Platform: Nintendo Switch (eShop)
Category: Action, Multiplayer & Other
Release Date: November 29, 2018 (EU & NA)
If you’ve read my Touhou Kobuto V: Burst Battle review, you know that my only previous experience with this series and its bizarre arrangement allowing fans to create their own spin-offs for consoles was not a positive one. Gensokyo Defenders initially looked to follow in its predecessor’s footsteps with cheap visuals, a questionable translation, and yet another attempt to translate Touhou‘s anime girls and shmup gameplay into a new genre, but what I got was entirely unexpected.
Gensokyo Defenders is as much a twin-stick shooter as it is a tower defense game. Each of the game’s levels is broken up into waves, and each wave has two phases. In the Trap phase, you spend gold earned by killing enemies to purchase traps that can be placed in a variety of spots around the map. As with many tower defense games, you start off with some useful all-purpose traps and gain more specialized ones as time goes on. You’ll frequently stick with inexpensive mainstays like the flower bed that slows enemies and the watchtower that fires arrows at them, but you’ll occasionally want to try out some more pricier traps like a gaping void that returns enemies to the start of the map, or a swirling cherry blossom that deals continuous damage to nearby enemies.
There are also one-time use traps like the explosive Mini-Hakkero or the stunning Spider Web. They’re very low-cost compared to traps that stick around, but once they’re gone, they’re gone. They also can’t be sold like normal traps, and selling is a very handy feature when you want to mobilize your forces in a different part of the map. Selling traps gives you back as much gold as you paid for them, so there’s no need to worry about accidental spending or placement .
Traps alone won’t do the job however, so you’ll need to spring into action during the Attack phase. As hordes enemies march towards your base (represented by a glowing blue circle), you must fend them off using your basic projectile attack, as well as two spell cards with effects unique to each character. Spell cards are special abilities that generally prove to be more potent than your basic attack, but they tap into your MP supply that recharges very slowly, so you’ll have to make careful use of them.
You also have a Last Word – essentially a last-resort super move that you can pull off by killing enemies and filling up your Last Word meter. Finally, each of these four attacks can be leveled up to do more damage by picking up color-changing UFOs (ala Twinbee’s bells) that are randomly dropped by enemies during the stage.
The enemy variety in each map isn’t terribly large in terms of unique models (prepare to shoot down a lot of fairies and floating orbs), but the game does a good job of introducing new recolor variants to keep you on your toes. There are fairies that elegantly float towards the base, fairies who forgo dignity and make a mad dash to catch you off guard, fairies who will stop to shoot at you, fairies who can fly over gaps, and big Cavalry fairies who ignore the base and seek only to hunt you down, just to name a few. Most battles also end in a boss fight against another Touhou character. Defeat them to end the match, but let them reach your base and your efforts will have been for nothing.
Initially you start off mainly playing as Cirno, an ice fairy who does respectable damage with her projectiles and freezes her enemies in their tracks with her spell cards. She serves as a nice introduction to the mechanics, but after a few levels you slowly begin to amass a collection of 17 unique characters who all have their own play-styles. The cat-like Rin starts with no MP, but can use her unlimited first spell card to chomp opponents and gain enough MP to spawn zombie fairies that fight alongside her, while the maid Sakuya places emphasis on traps with her spells that instantly reset trap reload times and push enemies backwards into them. My personal favorite ended up being the sword-wielding Youmu, who skips projectiles in favor of swift speed and melee attacks.
One of the most creative examples is the trio of Sunny, Luna, and Star, collectively known as the Fairies of Light. When selected, all three are present on the map but you can only control one at a time while the other two stand still and auto-fire at enemies, so one of their spell cards is dedicated to switching between fairies while the other gathers them all to the same spot and gives you a brief boost to your firepower. There’s a catch though – your fairies all share the same health pool, so you can’t leave your stationary fairies alone for too long.
Some of the characters aren’t as great as others – for example, Mokou’s gimmick of sapping the base’s HP to restore her own seems a bit counter-intuitive to the goal of keeping your base at full health to earn a three-star ranking, and Shinmyoumaru’s ability to build tiny walls is pretty situational compared to some of the zanier powers on offer – but on the whole the cast is a lot of fun to play, even when they’re not the most effective choice.
