Grappling with Humanity
It’s easy to throw yourself into your work if you feel strongly about the cause.
Getting lost in your purpose — especially if you’re wholly dedicated to the mission — can certainly happen if you’re not careful.
And once you cross that line between dedication and obsession, well… it can get unhealthy — and the consequences can be dire.
That’s the setup going into KUNAI, the self-styled “agile action platformer” with “a concentrated slice of a Metroidvania’s best elements”. Developed by TurtleBlaze and published by The Arcade Crew (Gamera Games in China), KUNAI conveys innocence in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by evil A.I. and how the soul of a warrior infused in a killer robot will save what’s left of humanity.
The story opens up with a reconnaissance mission of sorts — robots decked in blue risk what are essentially their lives to free something mysterious, something peculiar: you. Turns out you’re something special, and you’re probably the key to ending the suffering brought about by the evil A.I. overlord Lemonkus. Their mission complete and your freedom secured, it’s now up to you, Tabby, to save the world.
Does the weight of all that has happened and all that is yet to be press down on your mechanical shoulders, the burden almost too great to bear?
Nah — just look at your happy ‘lil face! You’re so CUTE!
So begins the epic of Tabby, the most graceful ninja-tablet to ever roam the Earth. By wandering through metal cities, overgrown forests, and forgotten ruins, Tabby stumbles across ancient weapons, A.I. baddies, and, of course, hats. Can you help Tabby master each weapon in order to defeat the elite A.I. and restore the world to its former self? Only one way to find out!
The first thing I immediately want to compliment are the absolutely fluid controls. When it comes to Switch games of this caliber, they’re often ported from their initial platform and given some — but not much — thought. This is absolutely not the case for KUNAI; in fact, it’s as if Switch controls were a priority during development, which was a delightful surprise. My favorite example of this is in the kunai themselves — the Japanese-gardening-trowels-turned-ninja-grappling-hooks. Tabby gets a kunai per hand, the right one controlled by the ZR button and the left one controlled by the ZL button. Using the kunai, Tabby can scale walls to access upper areas of the map previously inaccessible without them, and the silky smooth controls mean this is not only intuitive but fun. Make no mistake — KUNAI was definitely made for the Switch!
Fans of Metroidvanias will find themselves in love here — the maps beckon players to explore and provide enough diversity between panels to make for a fairly memorable layout. For those who don’t have the best memory, don’t fret, as a map chip will be provided later after finding a particular friendly bot named Dave. Even without the map chip, however, it’s pretty easy to accidentally find exactly where you need to go, and backtracking is more often than not an option. For those new to the genre, this lack of map from the get-go may make you feel lost and confused, but I promise that if you stick with it, you’ll be in for a real treat.
I would be hard-pressed not to mention the aesthetics; KUNAI is where minimalism meets nostaliga, each color palette hearkening back to a familiar gaming era gone by. Although the panels were vibrant and the style felt fresh, the visuals were just another way KUNAI felt familiar, as if it was a forgotten classic on the shelf next to your ’80s favorites.
One thing I particularly enjoyed about KUNAI was the boss battles. Instead of just scaling harder versions of the same baddie throughout, each boss challenged Tabby’s new weapon proficiency. For example, the very first boss occurs after you’ve picked up the katana and the kunai. You could probably tackle the guy head-on, but your health will drop before he does; instead, use the kunai to grapple on the walls’ sides and wait for him to swoop down, then back up towards you. Use that opportunity to strike, lather, rinse, repeat, and sheath your blade, warrior, for your job is finished.
Of course, there’s more to just that virtual ninja life than just katanas and kunais — there are dozens of weapons to pick up and master, including guns. As the saying goes, “those who live by the blade get shot by those who don’t”. If I’m learning anything from KUNAI, it’s to roll with it. This is a post-apocalyptic A.I. ridden world, after all.
Throughout KUNAI, I couldn’t help but think that, despite the glorious graphics, phenomenal controls, and delightful soundtrack, I think what appealed to me most about this absolute gem of a title is Tabby’s facial expressions. It sounds silly, but keep in mind Tabby’s supposed to be the soul of an old warrior fused into a killer robot’s body. Dude sounds like a vicious killing machine battling it out with himself to keep his humanity, but honestly, he’s the embodiment of a fairly important Zen principle regarding living in the moment. When he’s wandering around, you won’t find a happier being anywhere; when he’s taking care of business, however, he’s focused, his facial features reflecting this heightened state of tension. But the second that’s over? Tabby’s as happy as can be. I found myself so charmed by this small detail and reminded myself that maybe being in the moment as a tool to find happiness has its merits after all.
As much as I’ve absolutely loved my Nintendo Switch, it’s been struggling to shed its reputation of being the port dump for last-gen titles. When convincing my friends and family that there are indeed must-have third-party titles best played on the Switch, so few come to mind. It’s with great pleasure, then, that I declare KUNAI a necessity for Switch players who want to try their hand at an old challenge with a fresh feel. KUNAI is a great Metroidvania to sink your teeth into if you’re a fan of the genre, and although newcomers may stumble at first, sticking with this adorable ninja tablet is definitely worth it. Be sure to grab KUNAI on the Switch — the medium this masterpiece was made for — and grapple with what it really means to be human today!
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC, Switch (reviewed); Publisher: The Arcade Crew; Developer: TurtleBlaze; Players: 1; Released: February 6, 2020; MSRP: $16.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of KUNAI given to the reviewer by the publisher.