Review: Kunai

6 Feb 2020

We honestly seem to be in the middle of something like a Metroidvania renaissance; while there were a few years wherein the genre was fairly quiet, these days there seems to be a surfeit of platformers in which you traverse a contiguous world and progress via new upgrades and killing bosses along the way. And let me be totally clear by saying that I am here for this, since this is one of my favorite genres and I’m always happy to have new chances to pick up the double-jump and go uncover some new treasure chests.

Of course, the flip side is that this means a new Metroidvania game has a bit of an uphill climb in terms of getting people on board. It has to offer something that’s distinct from its contemporaries beyond just the basic format. A bit of visual flourish is definitely a start in the right direction, but you need to have more going for you than just stylish visuals. Which means that we at last come to Kunai, which bills itself very specifically as a fast-paced action Metroidvania game. It clearly looks distinct, but is there something under the hood? More importantly, is what’s under the hood worth the time?

Kunai releases on February 6th for PC and Nintendo Switch. The Steam version was played for this review.

Swipe Right Grapple

Kunai opens with some pixel cutscenes and voiceover that gives you a very broad strokes of an idea without outlining a direct plot, but it immediately throws you right into the plot-of-sorts by showing you a gang of resistance robots turning on the main character’s stasis chamber. Thus, Tabby turns on, a robot with the face of a tablet, informed promptly by the dying resistance soldier that he is the chosen one destined to stop the evil AI Lemonkus.

Of course, as is standard, your journey as the Chosen One starts with you having a grand total of zero weaponry or abilities, but then, you’re not supposed to have much of an idea what you’re doing. In fact, the first few moments in the game are actually a bit frustrating simply because you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be working toward in even the broadest strokes; NPCs tell you to find the resistance base, but you can’t actually get there, and it’s not clear how you’re supposed to get there in the first place. Fortunately, this is temporary, and once you pick up your second major power-up the game starts being much better about giving you a goal to work toward.

That’s not to say that the plot exactly goes anywhere interesting. As is fairly typical, the resistance consists of lots of soldiers who don’t actually do anything but spout amusing dialogue, the sort of thing that’ll make you faintly smirk while you look for the next general bit of plot direction. Yes, you’re the chosen one, you need to go kill this thing, but really the goal is to just go in a direction until you can go no further, then find the thing to activate or change so you can go further.

It’s all a bit silly, but it’s to the game’s credit that the story never pretends like it’s your reason for playing. There’s one there, and it’s fairly basic, and most of the game’s attention is on just giving you some guidance and some minor world-building so you fill in the rest of the blanks yourself. You know what an evil robot empire looks like, you know who you’re supposed to be rooting for, you get the idea of who the bad guys are. They’re just bad enough that you’re happy to beat them up and not so bad you feel any real moral outrage.

It is, in short, something of a throwback to old-school excuse plots, but with just enough extra meat that it doesn’t feel light by accident. The focus, then, is on the gameplay.

Swipe Left Sword

So why in the world is this game called Kunai anyhow? Well, that’s the game’s main gameplay gimmick; the second upgrade you get after your basic attack are a pair of kunai tied to extending ropes, with the shoulder buttons each launching one of the two hooks. This, then, immediately allows you extra mobility; you grapple up walls, along ceilings, and so forth. It’s vital for dodging boss attacks, traversing dangerous areas, and just general exploration. Of course, you can’t stick your knives in some surfaces, so you also have to be careful and adaptive as you explore around.

If you were expecting that to be the constant gimmick, however, it really isn’t; it’s just a part of your arsenal. Really, Kunai just uses it as an early hook to get you accustomed to the idea that the game wants you to be much more of a ninja than you may be accustomed to. Admittedly, the kind of ninja that’s less about stealth and more about kinetic awareness, but still.

Pretty much everything in Kunai has a strong sense of momentum. Your basic sword swipe attack will push you and your opponent back. You have no ducking attack, just a downward slash that pushes down and against enemies; similarly, your upward slash will cause you to move a bit. Everything has momentum and mass and impact.

