Genre names in gaming are a funny thing. Whereas pinning down a theme in other mediums is rather easy—an action movie is clearly distinct from a romantic one—gameplay can often take elements from a wide variety of sources, resulting in genre mashups that require new names to describe easily. Naming these fusions is difficult and often unwieldy, resulting in very long titles, such as Massively Multiplayer Open World Role-Playing Game, or ones that require further gaming knowledge, such as the roguelike. Metroidvania is one such oddly-named genre, a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania that means nothing to those who have played neither game. While the specifics vary from title to title, a typical Metroidvania features sprawling labyrinthine levels, loads of power-ups, and epic boss encounters. Kunai, created by indie developer TurtleBlaze, is a spirited take on the Metroidvania formula with a gorgeous aesthetic and fast-paced action. While some intense difficulty spikes make the game unsuitable for a genre newcomer, those with quick reflexes and an appetite for punishment will find plenty to enjoy throughout this adventure.
Kunai is set in a dystopic near-future, where most of humanity has been wiped out by an evil A.I., Lemonkus. A small resistance group of sentient computers fight back against Lemonkus, sending the mysteriously ninja-skilled Tabby to scout out new areas for them. As Tabby explores the world, they find powerful ancient artefacts, each of which grants them new abilities and opens up new areas for the tablet to explore. Gathering new powers and allies as Tabby opens up long-blocked paths, the resistance group bands together to take down Lemonkus once and for all.
Upon beginning the game, one is immediately struck with how satisfying Tabby is to control. Playable with either keyboard and mouse or a gamepad, movement in every aspect is silky smooth, from dashing through an overgrown forest to bouncing between clouds. Shortly into the adventure, Tabby gains access to the titular kunai, a pair of knives that have long ropes attached to them. These blades are perfect for swinging across spike pits and scaling mountains, leading to challenging but satisfying level layouts. Mastering the kunai is a joyful experience, with Tabby barely touching the ground at all in the hands of a skilled player. Each area Tabby explores has a special environmental element testing its kunai skills, with conveyor belts, crumbling blocks, switch puzzles, and hordes of enemies ensuring each area feels distinct and fresh.
Over the course of the adventure, Tabby builds up quite an arsenal to deal with Lemonkus’s many minions. The character’s main weapon is a katana, a short-range attack that can be swung in any direction. Shuriken are longer range throwing stars that deliver a harsh zap to Tabby’s electrical foes, and the twin sub machine guns have a short clip but will make brief work of most monsters. Defeated enemies drop coins, which can be used in the shop to upgrade Tabby’s abilities. From slowly regenerating health to eliminating knockback from the shuriken, the upgrades give a small but noticeable improvement in Tabby’s performance. Money gathered is also retained after death, so the frustration on repeating a tough area is softened slightly by financial gain.
Modern Metroidvanias usually tend to fall into two camps: very easy, with a focus on story and atmosphere; or very hard, with a requirement of pixel-perfect platforming to succeed. For the opening hours of the game, one could be fooled into thinking Kunai was aiming for the little-seen middle path: gameplay that is challenging, but not rage inducing. The exploration sections certainly get this balance right, with intricate spike traps and moving ceiling tiles providing a challenge, but not instant death. Falling into spikes or lava will take a chunk out of Tabby’s health, but the player is given opportunity to recover from a fumble before being sent back to the save point. Enemies hit hard, but have clear movement patterns and can be evaded entirely when worst comes to worst.
Kunai‘s boss fights, on the other hand, are utterly brutal. The first few are not too over-the-top, allowing for few mistakes, but from the Haunted Factory onwards these battles demand perfection. Ferocious Ferro, a cute but nasty slime creature, must be defeated with the sub-machine guns the player has just picked up. The monster loops constantly around the room, requiring the player to either perfectly time a double jump or swiftly kunai to the corner to avoid being steamrolled. After a certain amount of damage, Ferro begins shooting with guns of its own and doubles the pace, spitting out smaller versions of itself all the while. The battle is interesting, but also much harder than anything else presented in the game before it. The player gets no chance to get any practice with the sub-machine gun, unlike the kunai and shuriken-based bosses before it, and with the way the game checkpoints boss fights, the player cannot leave the area until the boss is beaten.
Should the player beat Ferocious Ferro, the next boss is even more unforgiving. Centred around platforming up a mountain, the battle has five phases, the last of which is simply unfair. The base of the level is a rising wall of instant death, with Tabby needing to ascend upward without being able to see any of the platforms. The only way to make progress in this section is trial and error, as the drips of dirt indicating where each platform is located are insufficient to work out the right angle to latch on to them, and the speed of the rising wall is too fast to allow for a single mistake. Failing in this section sends the player right back to the beginning of the fight, to begin the tedious task of climbing up the mountain once again.
Some players enjoy the challenge of spending hours analysing the best way to defeat a boss. I am not one of them. The fights themselves do appear to be well designed, but the difficulty seems out of step with the rest of the game, which introduces platforming obstacles at a smooth pace, allows the player to make a few mistakes, and never has a save point too far away. The frustration factor will be lessened for those who play the game after launch, as the community will be able to offer tips and tricks for the less experienced players, and playing on a more relaxed timeframe than review purposes would make one less likely to throw a controller out the window. A small concession to less skilled players would be to allow them to leave the boss area and come back later, sending them back to the nearest save point rather than just before the boss. An option to search for heart pieces, earn money, and find a hidden collectable hat or two before returning to the grind would help immensely.
The gorgeous world of Kunai is warm and inviting, drawing one back in despite the harshness of its battles. The landscape is created with smooth lines and bold colours, with each area featuring a different colour palette of three tones. The style is reminiscent of old Game Boy games played on the Game Boy Color, with a modern twist. Character designs are beautifully done, with the variety of robots and computer people all in various states of disrepair. Music is also an inventive fusion of the old and the new, high-energy chiptunes with hints of old martial arts movies.
Kunai is, for most part, a wonderfully complex Metroidvania. The colourful artwork, smooth movement, and clever level design are some of the greatest the genre has seen, but the high difficulty of the boss encounters will prevent some players from fully enjoying this vibrant world.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on Nintendo Switch.