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June 2021


Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: The Arcade Crew
Developer: TurtleBlaze
Release Date: Feb. 6, 2020


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Switch Review - 'Kunai'

by Cody Medellin on May 21, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Kunai is a Metroidvania adventure best explored through ninja-tier parkour and best survived with razor sharp combat reflexes.

Nintendo Switch owners have a number of top-tier Metroidvania games available, including Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Hollow Knight, Metroid, and Ori and the Blind Forest. Kunai, from Blazing Chrome publisher The Arcade Crew, is the latest title in the genre to be represented on the system, and it is a charming title even if it isn't the best example of the genre.

The tale should be familiar. Humanity has succeeded in developing advanced artificial intelligence that is meant to help mankind through a lengthy period of peace. That worked until the AI initiated a revolt that led to the near-extinction of the human race. Several years have passed, and a resistance led by machines who refused to go along with the new order have broken into a lab to free a robot. You play the role of that robot, Tabby, that is thought to be the chosen one.

Kunai follows the Metroidvania blueprint in plenty of ways. While you don't start off with a full arsenal, you'll find everything you need to become an ultimate warrior by the end of the journey. Most of the world is open for exploration, but you'll encounter obstacles that require backtracking until you find the tools to overcome those hurdles. Coins from defeated enemies can be used to purchase ability upgrades, and you'll only be able to save in certain rooms scattered throughout the game world. Compared to other games in the genre, this is a bit kinder; when you respawn, you retain your progress for activated switches and collected coins — provided you didn't quit the game in between.

Unlike other Metroidvania titles, Kunai's signature abilities are unveiled very early. The first is your katana, which is so versatile that you may never want to change it out. You can hit enemies in the four cardinal directions, which is something of a cheap tactic, since you can deal with most bosses with a series of downward slashes. Your katana is also good for deflecting bullets; constantly spamming the attack can almost guarantee that every bullet from a machine gun is deflected and will annihilate anything in its path. Most importantly, the katana replenishes your health whenever you kill an enemy with it. It doesn't restore a large amount of health, but the only other way to regain health is to locate save points. It's important to level up the katana to perform charged slashes and/or gain more health with each kill.

The other signature ability is the kunai, which comes in a pair, one for each arm. While it isn't an offensive weapon, it lets you attach yourself to a ceiling for swinging over things. It also happens to let you scale vertical surfaces or, when you get the power for it, slingshot yourself upward as an extra jump. That versatility makes platforming fun, since there are easier ways to traverse obstacles, and trying to find secrets or new paths really highlights how valuable the tool is for exploration.

As powerful as these weapons are, they have the knock-on effect of rendering the game's other abilities and weapons to be rather dull. Double-jumping and dashing aren't as exciting as using the kunai, unless you're facing kunai-unfriendly surfaces. The shurikens deliver a decent stun, especially when you power them up to deliver chained electric attacks on nearby foes, but you'll mainly use them to activate switches from afar. The dual Uzis and rocket launcher provide hefty damage, but their limited use followed by a cooldown period means that you'll only use them when necessary, and you'll stick with a katana for immediate use.

It is a testament to the game's core design, then, that the degraded usefulness of these other weapons doesn't hurt the game much, if at all. While the level design is fine and the variety in the stages is welcome, that enjoyment really comes from the sense of movement afforded to the player by the kunai. The controls are responsive enough to elicit the feeling of swinging over obstacles and getting the drop on enemies. The act of going up vertical surfaces is infinitely enjoyable thanks to how you can use each kunai to fine-tune your movement. In a way, you're almost disappointed that there aren't more challenges to using this tool, since it is that enjoyable to use.

However, the use of bottomless pits in one stage is such an annoyance that one stretch between two particular checkpoints feels almost endless. There's also the issue of automatic scrolling levels, which may make you learn how to be efficient with your movement but feel out of place in a game that encourages exploration. The sections aren't that long, but they appear often enough to be a nuisance.

As for replayability, there is a time trial mode for those who really want to practice their move mastery on some of the toughest segments. The hook for completionists would be in collecting all of the game's various hats. They provide no real benefit during gameplay, and they look silly, but it's fun to see Tabby's ever-smiling face adorned with such unusual articles of clothing.

The presentation can be described succinctly as modern retro. There are no voices, but the sound effects go for something out of an 8-bit or earlier library. Every hit, slash and hard landing will sound familiar to those who grew up during this time period. The soundtrack leans more toward something between 8- and 16-bit, as it is close to the chiptune style but more moody. Graphically, the game goes for a very limited color palette at times, with lots of brown in some scenes or dark greens in others. A modern equivalent of this would be Luftrausers or Super Dangerous Dungeon, as you get the feeling that this is trying to emulate a Super Game Boy title if it had more power. Animations are fluid, and Tabby's face is emotive enough to project personality despite him being mute overall.

Kunai is a solid game. The genre formula sticks to the blueprint well enough to not mess it up. The game is of a decent length, and it has the right amount of difficulty most of the time, but the kunai movement sells you on what makes the game enjoyable. For genre fans, this is well worth checking out.

Score: 7.8/10

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