There is a story to the game in the form of voiced visual novel-style cut-scenes before and after each fight, but I ended up skipping them after 10 levels or so. The localization is a very literal translation of the original Japanese text, so characters have odd and overly explanatory dialogue that honestly isn’t that essential or entertaining outside of a few assorted moments. Developer Neetpia clearly focused on gameplay first and story second, so let it suffice to say that the paper-thin plot involves Cirno attempting to prove that she’s the strongest and most amazing by thrashing everyone else in “war games”, and (spoilers) she proceeds to do so.
Gensokyo Defenders offers 23 levels to beat, plus a 3-level mini-campaign exclusively starring the Fairies of Light that features level design more suited to their gimmick. Early levels start off pretty basic, but later levels can get pretty devious and will require a lot of dashing back and forth to take care of enemies spawning on the other side of the map. Some of the coolest stages come near the end – the final battle in particular, caught me off guard, as it does a bit of a genre shift that came out of nowhere. It wasn’t an especially challenging final level since there’s an obvious way you can cheese it… but it was still cool!
Even after you beat the campaign, there’s loads of extra playtime to be had thanks to the multiple difficulty settings. The game starts you off on Normal, but it’s prudent to go back and start over on Easy as soon as it’s unlocked due to how the upgrade system works. Each stage has a three star ranking system, and each star corresponds to an upgrade point. If you want all three stars, you’ll have to keep your base from being attacked even once, and if you want all the upgrade points, you’ll need to do so on every difficulty – and trust me, you want all the upgrade points if you’re going to take on Hard mode.
Points can be spent upgrading both your characters and traps. For example, you can increase your character’s MP, give the base a one-time shield each wave, or lower your respawn time after death. Trap upgrades offer things like faster reset times, lower gold costs, or longer range. Should you change your mind about an upgrade, you can take back your points at any time to spend them on something else.
At first, this system is a bit difficult to use due to the overly cheap UI, as when you purchase an upgrade for a character or trap, there is no clear indication that you’ve even done so. The only way to tell that you’ve bought something is to see how many points it costs to purchase the next upgrade, as the price increases with each upgrade you buy. However, it eventually becomes second nature, and the game encourages you to move your points around frequently based on which traps you currently want to use. The upgrade system offers a lot of freedom and, combined with the large cast of playable characters, lets you constantly adjust your playstyle to whatever suits your mood.
The game has an online multiplayer mode where you can play any level in co-op, and the game actively encourages you to try it once you unlock Hard mode in case you find any of the levels to be too tough. Unfortunately, since this is an incredibly niche Touhou fan game, don’t expect to find anyone else online. I repeatedly attempted to search for other players and only managed to find a single other person… on the Japan server… in a password-locked room. This game is too fun to have such a dead online community just days after its release. Spread the word, people! I was able to convince a friend to play with me however, and I can confirm that online works wonderfully. You and your co-op buddy can select your own traps but share a gold supply, and enemies have a bit more health to keep things from being a pushover.
Though it’s pretty obvious from the screenshots, I might as well mention that Gensokyo Defenders‘ rough visuals aren’t going to win any awards, but are a product of the obvious low budget and honestly look fine for what the game is trying to be. The soundtrack is also surprisingly decent – it’s unlikely that you’ll remember any of the tunes once you’re done playing (aside from the light and catchy theme that plays during the Trap phase), but the songs all perfectly fit the mood of each stage and provide exactly the kind of ambiance the levels require.
I’ve played a lot of tower defense games, but Gensokyo Defenders has managed to be my favorite. It’s got an addictive, almost Musou-like quality to the simple combat, while also having enough depth through trap placement and MP management to keep things slightly cerebral. If you have any interest in tower defense, twin-stick shooters, or just plain excellent games in general, don’t miss out on this.
THE VERDICT: 9/10
*Review Key Provided by UNTIES
Should you wish to check out another of our reviews, you can do so by clicking here.