By Josh Speer / February 10th, 2020
|Publisher||The Arcade Crew|
|Release Date||February 6th, 2020|
|Platform||PC, Nintendo Switch|
|Age Rating||E for Everyone 10+ – Mild Blood, Fantasy Violence|
I should point out that until I played KUNAI, I was totally unfamiliar with developer TurtleBlaze. Thankfully, I had some experience with The Arcade Crew, thanks to their also publishing the fantastic Blazing Chrome, by JoyMasher. All I knew early on was KUNAI is a game where you control a ninja tablet (no, you didn’t just suffer a stroke, that’s the actual premise) as he hacks and slashes his way through robot hordes with his magical energy stealing katana. That alone was enough to grab my interest, but when I learned that the game was also a Metroidvania, I was hooked. So I greatly appreciated the opportunity to review KUNAI for oprainfall. The question then is, was KUNAI able to live up to my hype for the game?
The premise of the game is loosely based around some sort of undefined apocalypse that wracked the Earth, killing nearly all the humans. In the interim, apparently a bunch of robots achieved sentience and started spreading out, with some aiming to wrest control and others retaliating as a ragtag group of freedom fighters. You play the heroic ninja Tabby, who is activated by the resistance to set things straight. There’s also an evil A.I. referred to as Lemonkus which is apparently responsible for this scenario, and while you do learn more about them, I never learned enough for my satisfaction. There’s a cool concept here, but there’s too many opaque bits that prevent the story from being fully realized. For example, who built all of the robots? What endowed them with sentience? How exactly did humanity perish? Where did the sword that steals life force come from? Which ancient warrior is Tabby supposedly infused with? There’s a lot of questions, even after beating the game. Which isn’t to say it’s not fun and there’s not plenty to enjoy, there absolutely is, but in a game that is so mechanically fantastic, the overall lack of a coherent plot stands out all the more painfully.
However, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s focus on what KUNAI does best – the gameplay. Early on you only have access to your katana, which is not only your primary means of offense, but also your only way of healing other than using save points. Every time you slay a foe, you’ll get a little bit of health back. Soon enough, you also come across a pair of the titular kunai with chains, which allow Tabby to swing from the ceiling and climb walls. They’re a lot of fun to experiment with, and allow you a wide movement range. Just keep in mind not all surfaces can be grabbed, usually ones that are coated with metal plates. You would be forgiven for thinking that’s all the tools at your disposal, but as the game progresses you get a lot of other nifty items. None that ever totally eclipses the effectiveness of the kunai, but many that do open up the experience. For example, you’ll get a shuriken that can trigger switches and stun foes, as well as a few guns that serve multiple functions. Take the dual SMGS, which can obviously be used to unload on foes from a distance, but can also be aimed downwards to essentially hover as you blast a stream of bullets below yourself (which is awesome). You’ll also get a very powerful rocket launcher that can scatter foes to dust or be used to catapult yourself vertically into the air.
Point being, everything in KUNAI has a variety of uses, and manages to make the experience more compelling. And that’s before you even take into account the upgrades you can purchase from the Tabos, accessible from old school routers littered throughout the game world. You can not only upgrade Tabby’s weapons, such as giving his katana a powerful charge attack or turning your rocket launcher rounds into homing missiles, but you can get important passive upgrades. Perhaps the most important is the one that lets Tabby slowly heal continuously, which is vital when you’re low on health, since the game never provides any disposable healing items. Generally I would clear out a room and then just take a breather for Tabby to heal back to full health. I really liked being given free reign which abilities I upgraded first, and my only real complaint is that there weren’t even more options, since I had pretty much maxed them out a while before the final boss. Which correlates to my only other major complaint about KUNAI – it’s too short.
KUNAI is very fun while it lasts, exploring, regularly finding upgrades like double jump and dash, slaying enemies and fighting powerful bosses. Some of my favorite bosses were Furious Ferro, a giant gooey creature that crawled the walls and scattered minions on the floor, and the Guardian, which starts in a giant cocoon and then erupts into a dangerous electric butterfly. It’s also entertaining to talk to random NPCs as you wander, since they often have very funny dialogue that pokes fun at other popular nerd culture, such as Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokémon, various anime and even a well known game store franchise. It’s clear the folks at TurtleBlaze not only love game culture, they love to poke fun at it as well, but never in a way that felt cruel or derogatory. Suffice to say, even though the plot of the game left me underwhelmed, the dialogue and humor were much better than I expected.
