Touhou Luna Nights is Refreshing

I’m a fan of the Touhou series. I love series that are the pure, uninhibited vision of one person. Series where you can tell this is what they want to make. Touhou is one of the best examples of this. All of the main numbered games are the work of one man, ZUN, who does the art, music, story, and gameplay, and succeeds at all of them. It is genuinely impressive how much he’s managed to accomplish. I also like Touhou because of the things it has that appeals to me. It’s a series focused almost entirely on women (a rarity), with great LGBT representation (an even rarer sight), and a unique form of storytelling. Not only does Touhou have all of these things, it also has an amazing community of fan works, including, most important to this review, fangames. Touhou Luna Nights is one of these fangames, and it is a very good one at that. I had been eyeing the game for years, but it was only due to the release of the Switch version that I finally played it, and I am very glad I did.

Touhou Luna Nights is what most people would call a sidescrolling “Metroidvania”. Personally, I’ve never cared for the term, as it requires knowing what a Metroid and a Castlevania (and that Castlevania went a major genre shift after Iga took the helm) is to understand it, and most games that use it take inspiration exclusively from Metroid (Super Metroid, specifically), and not any of Iga’s Castlevania games. I bring this up because Touhou Luna Nights is, refreshingly, Castlevania inspired, in addition to Metroid. I find it’s easy for games to lose sight of what makes a Metroidvania fun, which is the reward that comes from finding an upgrade and utilizing it to find secrets and progress in previous areas. Touhou Luna Nights nails this perfectly, making going back rewarding. It’s small stuff, like health upgrades, magic upgrades, and other such minor boosts, but it works really well.

Speaking of working really well, everything about the game just works in a way that’s extremely satisfying to play. The spritework, music (the most important part of any Touhou game), and especially the gameplay all click. I found myself pressing buttons just to throw knives out without any real purpose besides that they were fun to use. The game is centered around Sakuya Izayoi, a maid for the vampire Remilia Scarlet who can stop time and uses knives as her primary weapon. As a result, the game feels built for her specific skill set. The plot is fairly minimal, but that’s okay because the main draw is that extremely fine tuned gameplay. You may wonder “how can you make engaging boss fights when the player can stop time?”, and the game answers this wonderfully by making fights that require careful use of your time gauge to properly dodge attacks. And speaking of dodging, Touhou Luna Nights also makes great use of Touhou series mechanics by incorporating graze into the game. Graze, in main series Touhou games, is when you just barely avoid a bullet, which usually confers a bonus of some kind. Touhou Luna Nights does the same thing, except in a sidescrolling platformer instead of a top down shooter. The time stop mechanic also integrates with graze in a very engaging way. You still get bonuses for grazing in stopped time, but they are reduced compared to when you do it in normal time flow. This means you’re rewarded for playing risky. The game is full of smart decisions like this, and the game is great for it.

A lot of the focus in this review has been on the combat gameplay, and that’s a good reason. This is one major influence Castlevania has on Touhou Luna Nights, the focus on combat. Some Metroidvanias treat combat as almost an afterthought, giving the player very limited tools and treating bosses almost as an obligation. Touhou Luna Nights does the opposite, and the bosses are the highlight of the game for this reason. In addition to the amazing remixes of classic Touhou music that plays during these fights, they’re engaging fights that test how well you can use your tools given. And oh boy, you have a lot of tools. You have your basic knives and time stop, but you also get a load of Castlevania-esque subweapons to use. The conjunction of these mechanics makes for a diverse and powerful moveset, while never being too overpowered (with only one exception you get near the end of the game).

Your moveset isn’t all you have, too. You also get upgrades (as is to be expected with a Metroidvania), RPG elements in the form of levelling up (yet another Castlevania influence), and a really interesting mechanic in the form of jewels. Jewels are what you get from enemies instead of money. If you want to, you can trade in these jewels to Nitori, the shopkeeper, in exchange for money to buy items, upgrades, and the like. What makes jewels interesting, though, is that they provide passive buffs for owning them, and they stack the more you own. Different jewels provide different buffs, as well, so you can sell specific jewels you don’t need as much as others. This makes a base mechanic like collecting money way more engaging, and it’s something I haven’t seen many other games do.

Touhou Luna Nights isn’t a perfect game, though. It is very short, especially for a Metroidvania, but whether that is a good thing or not is up to you. Personally, I find it really enjoyable that the game is so short, which makes it much more replayable than other games in the genre, but it is something to consider if you value length when purchasing a game. This will only bother Touhou fans, but the game is very focused on the sixth game in the series, Embodiment of Scarlet Devil. I like the cast of ESoD, and they’re fan favorites for a reason, but it is an unfortunate side effect of seeing them so much, that when they do show up it’s not that special. More characters from other games in the series would have been appreciated, even in just cameo roles. The biggest complaint I have, though, is with the final boss. It’s a two phase fight with no form of healing in between, making it much more of an endurance match than it needed to be. For the second phase I ended up abusing 1000 Knives (the previously mentioned overpowered ability) to end it quickly, instead of fighting normally, like I had done for all the previous bosses.

All in all, I consider Touhou Luna Nights to be worth your time on any platform it’s on. The Switch version is a near-flawless port, and the PC version is good as well. You don’t need any previous knowledge of the series to enjoy it, it’s a refreshing take on the Metroidvania genre with some of the best combat the genre has to offer, and the best part is the developers are making another game similar to it. Record of Lodoss War -Deedlit in Wonder Labrynth- is currently in Early Access on Steam, and I’ll be looking forward to it’s full release.