4.5 out of 5. While not as "Metroidvania" as I'd like, Luna Nights provides a wholly unique experience by centering all of its challenges around the otherwise overpowered ability to stop time.
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How Metroidvania is it? Medium Fit. While there is a big castle that feels very Castlevania-like, the structure is more linear, or level-based (Each area is even called a level.)
Primary Challenge: Ranged Combat
Time to beat: ~5 hours
Review Info: Touhou Luna Nights was played on Steam

More Info

Developer: Team Ladybug, Vaka Game Magazine
Publisher: Playism
Sub-genre: Igavania
Features: Map System, Combo-Based Fighting, 2D Platformer, Ranged Combat, Fast Travel/Teleporters, Narrative/Cutscenes Story Telling, Level-Based, Time Stopping/Manipulation
Difficulty: Medium
Linearity/Openness: Linear Guided
Platforms: Windows, Steam, Switch
Release Date: 2019/02/25
Available Languages: English, Japanese, French, German, Korean, Simplified Chinese

Store Links
Note: Touhou Luna Nights will be released on Switch in 2020

    Steam    Nintendo eShop    

Buy Touhou Luna Nights if you like…

  • Touhou (obviously)
  • Well Implemented unique mechanics (Time Stop in this case)
  • Difficult and strategic boss fights
  • Catchy J-pop style music
  • Astonishingly good pixel art

▼ Review continues below ▼

Team Ladybug has been gradually building for themselves a reputation of creating fantastic Metroidvania-like games with gorgeous pixel art. Similar to their first game, Pharaoh Rebirth, in Touhou Luna Nights you start out as a fully capable fighter. The character you play feels almost overpowered, making it exhilarating to control them, but then the enemies step-up to match that power and challenge your abilities. In Touhou Luna Nights, your OP ability is to stop time, forcing all enemies, including bosses, to be frozen in a helpless state. Don’t be fooled though, this time stop isn’t a cheap novelty. While the exploration aspect of Luna Nights could use some improvement, its designed to be a very strategic and challenging experience.

A lot of games in recent memory have played with making time stopping a primary mechanic, and there have been some great ones, however Touhou Luna Nights takes it to a new level when it comes to combat. The obvious flaw in giving the player the ability to cause their enemies to be helpless is that it can quickly become a boring dominant strategy. Luna Nights mitigates this by giving the bosses a large infusion of health, having some enemies and attacks be affected by stopped time in an opposite way, and especially by making you juggle two attack resource pools. Outside of time-stop, your attacks eat up your MP pool, and once you’re out you are helpless unless you stop time or use the game’s ingenious “Graze” mechanic. Your time stop works on a stop-watch that gradually increases its seconds when you’re not using it. While time-stopped, the clock ticks down a second at a time, but those seconds speed up any time you move and drastically when you make attacks. Your knives freeze in mid-air during stopped time, allowing you to stack attacks for a burst of damage, but you may also have issues with not being able to move through your own attacks.

The Graze mechanic is the key to making all of this work. Graze is your reward for being reckless. If you pass near to an attack or enemy that would deal damage to you, you gain a small amount of MP you can use to throw more knives. If you could infinitely use your knives, you could stand a distance away from your enemy and just spam attack everything to death. By forcing you to move near attacks the game keeps tension high, especially when that MP pool starts getting low. You can use time stop to make grazing attacks easier, but you get less MP this way, and of course doing this uses up your pocket watch power, making it a trade-off of one energy for the other. This is usually a good trade though, since your pocket watch regenerates more quickly, but being out of time stopping power makes you vulnerable to the more frantic attacks which you may need the freeze to help you with – though you can also use your MP to slow time down temporarily. Combat therefore is less about dexterity and reaction, and more about positioning and balancing these two resources.

Strangely, even though this is a Touhou game, the bosses are more traditional for a 2D platformer; this is by no means a Bullet Hell Metroidvania hybrid like Rabi-Ribi is. While the game seems easy at first, it’s all about tutorialization and getting you used to your powers. Past the game’s second boss the difficulty ramps up significantly, with even the platforming sections becoming a tricky juggle of your powers. If any boss becomes too much for you though, you do have the ability to level up your strength, both by selling gems and upgrading at the shop, but you also have the option to keep your gems for minor stat increases. Veteran gamers will appreciate the unique challenge Luna Nights has to offer, and amateur players can spend time to level up to succeed.

Perhaps as a result of the game’s careful difficulty curve, the level design is fairly linear, much to the chagrin of Metroidvania fans I’m sure. Each section of the castle includes one ability-gating upgrade and a boss that gives you a key to the next area. There are five sections in all making for a shorter game experience. While I have no complaints at all about the platforming and combat challenges the castle itself feels a bit disappointing. You can backtrack to old areas to find very helpful Stopwatch, MP, and Health Upgrades, but the sense of exploration is very limited, even compared to Pharaoh Rebirth. The crown jewel items to find are the special weapon powers, some of which are immensely helpful on the harder bosses. Besides those however, the number of secrets left me thirsty for more. I understand that the development of this game was sort of piecemeal throughout its early access, and the game feels like it was designed so each section would be a self-contained experience. As a whole game however to really feel like a true Metroidvania, it would be better if there was more looping back, or at least some secret optional sections to the castle with extra challenges or maybe even a hidden boss. More updates are on the way however, so perhaps in the future I’ll get my wish.

Being my first Touhou game, I felt a little left out from some of the dramatic reveals of the various characters. It was like being invited to a reunion where everyone else was acting familiar with each other, but I could only just smile and nod and pretend like I fit in. I get the feeling Touhou fans are going to eat up seeing their favorite characters all dressed up in Team Ladybug’s signature pixel art, but for us outsiders to the series we can only tilt our heads inquisitively at the weird and petty banter between the setting’s moody females. I personally found it amusing anyway, and appreciated that there seems to be a strong relationship between the actors even if I wasn’t in on the history. More importantly, the game’s plot is literally “I made an excuse to have a video game” in an almost Meta way, so while the game produces the mystery needed to motivate the player, the story just doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that Touhou Luna Nights is a gorgeous and wonderfully executed unique experience. It’s not something I’d recommend to people looking for experiences similar to Symphony of the Night or other action platformers, but rather to people looking for something different. The more linear level design is slightly disappointing, but I’m not going to pretend that not being as Metroidvania as I’d like makes it a bad game. Touhou Luna Nights is great. While it’s short, it’s very sweet, and I wholly recommend checking it out.


Final Score

4.5/5

Scoring system overview


Metroidvania Breakdown

Combat
– 5

It's nothing like Hollow Knight, or other tricky action games, instead it's about timing and strategic positioning, thanks to the unique time stop mechanic

Platforming
– 4

it's nothing like Hollow Knight, or other tricky action games, instead it's about timing and strategic positioning, thanks to the unique time stop mechanic

Exploration
– 3

Sadly the exploration aspect of this game is pretty barebones. Still good, just wish there was more of it.

Puzzle
– 3

Some platforming sections could be counted as puzzle platforming, but not really a huge game focus

Story
– 3

You might feel a litlte left out if you're not already familiar with the Touhou universe, and the plot is literally an excuse to have a game. But it gets the job done

Graphics
– 5

The pixel art in this game is astounding. Some of the best meticulously crafted animation I've seen.

Music
– 5

It's touhou music. I know people that listen to it without having played the games.

Replayability
– 2.5

You have a small amount of choice on how to build your character, but it's not a whole lot.


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