Touken Ranbu. It's out in English now, almost six years after its initial release in Japan. I've played it for about two months, and I believe I can safely say… I'm not sure I get it.
I mean, yeah, on the one hand, I do get it. Touken Ranbu's biggest selling point is that it allows you to collect an army of hot dudes who also happen to be important historical weapons. Hell yeah, collectible eye candy! And these designs are pretty great overall: the perpetually smirking fox-man Kogitsunemaru, wispy flowy-haired rosary boy Juzumaru, cute little Gokotai with his teeny tiger buddy, delightfully flamboyant Jiroutachi, big buff n’ scruffy Nagasone… there's a dude here for everybody. (My personal favorite is Sengo Muramasa, who radiates a delightful himbo energy and makes me wish artist Namaniku ATK drew fanservicey guys as much as he draws women.) It's a delightful thirstravaganza of cute boys and hunky hotties made solely for the people who can appreciate such, and I count myself among those ranks.
But the game itself? Hmmm.
Maybe I came in with expectations a little too high. For those of us in the West, our primary exposure to Touken Ranbu comes not from this original browser game, but from derivative material: anime, doujinshi, fanart, merchandise, and so on. With so much stuff – official and unofficial -- out there using Touken Ranbu as a base, perhaps I was expecting the core game to have more substance than it does.
You begin Touken Ranbu with a brief introduction to the game's concept: malevolent forces are trying to alter the course of history (specifically, of Japan) and it's up to you, the Saniwa, to keep the historical record intact. You accomplish this by building an army of living weaponry: swords with souls in the most literal sense. You then assign each sword some support troops and go out to fight a lot of evil sword spirits. A LOT.
Game flow here is extremely basic: you assemble a team of six weapon-boys, give them troops and support gear like horses and omamori protectors, then send them out to fight a series of enemy encounters on various maps. Encounters are almost entirely automatic (aside from the need to pick an army formation), with characters attacking in turns based on their speed stat. Once both teams have attacked twice (or one team is too injured to continue), a winner is declared. If said winner is you, you move on to the next fight.
So, yeah, Touken Ranbu is an autobattler, which makes it a nice little diversion as a browser tab you can flip to from time to time and click on, but not really much fun as a serious game. There are glimmers of strategy in the mix: the different kinds of swords each have unique properties that affect their usefulness in certain combat situations. For example, Tanto and Wakizashi are small swords that perform better during indoor and close-combat fights, while Ootachi and Naginata can target multiple enemies at once – but only in open fields. Assigning different troops to your team members can also affect fights: shield-bearing troops add some extra protection to more fragile units, while long-range gunners, archers, and slingshot troops can deal the enemy team damage before combat even starts. Formation can raise and lower stats before a fight even begins, though you always want to pick the formation that is advantageous against the enemy if you know what they're doing.
Despite all of this, though, it feels like the strategy elements of Touken Ranbu don't play as big a role as they should. The close-quarters combat only becomes a thing at fairly high levels – a rather unpleasant surprise if you haven't been leveling up your fairly weak small swords that much – and, in general, fighting feels like more of a contest of who can tank the hardest… which is usually an army consisting of higher-rarity swords that can bring more troops along.
So the gameplay isn't exactly amazing, but what I found more of a letdown was how little dialogue among the sword boys there was. I've got a big ol’ army of sexy dudes here, and yet their interactions with each other (and you) are surprisingly limited. Much of the dialogue comes from sending out swords with some sort of relation to each other out to a specific battlefield in a party together, where you'll see them talk about their histories for a bit, and then it's just auto-battles as usual. There's some conversation during forging, level-building, and stat-boosting duty work as well, but otherwise, dialogue is surprisingly sparse. I mean… yeah, there's a certain appeal to not presenting too much dialogue and story and letting fans run wild with their own ideas about the characters. (Hell, I'm a fan of fighting games, I know exactly what it's like to build up characters and stories in your head based on the few scraps of official material you're given.) But all of the media-mix material – as well as my experiences with talk- and lore-heavy free-to-play games like Granblue Fantasy and Fate/Grand Order – made me surprised at how barebones Touken Ranbu's storytelling felt.
Then there's the issue of the English localization, which is not the greatest. The words spoken by the sword-boys themselves all sounds fine, but a lot of the system menu dialogue is a hot mess. Strange instructions, bizarre line breaks, and unnatural-sounding grammar make it hard to parse certain gameplay elements without some trial and error (particularly in events with special rules). One element in particular that I find utterly befuddling is that the icons that denote what type of weapon class each character belongs to is still written only in kanji in the English version. You couldn't have added three-letter abbreviations under each character so that folks without kanji knowledge could easily tell an Ootachi from an Uchigatana at a glance?
Then there's the monetization issue. A lot of folks dislike free-to-play games for supposed “pay-to-win” mechanics. I've played a fair few gacha games, and I've known a lot of folks who enjoy them while spending little or no money at all. There are plenty of free-to-play games out there that don't make life difficult for those folks who don't open their wallets.
Touken Ranbu is absolutely a pay-to-win game. Pop into the cash shop during any event and you'll see plenty of high-priced “value bundles” packed with in-game items that give you significant advantages to progress. You could fight and progress the normal way, or you could just buy a map that takes you halfway through the 100-floor dungeon along bunch of items that take you directly to the boss encounter of each floor when used. Don't you want to make the event easier? Don't you?
Then there's the forging. Out of all the gacha games I've played, Touken Ranbu stands out as being particularly mean about its character acquisition. You don't just need one resource like gems or orbs or quartz to acquire new sword boys, but four – steel, charcoal, whetstones, and coolant – plus a Request Token to have a swordsmith do forging. The sword type you might get is determined by the amount of these resources you use when forging, though if you're trying to forge a more exotic weapon you'll likely wind up with a lot of duplicate, low-level weapon dudes.
To make things even more complicated, you have to wait – sometimes for several hours – while the sword is being forged before you can see if your “pull” is garbage or not… unless you use a Help Token to speed up the process. Quite coincidentally, every single resource I've mentioned here is available for purchase in Touken Ranbu's cash shop. Yes, you can earn them all in-game, but it's very easy to burn through resources quickly (especially the forging materials, since you also need them to create troops) and hard to gather significant amounts naturally. I'd be angrier if I hadn't seen this kind of design so many times before – I think nowadays I'm just kind of numb to it, like, “oh, another of these games.”
And yet…. Somehow, I'm still playing Touken Ranbu daily, and kind of enjoying it. Why? I… honestly don't know. Maybe I just like having something I can hope over to for a minute or two while a Youtube video plays in another window. Maybe it's the really nice artwork designs. Maybe I just like that small satisfaction of seeing my boys’ numbers go up. I can't really explain it -- I recognize that it's not really good and exploitative in a lot of ways, but I just can't give Touken Ranbu up.
In summary, while Touken Ranbu is a strange, kinda not-so-great game that constantly cajoles you to get out your credit card, it has something about it that makes me unable to stop playing. I have no intention to spend any serious cash on it, so I'm dedicated to playing it the hard way – which, honestly, I find more rewarding anyhow. But am I really enjoying it on a level so many of its devoted fans are? I don't know. Honestly, I'm not sure I get it.