Game name: Kunai
Release date: February 6, 2020
Available on: Steam
Publisher: The Arcade Crew
If you polled Steam users on the most popular genre for indie games, I would bet that they’d settle on either roguelike or metroidvania. Gems like The Binding of Isaac or Hollow Knight have cemented those genres in the mind of most gamers, and with good reason, because there’s a new metroidvania every month, at the very least. So, how can a small independent developer make its mark on such a crowded genre? I don’t have an easy answer (chiefly because I’m way too dumb to be a game developer) but I think that the talented folks working at TurtleBlaze have cracked that particular mystery, if Kunai‘s excellence is anything to go by.
Civilization as we know it no longer exists, and cutesy looking blue tablet people are waging a losing war agains the evil red tablet people. That’s the setup for Kunai, and from there onwards, the player gets thrust in a ten hours long epic journey full of boss fights, magnificent music, and tight action platforming gameplay. Oh, and everything looks like it would perfectly fit on a Game Boy Color (not that I would know anything about that, considering I’m a loyal PC user, wink, wink).
We play as a recently rescued blue tablet warrior named Tabby (of course!) and although it’s not hard to think that someone who has a tablet for a face wouldn’t make for a very interesting hero, let me tell you, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Tabby can display a surprising range of emotions in reaction to stuff that happens in the world (turns out having a tablet for a face is a pretty competent way of supplanting a human face, after all) and. while I wouldn’t say that Kunai‘s story is its strongest suit, I can safely state that I was one hundred percent satisfied with what I got.
Chances are you didn’t really look for reviews on this game because you were interested in its story, however, as metroidvanias are far more sought after for their great gameplay than they are for any Shakespearean ambitions. If that’s the case, then allow me to introduce you to two sharp grappling hook-like tools (the kunais from the title) which will set most of the game apart from similar adventures, as they’ll augment Tabby’s movement abilities almost from the start, letting our hero soar through the air and reach impossible places without breaking a sweat (and if you thought that tablets can’t sweat, then you haven’t tried to play PUBG Mobile on a cheap Android device, let me tell you that). Not into grappling hooks? What sort of mad person are you? Might I interest you in a katana? Tabby seems to be a master of the sword, as we’ll be slicing foes, obstacles and bullets in no time at all (it helps that the katana is the first weapon we’ll pick up). If that wasn’t enough, this particular katana can also absorb our fallen enemies’ lifeblood, so it’s even more helpful than a bog standard sword would be. Not into blades? Keep going and you’ll get your hands on more “modern” pieces of equipment, you know, the sort that wouldn’t look out of place in Lo Wang’s hands… Of course, having many weapons is nice but not worth much if you don’t get to use them (or they don’t feel good when you do get to use them). Thankfully, there’s a fair amount of baddies who need to be dealt with, and I’ll never get tired of slicing them with the katana or pumping their technological bodies full of lead. TurtleBlaze did a great job when it comes to Kunai‘s combat, and all the weapons feel great to use. If killing crazed tablets hungry for our blood wasn’t enough, Tabby’s arsenal can also augment our heroic tablet’s options when it comes to traversing the environments ahead of us, and everything can be upgraded at conveniently placed routers left by the Blue Tablet Resistance (dead Red Tablets drop a currency that can be used to improve our character/arsenal, through the use of an App Store-looking interface).
Another important thing when it comes to metroidvanias is the quality of the bosses we’ll meet as we work our way towards the end, and I’m glad to say that Kunai doesn’t disappoint in this regard either, as we’ll face a few memorable baddies that often required more than one go in my experience. This wasn’t because they were unfairly hard, but more on the side of me being somewhat slow when it comes to learning patterns, as all the bosses have an assortment of tricks up their sleeve, and I didn’t always adapt as fast as I should have. The rewards for slaying these opponents aren’t always equal to the suffering we might have experienced at their hands, but overall, I would say that I was satisfied (the excellent tunes that blast during boss fights help a lot, too).
Am I forgetting anything? Oh yes, how could I! Age gets the better of all of us, I’m afraid. What did I forget? Well, of course, the quality of the levels we’ll have to traverse! If there is something that’s certainly at the core of the metroidvania experience, then it’s the levels we’ll navigate with the tools we’ve acquired along the way. Does Kunai shine in this department? It does! At first, I wasn’t too keen on the simple, industrial-looking environments on display at the beginning of the game, but after getting my hands on the kunais, I got to see a far more interesting range of maps, each with their own obstacles and little puzzles to solve, as well as small details that set apart the different areas. I’m not a fan of the spikes though, those can join all the dead tablets in techno-hell, let me tell you that.
And while I’m complaining about stuff, I’d say that the only real issue I have with the game is that the keyboard controls aren’t as snappy as its gamepad counterpart. I know that this sort of title has been historically designed with console controllers in mind, but after getting through most of Bloodstained on keyboard/mouse (there are certain aspects of that game that work far better on controller, but there isn’t anything even remotely comparable to them here) I hoped to have a similar experience with Kunai. That wasn’t the case, and I’d recommend prospective players to keep their controllers close, as they are the best way of enjoying the game, at least in my opinion.
Overall though, Kunai is a blast to play, and TurtleBlaze smartly set it apart from its competition thanks to a fairly unique art style and an interesting world. Compared to other titles in the same genre it’s somewhat short (you can beat it in ten hours or so), but that works in its favor, since it means that the game never overstays its welcome.
8.5/10 – Great.