Let’s Go Treasure Hunting!
I’m at a bit of a loss accurately describing Kowloon High-School Chronicle. It would be accurate to call it a Japanese Indiana Jones, a dungeon-crawling Resident Evil, or a 3D La-Mulana. Hell, it even shares some surprising commonalities with a popular CCG called Yu-Gi-Oh! But it’s also true that Kowloon High-School Chronicle is a classic PS2 title originally developed by Atlus. Thanks to the folks at Arc System Works, it’s finally been brought to Western audiences in a translated form. The real question is, was there a reason it took this long for it to come stateside? And more importantly, was it worth the wait?
The mystery of the Japanese Sphinx
First off, while I can’t say exactly why it took so long to bring Kowloon High-School Chronicle here, I can say I’m glad it happened. I’ve played a lot of different genres, and this title still stood out as unique. Nominally it’s a dungeon-crawler, but it has so many other facets. There are conversational elements taken straight from visual novels. There are classic RPG sections that appear in a fun little mini-game called Rockford Adventure. Hell, there are even times where I felt the game was skewing towards survival horror in terms of item management and monster avoidance. But none of that matters unless the premise of the game is worthwhile. And I can say that’s definitely the case.
Ruin Safety Not Assured
The game starts with an introductory sequence. You’re in some ancient Egyptian ruins hunting for artifacts, along with a wizened advisor. This is to teach you the ins and outs of exploration and combat. At first, I assumed combat would be a typical turn-based affair, like in most dungeon crawlers. But it’s altogether different. You can organically shift between modes once combat is initiated. Your starting mode lets you use healing items while going to Hunter mode lets you use your various weapons, up to three types which can be equipped at a time. You start with a knife, assault rifle, and explosive grenades. Once you’re ready, you can attack however you want. The important factor is how much AP you have. These stand for action points, which are used for both your party’s movement and attacks. Once you don’t have enough left, you have to end your turn. When that happens, whatever you’re fighting comes after you. Thankfully, they also have a limited AP pool, so they can only move so far before they attack. Or, if you’re lucky, you can stay just out of range, so they waste all their AP coming towards you, leaving them effectively defenseless.
Time for a Shadow Game?
Besides keeping track of how much ammo you have left, you also should try and determine what the enemy is weak to, as well as discovering their weak spot. This is less of an individual spot and more of a direction to attack them from. Some foes are weaker when hitting them head-on, some from the side, and some from the back. Bosses do have individual weak points, but that’s not really the case for smaller enemies. Likewise, some foes are weaker to knives than guns, etcetera. As for exploration, it’s pretty intuitive. You move around using the direction buttons, read clues, and solve puzzles to proceed. You also have nifty tools like night vision goggles and something called a wire gun. The latter lets you cross long distances and get some vertical height. This is handy when trying to access well-hidden chests or distant doorways. There’s actually a lot more I could say about both combat and exploration. But I’d rather not spend the entire review doing that. For better or worse, I’m going to have to generalize the more important features in this review because there’s a lot of game in Kowloon High-School Chronicle.
What a Nice School!
As for the plot, that’s one of the high points in Kowloon High-School Chronicle. It’s a story about hunting for ancient artifacts, horrible monsters, and nefarious organizations out to change the world. There’s a lot of Egyptian flavor here, but they also mix it with a Japanese flair. Without too many spoilers, there’s something strange about the high school where most of the game occurs. Such as the fact a labyrinthine set of ruins is directly underneath it. Not to mention it’s a school with a cemetery on school grounds. So that’s fun. Honestly, in many ways, the plot is a hot mess. It’s very creative and has a host of compelling characters. But it’s also totally over the top unless you’re willing to set logic mostly aside. I mean, if I had attended a school district where children regularly went missing and others got cursed by dark forces, I think that school would be closed pretty quick. Not to mention a school where the teachers aren’t actually in charge, but instead, it’s the nefarious Student Council who runs the show. As I said, Kowloon High-School Chronicle is pretty damned crazy. Thankfully it’s also pretty fun.
Secrets of The Emotional Tool
Adding to the crazy is that you play a treasure hunter who is disguised as a regular high school student, Kuro Habaki. After the events of the introduction, you’re trying to beat another organization to the punch finding artifacts with world-changing possibilities. I don’t want to spoil anything since this is a game where it’s better to experience the story firsthand. But I will say there’s a wonderful cast here. There’s the lackadaisical Minakami, the boisterous Yachiho, and the outlandish Toride, amongst many others. The gameplay is essentially split into two main parts. First are those that take place during the day at the school. These play out like a VN, with tons of dialogue to read and choices to make. The latter is where things get particularly interesting. There’s an emotional input tool that shows up repeatedly, and you use it to react to questions posed by other characters. At first, I had no idea what I was doing with it until I noticed the strange markings were hiding something in plain sight. Namely, each of the options you can pick are highly stylized English words, which indicate clear emotional choices such as Love or Grief. All you have to do is quickly pick how you want to react, then pick a direction to aim. If you want the outermost choice, just hold it until that option lights up. It’s a bit confusing, but I got the hang of it after the first hour or two of gameplay.