On a whole, it works pretty well. It gives an extra sense of weight to every motion and your overall movements; rather than just slashing at things until they die, even early enemies require you to think about your angle of attack and what you’re trying to do. The controls are also generally responsive and quick, which means that you feel at least properly armed.

Alas, it’s not all good. While the momentum is solid and the way it moves you around is consistent, it does suffer a bit from the simple problem that some of the movements and paths require more pixel-perfect mastery than you could realistically hope to approach. More to the point, it’s very easy to flub a jump and just die; there are several segments wherein a missed jump means instant death, and that means respawning at the last save point.

The problem can be compounded with certain bosses. The bosses are impressively animated and have a neat design, but it can be very easy to find yourself dying on a boss and then getting forced into doing the same segment multiple times just to die again, helped not at all by the fact that bosses lack any visual gauge of their health or how close you are to winning. There’s usually a pattern change around the halfway mark, but how close you are to that halfway mark – or even how long each “half” might take – is highly variable.

If the controls were a bit worse, this could even be a fatal flaw. Fortunately for Kunai, it’s not; it’s just a touch of irritation how you can get stuck in instant-kill moments, or with enemies that kill you almost instantly with little to no indication of how to fight them. (The little floating bomb-wizards, for example.) Once you do figure it out, the game is fine (they appear at your level, so just immediately slash them), but it can be frustrating to get instant-killed repeatedly and have to trek back through stuff repeatedly, which isn’t a usual Metroidvania thing.

At times, it feels like the game kind of inherited some of the worse tendencies of action-platformers and Metroidvania games and mashed them into one. That’s not exactly a fatal flaw; after all, I just opened the review by saying that entries in the genre need to stand out. But it does mean that it feels less like an action-packed slice of the genre and more like the genre, but with more finnicky moments.

Pinch to Shuriken

Visually, the game looks great. It’s a bit akin to a Game Boy Color game in that it has a couple of universal colors combined with a very limited color or two for each area. There’s a slight blur effect to all of the animations, too, which might seem counterproductive but it gives it that comfortably portable feeling.

And the animations are great. Everything moves smoothly, and enemies manage to get their own little bits of personality from their movements alone. Even the main character himself gets most of his personality thusly, with the expressions on his face shuffling through various states of mind as he acts. Of course, if you don’t like his default appearance, you can change it a little bit with the game’s hidden little hats, which range from silly to… well, still silly, but they’re a nice bit of additional flair for the game. The hats do tend to vanish a bit during his flipping jump, but otherwise they’re a nice touch.

To help keep the focus on the characters and their actions, the game does little floating cutaway highlights for sprites like Tabby himself and enemies, making it easy to focus on what’s happening and what relevant information is present at all times. There can be a lot going on, but it’s always presented in a visually clear fashion.

Music is similarly retro but with a charming energy to it. Indeed, the soundtrack fares better than the rather nondescript sound effects themselves; while the chiptunes in the background bop and slink along nicely, the rather basic beeps and chirps accompanying the outing felt less great. It’s a minor thing, but there are no really satisfying sounds, even the rattling of your paired submachine guns you can use for floating around.

Tap for Jump

On the one hand, I feel like Kunai kind of missed its mark. The game is definitely trying to be something different and set itself apart, but there are just enough pain points that it’s hard to think it really works. There’s a lot of effort to keep you engaged and offer a slight twist on the formula, but most of those twists come off as broadly neutral.

At the same time, though, I think that first hand of mine is kind of wrong, because why would I be complaining about a Metroidvania title that is, fundamentally, a solid Metroidvania title? It’s really enough – or it should be – that it hits the right notes for this sort of project, and while it has frustrating elements they never make the whole exercise feel awful. Frankly, I had fun with Kunai, and if there were parts that I could point to that made it less than perfect… well, that’s the sort of thing that still deserves a look.

If you like the genre, you’ll like Kunai. If you don’t, this won’t be the one to convince you otherwise, but it’s got a great aesthetic and some real bright spots just the same.

~ Final Score: 6/10 ~

Review copy provided by The Arcade Crew for PC. Screenshots courtesy of The Arcade Crew.