By Devin Kotani / November 14th, 2012
Developer: Liquid Entertainment
Release Date: November 7, 2012 (Xbox Live Arcade), TBA (PS3, Wii U, PC, iOS)
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, PC (Steam), iOS
Age Rating: ESRB Teen, PEGI 12
“Karateka” is a Japanese word meaning “practitioner of karate.” Karateka the video game is, fittingly, about practitioners of karate. It is also the remake of the 1984 action game of the same name created by Jordan Mechner. Mechner may be better known as the creator of the Prince of Persia series. Now, I had literally no experience with Karateka, the original or the remake, before playing the game for this review. I hadn’t even heard of it. So, on that note, I invite you to take a look at what one who had virtually no idea of what he was getting into thinks of Karateka.
Let’s start with the basics. The evil Akuma has kidnapped the lovely Mariko! Which brave hero will save her?! (In case you haven’t figured it out, Karateka is a heavily Japanese-themed game) Well, I’m sure that Mariko would prefer it to be her “True Love,” but, unfortunately for her, it’s not that simple. Mariko has three potential suitors, including her “True Love.” There are also three playable characters and three possible endings. Hmm… See a pattern? That’s right; each of the characters has his own ending. But there’s a twist! Each character functions as one of the player’s lives. There’s no character select screen when you start the game. When one character falls (literally), the next continues where he left off. So, who are Mariko’s three heroes? Every session starts off with the karate gi clad True Love. If he falls, the robed Monk takes over, and if the Monk falls, the morbidly obese Brute soldiers on in his place. If the Brute gets KO’d, you can spend 3000 points to revive him.
As I mentioned, there is one ending for each of the three playable characters, but, since you only get one chance with each character per playthrough, it’s very difficult to get any ending besides the Brute’s (For honesty’s sake, I should add that, as of this writing, I have only been able to achieve the Brute’s ending, despite multiple attempts). There are a few brutal difficulty spikes, mostly bosses, which will take you down if you’re not properly mentally prepared. Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to actually finish the game, as opposed to getting the best ending. Each character gets progressively easier. The True Love has the least amount of health, and he lacks any amount of regeneration. The Monk and the Brute each have much more health than the True Love, and they both have some amount of regeneration. The Brute has a more pronounced regen effect, and I suspect that he may do more damage, too. Along your path, you’ll find what the game calls “Mariko’s Flowers.” These are glowing blossoms that your character will sniff to regain health. In other words, make sure you stop and smell the roses. Knocking bosses down to a certain amount of health will also recover some of yours. Fortunately, each playthrough only takes about half an hour, so it’s not a big deal to try again if you can’t get the ending you want.
All this talk about difficulty, and I haven’t mentioned what exactly makes the game so difficult! Well, that will have to wait for a little bit. I need to talk about the audio before I can move on to the gameplay, as the two are very closely linked. There’s very little in terms of voice acting, aside from a grunt or a sigh or a growl. You’ll hear a scream whenever one of your character falls, but that’s about it. It’s worth noting that the True Love’s grunts and screams are provided by prolific voice actor, Yuri Lowenthal, which I like to think is a reference to Jordan Mechner’s other claim to fame, Prince of Persia; More specifically, to the mid-2000’s trilogy in which Lowenthal provided the voice of The Prince. Musically, Karateka’s soundtrack is wonderfully Japanese sounding. In other words, it’s very fitting for the colourful Japanese setting. It’s also dynamic; changing between slow and peaceful as your character travels between opponents, and faster, more frantic when you enter combat.
Now, here’s where the sound affects the gameplay; during combat, you have to alternate between blocking and unleashing combos of punches and high kicks. The music will give you certain tells that let you know the number of attacks, as well as the pattern, that the enemy is about to use. This tells you how many times you need to block before counterattacking, as well as the rhythm you need to block to. Unfortunately, and this is what causes a lot of the game’s difficulty, not every enemy has these audio cues, forcing you to memorize their patterns. Certain enemies also have very quiet cues that you need to listen for very carefully. In addition, if the enemy lands the final blow in a combo, you lose the chance to attack. For example, if an enemy uses a six-hit combo, and you manage to perfectly block the first five hits, missing the sixth block will let the enemy attack again. This happened to me a lot during the later fights, during which some enemies fight exclusively with long combos. These long combos can decimate your health, and you’ll sometimes be thrust straight into another difficult fight with no chance to heal your character in between. Such situations ruined my chances of getting a different ending many, many times. This combat system requires a great deal of practice, and I did find myself improving, but I do think that it is overly unforgiving. Nevertheless, I did find the combat to be quite addictive once I got into the flow.
Graphically, the game is vibrant and colourful, and the characters are heavily stylized in such a way that they look sort of like traditional Japanese paintings. I was particularly pleased by the jiggle physics some characters had on their fat bellies. That aside, there’s nothing particularly exceptional about Karateka’s graphics. They work for what they’re meant to do. They add to the game’s Japanese aesthetic. I should add that I did notice the camera clipping right through the characters at times, but this was quite rare.
As I mentioned, Karateka takes about half an hour to complete. I’m not sure how that compares to the original, but I consider that to be very short. The game’s replay value comes entirely from attaining high scores and trying for better endings. There are a few achievements as well that seem very, very, very difficult. These include challenges like beating the game without using Mariko’s Flowers (i.e. not healing yourself), and reaching the final boss without getting hit by any of his minions (a perfect run). Despite these challenges, I don’t see Karateka lasting very long for anyone aside from high-score freaks. Luckily, this is an indie game, so I can give it some slack where I probably wouldn’t for a full priced retail title.
From what I’ve seen of the original, Karateka is a faithful remake that retains much of the gameplay of the original, while adding some new twists and a fresh coat of paint. Fans of the original should get a good nostalgia kick out of it, while the younger generation will find enough of the modern day’s sensibilities to not be instantly put off by an ancient game with a new look. It’s relatively simple to finish, but brutally difficult to master. Perhaps it’s too brutal. It is for me, at any rate; the occasional forced game of trial-and-error, as well as a difficult blocking system consistently caused me grief at specific points in the game. It’s also very short, but players who enjoy going for high-scores can squeeze much more enjoyment out of it.
Review code provided by publisher.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.