I Volunteer As Tribute
Besides talking and making decisions, free time also lets you chat with friends and teachers to acquire gifts. These are random items that you can store in your room. They can be healing items, weapons, or even accessories, so pay attention to what you get. I got lots of bottles of medicine from the nurse and scarves from other faculty. Worst case scenario, you can toss anything you don’t need since space is very much at a premium for items you carry with you while dungeon crawling. Oh, and don’t forget to buy healing items at the shop on school grounds. You can’t access it during the night sections, which is also when the actual dungeon crawling typically occurs. The worst thing that can happen is running completely dry of healing items when you’re deep in some ancient ruin.
No Running in the Halls
Speaking of ancient ruins, there’s a whole interconnected mass of them under your school, which is weird, but also kind of awesome. Basically, events play out in the daytime sections that set up the stakes for the nighttime sections. They develop like an anime episode, and I kept thinking how much Kowloon High-School Chronicle’s plot reminded me of Yu-Gi-Oh! There’s a ton of ancient curses, evil spirits, powerful artifacts, and the like. Not to mention how both this game and that series have a peculiar fixation on Egyptian culture and mythology. There’s a ton of lore you’ll uncover as you play, including a popularized term called OOParts. That stands for “out-of-place artifacts.” I had heard of those before in another game, so I was really surprised to see it here. Long story short, the story is focused on ancient cultures and how they might have interacted with extraterrestrial and celestial entities. There’s a lot of great speculative fiction here that piqued my interest early on.
Lend a Helping Hand
One key tool whilst exploring is called the H.A.N.T., short for Hunter Assistant Network Tool. It displays 6 different categories – Mail, Terminology, Enemies, Suiin’s Notes, Help, and Settings. This is also where a variety of small tutorials are located, making the H.A.N.T. integral to your success. I wound up checking the tutorials repeatedly when I got stuck. Cause while the basic controls are intuitive enough, there’s a ton of subsystems with particular quirks to using them, and it’s easy to forget small details. That said, here are some key controls for when you play the game. Pressing – brings up command thumbnails; + shows message log and activates night vision; A examines objects; Y jumps; X brings up the item screen, and R switches between exploration and hunter modes. You can also do things like autoplay text and a whole bunch besides. But if you ever get lost, just try those command thumbnails, and you’ll get sorted.
Don’t Wander in the Dark
I like a whole lot about Kowloon High-School Chronicle, but it also shows its age at times. The game originally came out more than a decade ago, and games of that era had a tendency to be both hardcore and confusing at times. It does not hold your hand much after the introductory section. Fun fact, once I got to my character’s room for the first time, I had no idea what to do next, with tons of options to pick from. Those included buying weapons via the Shadow of Jade shop, accepting quests from the Rosetta Society, and more. And try not to forget necessities like leveling up (which you have to do manually) and reading mail from your allies. But basically, if you’re not sure what to do, it’s usually up to you to progress the plot by exploring some ruins and fighting some monsters.
Get Ready for (Rockford) Adventure!
Speaking of monsters, Kowloon High-School Chronicle has great critters, thanks in part to the updated artwork. You’ll face angry mummies, hovering demon women, scorpions, bats, and a whole bestiary of unholy mayhem. A special shout-out goes to the massive and terrifying bosses, which are as gruesome as they are epic. The artwork also leads to well-designed characters and lush cutscenes. Not to be outdone, the music is tremendous. It features tons of jazzy tunes and even some haunting Egyptian-themed music. It’s never boring to listen to, especially since there’s some excellent Japanese voice acting.
Monstrous Entities Await
Now, there’s more I like about the game than I dislike. Unfortunately, I have to spend some time talking about the elements that kept this from a better score. I had mentioned how the game was a bit too old school. There are all sorts of elements that aren’t well explained, despite copious tutorials. I also wish the game was much better about prompts of what to do when I got stuck. And I got stuck early and often. Frankly, this is the sort of game that probably needs an in-depth guide to find all the hidden nooks and crannies. Of equal concern was the translation of the game. It seemed fine at first, but there were a ton of grammatical errors and beyond strange formatting quirks. These include big unnecessary spaces and line breaks aplenty. Also irritating is how every time you start a new chapter, the introduction animation plays again. There are even sections where credits roll by all in kanji. Given my complete lack of ability to translate, those seemed out of place. None of this breaks the game, mind you, but it does make it less accessible to less patient gamers.
Return To the PS2 Era
In summation, I did enjoy Kowloon High-School Chronicle. But it was also a very mixed experience. Not so much that I regretted trying it, but I do lament what could have been with smoother translation and more system clarity. I still feel Arc System Works did us all a service bringing a once region-locked game West. Now I just hope they put in the time and hard effort to smooth over the various rough edges. If they do, this could earn a perfect score. As it is now, I can best recommend it to fans of gaming history or dungeon crawlers.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (reviewed); Publisher: Arc System Works; Developer: Toy Box Inc.; Players: 1; Released: February 4, 2021; MSRP: $29.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.