light on what little variety Bullet Ballet has to offer. Sometime after launch two more characters, Flandre Scarlet and Yukari Yakumo, will join the playable cast via paid DLC alongside their respective theme music, but as of writing there really are could be more characters here.
As for the fighting itself, Bullet Ballet does a fairly good job at balancing its characters, but some feel much more powerful than others to such a degree that they feel useless. This is especially true of ghost princess Yuyuko, whose pretty butterfly themed bullets seem to flutter about the screen with no real chance of hitting the enemy. This combined with Yuyuko's complete lack of any real high damage dealing attacks make her feel weak in a game that is otherwise balanced. On the other end of the spectrum is Okuu, whose sun themed attacks generate huge projectiles that are difficult to dodge when spammed and deal large amounts of damage when they connect.
In all, Bullet Ballet is a game that does a good job of adapting the basic Touhou gameplay to a competitive setting and manages to create something of a casual game that is more in the league of something like Super Smash Bros than a traditional fighting game. However, with its lack of features, stages, and music, it can become a monotonous experience as well., Due to this fact, Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet mostly caters to the franchise's niche fanbase, but that doesn't mean that it can's be enjoyed by outsiders as well.
Touhou Genso Rondo Bullet Ballet is a game that successfully takes Touhou's gameplay and turns it into a two player game that is fun to play and has depth to boot. However, its lack of variety and features put a minor damper on an otherwise good experience.