[Review] KUNAI – Nintendo Switch

Written by Akio Kahoshi
  • Developer: TurtleBlaze
  • Publisher: The Arcade Crew
  • Release date: 06/02/2020
  • Price: £15.29 / $16.99
  • Review code provided by The Arcade Crew

BEAUTIFULLY DRAB

At first glance, KUNAI seems to be an example of retro gaming done right. A fact that is obvious from the art alone. The pixel art is crisp and detailed. The game uses few colors, which makes the times it does use them more vibrant.

Each area in the game feels distinct, usually making it clear what area you are in just from the style. This is something that all the best Metroidvania games do, and it is nice to see it used here as well. From forests to cities inhabited by NPCs (something not often seen in games of this genre), each area left an impression.

The world is full of robots, with computer screens for heads. The hero of the story, Tabby, is a tablet. Each enemy type is visually distinct, allowing for quick and intuitive recognition of their strengths and weaknesses. Friendly NPCs have less variation, but there are still plenty of interesting designs.

A TABLET BY ANY OTHER NAME

The story driving KUNAI is not particularly unique, in that a resistance army is fighting off an army of evil robots trying to conquer/destroy the world. But then this is a genre where the story is usually secondary to the art and gameplay. I was pleasantly surprised by the short cinematics the game used to bring more life to the story, as they showed off the style of the game well and brought life to the otherwise simple story.

Each of the game’s few named characters has personalities that bring life as well. They usually do not say much, but what little they do say is enough to allow them to express their uniqueness. Given how so many retro-inspired games have few to no NPCs, I was actually very pleased with what KUNAI has to offer.

SWINGING IN

Of course, a Metroidvania is not just its looks. The gameplay in Kunai certainly feels like a Metroidvania, with various powerups allowing access to previously locked areas. But the most interesting aspects of the gameplay are definitely the weapons. The basic weapon is a power-draining sword (battery power acts as life in the game fittingly), which feels solid as it impacts enemies. The shuriken, SMGs, and rocket launcher are all used to unlock new areas.

However, the best of the weapons is the kunai the game gets its name from. Carrying one in each hand, each tied to a separate shoulder button, Tabby uses the kunai to swing across stages. At first, I was skeptical that this would add much to the gameplay, but the game quickly dismissed such worries.

While I did occasionally struggle with the more precise movements. When I got everything to work, it was wonderful. By far, swinging across an entire room, then swinging up and around a ledge to land on the level above without ever touching the ground or a wall is one of the most fun things I did in the game.

Beyond the weapons and combat, the game is generous with save points and dying only results in returning Tabby to the last save point. Certainly annoying if I forgot to save or missed a nearby save point, but my coins and any progress I made were saved so frustration was minimized. The game also offers a shop to buy new skills and a blacksmith to upgrade the power of the katana. There are also dozens of hats to collect, and pieces of heart to increase Tabby’s health scattered around the world.

CAN IT STICK THE LANDING?

Each of the zones offers a new challenge to navigation so that no zone feels dull. This can range from fans blowing Tabby around to kunai blocks that disappear after a few seconds. The game also does a good job of slowly ramping up the difficulty of the platforming sections in each zone so as not to overwhelm the player.

Scattered throughout the game are a number of boss fights, and each one feels completely different from the rest. For the most part, I enjoyed these boss fights, though a couple definitely seemed a bit too long. There was a definite feeling of “wait, its not dead still?” after I had reached what felt like an end to the fight. In these long fights I usually died on the first try, but was able to learn the patterns and defeat them within a few tries.

This all falls apart at the last zone though. Instead of a new and interesting dungeon, the player is forced into a battle gauntlet against enemies from across the game. Thankfully each stage of the gauntlet acts as a checkpoint, but the whole affair definitely went on far too long and was out of sync with the style of the rest of the game.

That was a small annoyance compared to the final boss. The difficulty spike for the final boss is disproportionate to the rest of the game. Still, I could have forgiven this except that the boss has two stages. The first stage is super long, but the pattern is simple enough that it can be completed with little to no damage taken.

The same cannot be said of the second stage. Attacks here are much more difficult to dodge, even understanding the pattern. What frustrated me though was that if I died on the second stage, I was forced to repeat the entire lengthy first stage again. Every time I died and had to repeat the first stage I felt all the goodwill the game had built up until that point drain away until none was left.

FINAL THOUGHTS

For me, KUNAI was a frustrating disappointment. Frustrating because before I reached the last zone I would have easily given the game a 4.5/5, but all the fun I had in the rest of the game was thoroughly ruined by a poorly implemented final boss. One that could easily be made at least tolerable by simply adding another checkpoint after the first stage. Personally I hope that the team at TutleBlaze does something to let this game shine as it deserved.

PROS

  • Fantastic pixel art
  • Incredibly fun gameplay
  • Unique and interesting zones

CONS

  • Bosses can be too long
  • Final zone and boss undermine the rest of the game

Verdict
A fantastic Metroidvania that falls flat on its face at the end. Still worth playing if you don’t mind just skipping the final boss.
3.5/5

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