Indie Review: Touhou Defense Force (PC)

We're still fighting the good fight for the Earth Defence Force here at RetroCollect, but it's time for something different- an indie/doujin title that mixes the rampant destruction of EDF with... Witches and shrine maidens. No, wait, come back!

Developed by Hachimitsu Kumasan and released for PCs in 2009 (er, we think), Touhou Defense Force is a cross between EDF and the Touhou universe, from a cult series of bullet hell shoot-em-ups made by one man, the enigmatic ZUN. The games are set in the mystic land of Gensokyo, home to about a billion girls with ridiculous clothes and even more ridiculous headgear, who throw colourful bullets at each other. They're pretty good, really, with Imperishable Night and Perfect Cherry Blossom being excellent shmups. Such is their popularity in certain gaming circles (mostly the crazy ones) that fan-developed games are common, crossing these characters over with pretty much any game you can imagine. Mario & Wario? There's a Touhou version, called MariAri. Megaman? That'll be MegaMari, then. Seicross? Seriously, Touhou Seicross is a thing that exists. And so, we have Touhou Defense Force. The Gigantors/Ravagers/whatever they're called this week have apparently become bored with Earth, so decide to have a pop at Gensokyo. Unbeknownst to them, chief shrine maiden and all-around ass-kicker Reimu Hakurei has rallied her friends, including reclusive bookworm Patchouli Knowledge and ice fairy Cirno, to defend their realm against this horde to the last man. Or girl. They must destroy all aliens and take back their land!

It's my duty to defeat this Gigantor threat!

With its 2D graphics and perspective, the game has more in common with Commando-style arcade shooters than EDF itself. The most apt comparison is with Atari's Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters as they both have the same isometric view, although this has none of EPROM's weird crouching/jumping nonsense. The basics are the same as EDF- you have two weapons and an evasive roll (which is more like a dash- it's a bit fiddly) so get crackin'- but there's a few additions. The most important one by far is the magic system- similar to the Pale Wing's energy meter from GDF, using your weapons exhausts magic which recharges when not in use or if you pick up green icons, but when it goes too low, your girl slows down immensely while it charges back up. I'm really not kidding when I say if you're going to die at all in TDF, it's because you weren't watching your magic meter and got caught short with a giant red ant on your tail- it adds a lot of difficulty to proceedings, making you play each stage very carefully, and aside from the overwhelming enemy numbers, is the main element that makes the game worth playing! Also, you can lock your aim with the Hold button, allowing you to cover yourself a bit while moving. It's a fair compromise between no aim-lock like Alien Syndrome and total freedom as with Smash T.V., and is complimented by the level designs- rather than the open playgrounds of EDF, TDF's missions are more maze-like, using buildings and obstacles to obstruct your path (fortunately, they can be overcome by blowing them to bits), and this feeling of claustrophobia is heightened by the fact that Gigantors can now hurt you just by touching you. Often you'll find yourself being chased by Gigantors down narrow paths, which is where the aim-lock comes in handy!

While the game can't replicate the scale of the battles in the real EDF series, it tries its best and works with what it has. You can still blow up buildings (although they're best used to block off Gigantors to buy some time) and the enemy still attacks in vicious numbers. Surprisingly, there's a few original enemies too, such as dung-throwing beetles and electric eels with nasty spread-fire attacks, which add in a nice bit of variety... Which it really, really needs. Probably the biggest gripe I have with the game is that, while there's plenty of different environments (including an ice stage, of course) there's a lack of different mission types. While EDF isn't known for giving you wildly different things to do on each stage, it mixes it up where it can- there's the insect hole stages, UFO encounters, recurring bosses, etc. Touhou Defense Force doesn't have any of that- it's all seek-and-destroy and there's only one boss UFO (the final one) which means the game gets tiring quicker than EDF. The level design itself is a bit iffy in places too- new enemy waves can spawn on top of you if you're not careful which is basically instant death, and some stages frog-march you in one direction, then make you go all the way back. The game just about gets away with these problems though, because the mechanics are spot-on- it's got a nice pace to it, the magic meter offers a decent challenge but it's certainly doable with the right weapons and tactics, and it hits the right notes, specifically the notes of 'we're gonna blow all these aliens sky-high, yyyyeeeaaaaahhhh!'

There certainly are strange people in Gensokyo.

