Indie developers have continued to raise the bar with Metroidvania games. Recently, it was Dead Cells that blew away critics and fans with its smart game design. With this in mind, how do we approach new entries in the genre going forward? Should they all be held to such high standards? While you ponder that, let's talk about the newest competitor, Touhou Luna Nights.
Touhou Luna Nights is a 2D Metroidvania that is currently in Steam Early Access. It’s a fan-game based off Touhou, a franchise known for its bullet hell games. This game uses characters from the franchise but with an original scenario. Truth be told, you don’t have to be a fan of Touhou to enjoy this game.
In many regards, this is a standard Metroidvania. You explore an interconnected world while fighting enemies, solving puzzles and gaining new powers. At the moment the first three stages of the game are available to play. If that isn’t enough content to justify an early purchase, then you should wait for the full release. Now, let’s break down the pros and cons of Touhou Luna Nights.
Excellent Controls - For a product in development, this game controls surprisingly well. In this regard, it plays like a finished product. Your basic attack is a short-ranged dagger throw. This differentiates it from other games like Metroid and Hollow Knight. You also have some other standard movement options like sliding. No wall jumping though, which is a shame.
Overall, Touhou Luna Nights is a fast-paced experience. You have constant forward momentum and there’s an emphasis on twitch reflexes. This plays similar to Mega Man X and other games of that nature. It’s a different style of gameplay than the precise and deliberate Metroid games. The level design complements this style and encourages you to play aggressively. Enemy placement is generally fair and is a proper obstacle to your progression.
Freeze Time With Style - Your character, (a girl called Sakuya) has time manipulation powers. You can temporarily slow or stop time. Stopping time drains your “time bar” so you have to use it sparingly. It’s a great mechanic that has potential in combat and puzzle solving. For example, stopping time allows you to walk on water. I’m not sure how that works out scientifically, but it’s still awesome. The time powers are balanced and don’t make you overpowered during fights.
The "time bar" depletes fairly quickly so you can't waste it. It refills automatically and at a steady rate. It's pretty much always ready to use when you need it. Certain obstacles temporarily disable the use of this power. These make for some tight platforming sections where you have to avoid getting hit. This is the defining feature of Touhou Luna Nights that makes it different from every other 2D platformer on the market.
Colorful Pixel Graphics - The art style of Touhou Luna Nights is appealing and easy on the eyes. I’m a huge fan of color in games and this is one delivers. Yes, it’s another pixel game. That’s not a reason to skip over it though. Retro-styled graphics are constantly improving and looking better. Earlier this year we had the stunning visuals Dead Cells, and Touhou Luna Nights is almost as good. Hopefully, this trend of excellent pixel graphics continues well into the future.
Promising Boss Fights - The first boss fight is a one-on-one duel, and it’s awesome. A great boss tests the skill of the player while providing a challenging battle. Touhou Luna Nights manages to do exactly that. You have to use all of your abilities and skill to overcome the boss. The first boss is surprisingly harder than you’d expect. It strikes a perfect balance between difficulty and fairness. The expectation is that the newer bosses continue to increase in complexity and become more demanding. If Touhou Luna Nights can do this, then it will be a fantastic game.
Weak Atmosphere - A story isn’t the most important aspect of a Metroidvania. In some cases, you can excuse a game in this genre from having a compelling plot. I didn’t expect a thrilling plot going into this game. If the other components were stellar, I could forgive it.
However, a Metroidvania needs to have a good atmosphere. One of the best in the business is Metroid. The Metroid series makes the player feel isolated on an alien planet with no support. The tone is fitting and it has personality. A unique identity that is always attributed to Metroid. Touhou Luna Nights lacks a personal voice. Nothing about the stages you traverse will capture your imagination and immerse you into the game world.
Underwhelming Soundtrack - The music isn’t necessarily bad, it’s simply not as good as it could be. The tunes meld into the background without much purpose or conviction. In a Metroidvania, music is an underrated feature. Powerful melodies can completely change the tone of a game. The piano-based tracks in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night complement the gothic theme of Dracula’s Castle. In Hollow Knight, symphonic movements accompany you as you wade through unfamiliar territory.
Touhou Luna Nights doesn’t deliver on this front. I’ll say again that the music is not bad. It fits the Japanese theme of the environments and is generally pleasant to listen to. However, it won’t blow you away. This may sound like nitpicking and being overly harsh. But the role of music in video games should not be underestimated. A better soundtrack can enhance your experience more than you would expect.
With all that said, Touhou Luna Nights is still a good Metroidvania. It may not be a game-changer for the genre, but it’s a worth playing for 2D platforming enthusiasts. Don’t let the cutesy anime-inspired art style throw you off. This is a well-made product that you can enjoy, even if you aren’t familiar with the Touhou franchise.
However, it would be ideal to wait for the full release of the game. It’s not in a poor state or anything like that. In fact, the game is fairly polished for an early access title. There simply isn’t enough here to make Touhou Luna Nights a must-buy at this time. If you’re a fan of the franchise, then I can recommend it. This is a fun game and I’m sure fans can get more out of the story and references (I assume there will be Easter eggs) than I was able to. Regardless, this game is worth putting on your wishlist at the very least.