Hyakki Castle Review – Enjoyable Clunkiness
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Asakusa Studios
Release: 15th November 2017
Asakusa Studios, a freshly established development studio, take their first step into the videogame business with their dungeon crawler Hyakki Castle. Oriented on classic japanese history and mythology it promises an interesting journey through a mysterious castle filled with interesting lore. Sadly this interesting premise is buried in a sea of clunky mechanics.
Set in the Edo period, Hyakki Castle´s plot focuses around Doman Kigata, a mighty sorcerer who once planned to overthrow the shogun before he got captured and exiled on a deserted island. Yet one day a mysterious, giant castle appears on that very land, while three severed heads were sent as a warning to the shogun. Naturally they can´t ignore Doman´s possible return, sending four elite agents to assassinate their new threat.
Still, despite the actual quite interesting setting, most of the initial story is lost shortly after entering the giant castle. Where a great looking, classical painted pictured illustrated the intro, such lore heavy passages are nowhere to be found afterwards. Frankly it serves more as a set-up than an actual drive of the game, resulting in a nice sounding premise but ultimately underused when it comes to illustrating the different characters, motivations or environments. At the end everyone stays the same blank page with no difference, even the end isn´t very surprising or worthwhile, completely shifting the focus on the dungeon crawling aspect.
In its core Hyakki Castle is a very classic crawler, offering a giant tower ready to be explored across dozens of layers. At the start of each playhtrough we can create a party of four, assign each of them an own character and class. Besides the character progression, unlocked skills and items to be found in treasures, the save mechanic is where the problems start. Instead of being able to save pretty much everywhere, the game relies on rare save points, making deaths even more punishing. Since they can only be found every few levels saving feels similar to bonfires in the Souls series.
Combat is more of a mixed bag as well, offering a real-time fighting system where every character´s skills are controlled individually. Generally speaking turn based systems are the way to go for most dungeon crawlers, so having a more action oriented one isn´t bad at all. On the one hand Hyakki Castle is actually doing a nice job at finding the middle between those two systems, with every attack being limited by cooldowns, same for enemies. On the other hand the controls are simply way too clunky to work properly in such a system. Every character is controlled by pressing a button to select him, then pressing one of four to attack … for every single one of them, at least on a controller which is the only way to enjoy the game without having to spend minutes in the config menu. Remembering the button for each one, the attack and executing it fast enough is a necessity which necessarily leads to confusion.
A shame truly, considering how well the overall puzzle or level design works. Divided into different themes, the different floors introduce new skill based challenges one after another. From early, timing based spike riddles to labyrinth like structures where the party needs to find a way by dropping and crossing different holes. They´re diverse but not too complicated, symbolising a great mix of the simplistic controls and more challenging puzzles.
Naturally Hyakki Castle also features one very unique idea with which those puzzles are combined, the ability to split the party in two. Yes, throughout the game it´s possible to separate the four playing only two of them at the same time. Normally used to open gates, deactivate traps from another side or simply to press two buttons the feature is regularly used in unsurprising but working ways. Surely it´s not unknown from other games but particularly in dungeon crawlers I haven´t seen it before and it works surprisingly well. By enriching the gameplay possibilities without sacrificing the soul of the genre it´s a beautiful addition. However in fights I almost never made use of it due to the clunky controls, making it almost impossible to control those two properly.
Leading us to the two final problems, the controls and technical framework. As previously pointed out, Hyakki Castle doesn´t control very well in more hectic scenarios, forcing the player to memorize tons of buttons, switch between them etc. but this trend continues in the interface as well. Be it the inventory, character screens, battle menus or general overview, everything´s stuffed together with weird symbols, lacking explanations, tons of mystical things and confusing use. Combined with the horrible default button mapping, that makes it impossible at times to even navigate through the menu, and lack of supported resolutions beyond 720p, every first impression should be pretty bad. Even though the Yokais look very cool, being mostly pre-rendered as it seems while the wall textures may not be super high-res but do a good job at conveying their target atmosphere.
Honestly, after first starting up the game I was shocked, not able to understand the gameplay, change keybindings or get a grip of the menus. Hyakki Castle checks all those cliché points of a japanese game with its horrible menus or settings. Yet, buried beneath the horrible interface, clunkiness and many flaws is an enjoyable dungeon crawler with a neat new idea. Surely it needs willpower to fight through these obstacles but at least fans of the genre should try this yokai infested journey through a classic japanese themed tower.
[A Review Code was provided by Happinet]