One of my favourite things about Touhou is just how creative the fangame community gets with it. There’s Touhou mahjong, Touhou rhythm games, Touhou metroidvanias, Touhou roguelikes, Touhou RPGs … so why not a Touhou kart-racing game? Cue Gensou SkyDrift, a game that pits the delightful residents of Gensokyo against one another in high-speed, spell card-riddled races—using one another as the karts, no less. It’s not a great kart game, but it’s certainly an interesting one.
One of the most unique things about it lies in that whole “using one another as karts” deal. Instead of just picking one character and jumping into a matching ride, each race in Gensou SkyDrift has you pick two: one to fly around and act as the “kart”, and another to stand on her back, skateboard style, ready to drop spells on any unlucky rivals. A tap of a button switches positions, letting rider become kart and vice versa.
At a glance, it’s similar to Mario Kart: Double Dash; being able to switch who is the “item thrower” (or spellcaster, in this case) lets you stock a couple of different spells to use as needed, and each character has a unique Last Word (super) that they can activate from this position. But the more interesting part of it is character stats: each character performs differently when they’re the kart, adding a strategic layer to how well your characters complement one another and when you choose to switch places.
The obvious example is to pick a speedy character and a “technical” one who’s slower, but better at cornering—for straight segments of a track, you use the fast racer, and then switch to the technical one when things get more curvy. But with 22 different characters who are all a little bit different, there are a lot of possible combos and strategies that emerge as a result.
The other thing that sets Gensou SkyDrift apart is the way spells charge up. Instead of simply picking up item boxes, you have a spell gauge that slowly charges throughout the race, and gets a nice boost any time you fly through a speed-boost ring. With two levels of spells, you need to constantly weigh up whether it’s better to cash in on the immediate benefit of a level 1 attack, or hold out for a far more powerful one that takes longer to charge. On top of that, switching characters costs a little bit of the gauge (but also gives you a speed boost), so there’s an element of resource management to go along with everything else.
These things come together to give the whole game a lot of depth. If you want to invest the time to learning all of its nuances and how to make the most of these little details for each course, the tactical possibilities and opportunities to shave milliseconds off your best lap times are near limitless.
But for all its clever ideas, Gensou SkyDrift stumbles over some of the more fundamental things. Like any kart game, drifting plays a crucial role in tackling tighter corners, but even with a character with a high “drift” stat, getting a good angle to zip around a sharp turn is too fiddly to be reliable, and can be deadly on the tougher tracks where a bad turn sends you flying over the side.
The spell cards are wildly variable, from some that feel completely useless to others that can turn a whole race around in an instant—another kart racer staple, but the distribution of those spells and sheer power of some of them makes luck a far bigger factor than it should be. No matter how good your strategy, getting a bad hand while your opponent gets a good one can cost you a race, and that happens far too often in Gensou SkyDrift. That’s especially true in singleplayer, where particularly aggressive rubber-banding means rivals are never far behind you, regardless of what you do to leave them in your dust.
The overall package also feels a bit limited. There’s a short campaign mode with an almost non-existent story, a free race mode, and versus mode—either local multiplayer or online, but in my experience, the online is pretty much dead unless you’re committed enough to take your matchmaking to Discord or the like. Local multiplayer is always where a kart racer is at its best—something about the atmosphere makes the random element less painful, and the situations caused by it more entertaining—but in Gensou SkyDrift, there’s not much else to do when everyone goes home.
If you’re a Touhou fan, you’ll at least get a kick out of seeing familiar locations reimagined as race courses. There’s nothing quite like racing around Remilia’s mansion or over the rooftops of the Old Capital, with plenty of little details for observant fans to enjoy. The varied settings that Gensokyo provides allow for plenty of variety and creative—if sometimes brutal—approaches to course design.
Gensou SkyDrift is easily one of the more unique kart racers I’ve played, if a little rough around the edges. Unbalanced spells, aggressive rubber-banding, and a relative lack of game modes are frequent sources of frustration, but it’s also so full of clever ideas and the inherent charm of the Touhou property that it’s hard to get too mad at it. And hey, if it’s a choice between a polished game and an interesting one, I’ll choose the latter every time.
Gensou SkyDrift is developed by illuCalab and published by Phoenixx Inc. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, and PC.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.