I recently had an opportunity to check in on KUNAI at PAX South. Now I get to review it!
KUNAI is 2D action adventure platformer, also known as a metroidvania. You play as Tabby, a tablet with a body. Well sorta, the body is somewhat disjointed. Don’t think about it too much.
Narratively, humans have almost been wiped out of existence by an evil robot uprisings. Tabby joins the robot resistance to help, I suppose. Tabby is a silent protagonist, so I get the feeling Tabs is just along for the ride. In any case, we help the friendly blue robots undermine the evil red robots.
For the most part, gameplay is fairly typical for a metroidvania. You’ll find large interconnected maps where some paths are blocked until you acquire a certain piece of equipment. Once you have the equipment, you can use it to progress past the roadblock, continuing on your journey. Along the way you’ll find smatterings of enemies and hazards that want to crack Tabby’s screen (get it? Tabby is a tablet). Aside from finding new toys and items, defeated enemies drop tokens which you can use to purchase upgrades for your equipment.
The magic of KUNAI is in controlling Tabby. The little robot runs across the screen at just the right pace. Tabby’s sprite is relatively small, providing ample time to identify any threats on screen and avoid them, even at the fairly quick pace. Put those two details together and you end up with large environments to explore, that never feel like a burden to traverse because you’re moving (seemingly) so quickly.
You know in some games where controlling the main character feels cumbersome, almost like they’re wading through a tar pit? Maybe you didn’t think that at the start, but after revisiting previous areas, suddenly you notice how large the map is and how slow your character actually moves?
Tabby NEVER felt like that. Moving around as that little tablet-ninja-thing always felt great! Even revisiting older areas was joy. Especially so after picking up the game’s titular item.
Time to Swing
The kunai you find at the start is a game changer. Early on you’ll be given both kunai (fun fact: “kunai” is both the singular and plural spelling), each with a rope attached. That’s right, they’re grappling hooks, but with a ninja flair.
Again, let’s compare to KUNAI’s peers. You know in some games where they give you a grappling hook of some sort, but it doesn’t feel right? Maybe you can only use it under very limited/scripted circumstances. Perhaps it feels weighty, or the character has to stop moving entirely just to use it? Maybe it has some sort of cooldown that prevents you from using it frequently?
KUNAI doesn’t have any of those problems. The game WANTS you to use the kunai every chance you get. Throwing a kunai doesn’t slow tabby down at all, and there are almost always things to grapple onto. The kunai are really the defining feature of KUNAI (shocking, I know).
You get a “right” and “left” kunai. Pressing either the left or right trigger will release the corresponding kunai at a 45 degree angle. If it hits and attaches to a wall or object, then continuing to hold the trigger will latch the kunai to that surface, allowing Tabby to swing back and forth. Releasing the trigger lets the kunai loose, maintaining Tabby’s velocity as our hero is launched forward or whatever direction physic deemed appropriate. Of course, you can use both kunai in tandem, allowing you to quickly climb vertical shafts, or swing across long horizontal hallways without ever touching the ground.
I know I’m gushing about grappling mechanics, which isn’t really a new concept in gaming. However, it’s done so well that I need to mention it. The worst part of any zone are the parts where Tabs has to walk on the ground like a normal video game protagonist.
Anyways, once you get comfortable with them, swinging around each area with the kunai is a fantastic experience!
As you progress, you’ll probably take damage at some point. For the most part, the game doesn’t really have health pickups to restore Tabby’s vitality. Instead, the sword you also get at the start of the game allows you to regain health by attacking enemies. So if you take a fair amount of damage, you can potentially recover it without too much trouble by being cautious in future encounters.
This provides some interesting tension, as your primary means of health restoration is a melee ability, but enemies can hurt you if you’re not too careful. This dynamic adds an interesting twist to KUNAI. Past mistakes can be forgiven by being cautious in future encounters. There were a couple of cases where I took some damage, kept playing thinking “oh man I better be careful, I gotta be real low on health” only to find that I whacked enough foes to recover all of Tabby’s health.
As you explore new areas, you’ll find new mechanics are slowly introduced. For example, an early area features long vines hanging from the ceiling. Jumping into them slows Tabby’s descent considerably, allowing you to use them as pseudo platforms. Another area introduced conveyor belts and narrow passages, making it harder to avoid any hazards that are in your way. Without spoiling all the surprises, rest assured knowing that the game keeps offering new complications to spice things up.
The look of the game has a semi retro vibe, without actually being retro. Meaning, the game makes use of a handful of colors at any time: usually white, a dark grey, red, blue, and one or two other colors that change depending on the zone you’re in. It seems they went with a color style that is reminiscent of older console generations, where the number of colors on screen at any point was limited. It’s novel, and provides a distinct style. The nostalgic gamer in me approves.
Aside from colors, sprites are great. Tabby is adorable and has a surprising amount of character for a protagonist that never speaks. Between the little smiling face while crouching, the angry grimace while attacking, or the look of awe when opening a new chest, Tabs is certainly lovable.
The animations are fluid but subtle, which blends well with the minimalist color scheme. To be brief, the game has a unique look and I like it.
Overall, I really enjoyed KUNAI. I wouldn’t say it does anything new, but it’s an excellent experience and I had a blast. If you like metroidvanias, this is worth your time.
You’ll find KUNAI available on Steam and Nintendo Switch.