The really important part of the game is the weapons and character system, though- rather than having a choice of Infantry or Pale Wing, you start with Reimu and Marisa but will eventually have eight characters available, all with their own weapon sets (around 12-16 each) and walking speeds. In a nice touch, their attacks are modelled around their personality/fighting style from the Touhou games- martial artist Meiling has close-quarters attacks, chief maid Sakuya has time-stopping abilities and knife projectiles, and so on. Naturally, the stronger weapons are totally insane, cutting through the Gigantor masses like a hot knife through butter- very satisfying! The differences between them aren't to the same degree as those between Infantry and Pale Wing in GDF (there are a few weapons  that characters share) but it still offers some variety. Another change is the weapon unlocking system- gone are the random drops, replaced with an RPG-style level-up system, with your max HP, Magic and available weapons increasing as your EXP goes up. The smaller weapon count and new unlocking system is both a blessing and a curse- while it means characters have more 'unique' weapons (such as Reimu's bomb attack) and there's no more grinding specifically for weapon drops, it also means that they can unlock their best weapons pretty quickly, reducing the difficulty greatly (once I unlocked Marisa's blue laser, about halfway through Normal, I was able to tear through the game with ease... As long as I kept an eye on her magic meter).

Speaking of grinding, it's an EDF tradition by this point, so of course you'll need to grind a little to beat every difficulty setting, but TDF tries to handle it as best it can- you earn EXP whether you beat a level or not, unlike EDF where you lose any armour and weapons you picked up on death, and beating stages on Hard and Lunatic (TDF's version of Inferno) difficulties gives you huge EXP boosts. You'd be surprised at how soon some of the characters can take on Lunatic stages when they unlock a decent weapon! The grinding still isn't ideal, though, especially because of the lack of mission variety, and even worse, because of their starting weapons, some characters (Meiling, Patchouli and Flandre) have to grind more than others (Cirno, Remilia and Marisa) early in the game, never a problem in GDF. However, at the very least you won't need to bring a co-op buddy along if you want to beat every stage on every difficulty... Mostly because there is no co-op . In a real EDF game, this would be a hanging offense for the developers (fun fact, Insect Armageddon nearly didn't have split-screen co-op!), but considering the massively powerful weapons the girls are packing and the cramped nature of the stages, it probably wouldn't have worked very well as you'd be killing each other every five minutes. I think I'll let Hachimitsu Kumasan off, this time.

Touhou Defense Force Gameplay Footage

Oh! So this is Gigantor hunting! ... This is kind of fun.

There's two ways to look at Touhou Defense Force- first, as an adaptation of the EDF series, and then as a Commando-style shooter on its own. On the first count, while it still shares some of EDF's problems (grinding!) and even introduces a few of its own (lack of mission variety, sticky dash/roll controls), it manages to capture the chaotic feel of its inspiration (although not the downbeat tone), to the point where if you replaced all the girls with EDF troopers, you could probably see this as a 90s arcade EDF title (no, not that arcade EDF!). The only other things to let it down on that end are the music (which, while remixed from various Touhou games, have poor instrumentation that makes them sound alike, and none of them are a patch on the EDF march) and, perhaps, the awkward juxstaposition of a girl in a frilly witch outfit fighting giant spiders.

On its own merits as a Commando shooter, it's one of the more unique examples- the isometric arcade shooter is one that's not attempted that often (EPROM and Prikura Daisakusen are the best examples) and even then it's not easy to pull off (hello, Firo and Klawd!). TDF manages it, in spite of some of its issues, because of its fast pace, ludicrous weaponry and above all, that magic meter, which gives it a real edge (in fact, it'd probably be too easy without it!). Throw in the short-but-sweet stages and character variety, and you have a great if flawed Commando-style shooter that, much like EDF, is really ideal to just dip into for a few rounds when you have that urge to destroy some alien scum. Even if, in this particular game, you're doing it as an ice fairy, or a tiny vampire, or...



... Incidentally, it plays like a dream with the Street Fighter IV TE fight stick.



Please note: The game is in Japanese, but is easy to fumble through. Also, the box spells Touhou as Toho- both spellings are correct, but Touhou is more common. Finally, please don't post a link to download this game in the comments- find it yourself, if you must. Perhaps the official site might help you, somehow?  Alternatively, you might want to actually buy a copy- last time we checked, JBOX had a few copies left, going for about £20 including postage. Kinda steep, but you'll sleep better at night, won't you?


Last Updated ( 13 February 2013 )  

Tepid Snake

Wait, what do I put in this box again? Oh, it's about me. I like playing weird and unusual games- the sort you're likely to forget about- and I hope you like reading about them because they're what I write about. And game trivia too. Please look forward to it!

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