Exploring the various areas is a treat, and very rarely was frustrating. They range from deserts to lava filled mineshafts and haunted factories. There’s a fluidity to the combat that just made KUNAI a step above many others in the genre. I loved swinging around, jumping and slashing foes, and even blasting them to smithereens when I got testy. There’s also tons of hidden corners in the game, where you’ll find one of two items. Either you’ll find heart pieces which extend your maximum health (always handy) or you’ll find hats. And surprisingly, you’ll find a lot more hats than anything else. And while it’s fun to dress Tabby up with monocles and horned hoods and even plumber hats, sadly none of these serve any gameplay purpose. Once I discovered that, my desire to find them all withered away. If only the various hats would change up the combat or alter my stats in some significant way, I would have gone out of my way to discover all of them. As it is, I found hats a silly diversion without much function. Oh and apparently there’s also a hidden Time Trial mode in the game, but I couldn’t find it. And given that I hate feeling rushed when I play a game and don’t focus on speedrunning anyhow, that just didn’t provide me much incentive or replay value.
Ultimately, that’s where KUNAI fell short, the length. The whole experience is pretty linear, and though you are given some free reign to explore, there’s nothing really important for you to find. I managed to beat the game in 6 hours, which is 2 less than the developers said the adventure will take most people. If there had been more than one ending or a couple meaningful hidden areas or even a boss rush, I would have felt more satisfied. But without them, the game is just over way too soon. It’s a blast to play, and runs silky smooth, but once it’s over, it’s over.
Visually, KUNAI is a treat. It’s colorful without being too flashy, and managed to evoke classic games while still feeling modern. I loved all the silly faces that Tabby wears as you experience the game, and especially enjoyed the hand drawn cutscenes and sub item introductions. The various minor enemies were pretty distinct and varied, and there were none that were clones. Likewise, the bosses are all very different and quite a challenge to best. This is a game that makes great use of visual clues and storytelling, such as how Tabby’s face flashes red with a battery symbol when low on health. Musically, the games is frenetic and fun, and manages to infuse just enough ninja flair to keep things fresh. I also really loved all the mechanical beeps and boops and explosions for sound effects. I really had no complaints about the design of KUNAI whatsoever.
Now, even though I’ve touched upon the major issues with the game, the following is an assortment of minor quibbles that also kept this from being a perfect experience. While the game is a lot of fun, sometimes things aren’t as well balanced as they could be. An example is how one of the early areas, an airship, has a forced sequence requiring kunai swinging over instant death pits that felt way too challenging that early in the game. I also found how Tabby “climbs” vines incredibly awkward. Instead of climbing up and down, he kind of floats and you have to hold down to force him back to earth. And though I very much enjoyed the katana charge attack technique, which lets Tabby charge up and then rush all nearby foes with a flurry of katana strikes, it was very hard to tell at what range it would react to foes. One time it even glitched and managed to push Tabby into the background in the Mine area, forcing me to restart since I couldn’t get free. Another issue was that there weren’t really enough bosses in the game. There’s a hilarious pirate captain I thought would be a boss which instead is turned into comic relief twice, and there’s a long section where you escape from the police (dubbed Popo), but can’t actually fight back. And though the final boss was epic, it was also frustrating, and made me wish I had some way to heal quickly during fights.
In summation, I still rather enjoyed KUNAI. I just wish it was a longer experience with a more coherent plot. That said, there’s tons of charm and humor here, and plenty of challenging and satisfying gameplay. Honestly, it’s hard to go wrong for only $16.99. I admire TurtleBlaze for this first Metroidvania, and even though it’s not perfect, I think it could be the starting point to many other tremendous projects. If you’re a fan of the genre, I’d say you owe it to yourself to pick this up.
Review Copy Provided by Publisher
cartoonyKUNAIMetroidvaniaoprainfallsillyThe Arcade CrewTurtleBlaze