I’m dying. A lot. As I spawn back at the start of the game for the umpteenth time and a shrine maiden innocently asks, “How does your body fare?”, I’m tempted to respond with a surly “Don’t bloody ask.”
Make no mistake, GetsuFumaDen: Undying Moon is a tough game – it’s a 2D rogue-lite that showers you with loot and a generous armoury of weapons, but at the same time pits you against an army of ghoulish creatures who’ll mercilessly club, stab, and explode you to death if your reactions aren’t razor-sharp.
What makes the challenge so palatable, though, is the sheer look of the thing: GetsuFumaDen provides an Unreal-powered tour through Japanese folklore, with gorgeous artwork inspired by tradition-al Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The results are akin to the similarly pretty Muramasa: The Demon Blade (one of the best third-party hack-and-slashers on the Wii) and the more recent Eastern Exorcist (see Wireframe issue 44).
Although western readers may not recognise the name, GestuFumaDen sees Konami delving way back into the dustier parts of its back catalogue. Released on the Nintendo Famicom in the 1980s, the original GetsuFumaDen (or more accurately, Getsu Fūma Den) was a success in Japan, and while it didn’t get a release elsewhere, it’s still regarded as a cult item in its home territory.
According to Shin Murato, Undying Moon’s producer, the thought of reviving GetsuFumaDen came about thanks to the burgeoning sub-genre of other games steeped in eastern folklore. “We noticed major titles using Japanese themes,” Murato tells us. “So we wanted to create a low-middle-range game with great art, systems, and Japanese themes. GetsuFumaDen fit this perfectly, [and had] no sequel.”
Undying Moon is set roughly a millennia after the first game, and sees Fuma, a descendent of the original story’s Getsu clan, embark on a quest to close a portal to hell – and attempt to murder all the assorted demons that have already escaped via that portal. Like the original game, Undying Moon is a 2D hack-and-slash with RPG elements.
The sequel eschews the top-down bits of old, though, and instead goes for a more modern approach with randomly generated levels and a deeper array of weapons to collect and upgrade. There’s a pleasing heft to the weapons, too: these are also randomly dished out before you begin a stage, and range from short-range yet powerful katana to spears, which deal less damage but are ideal for prodding enemies from a distance. There are also ranged weapons (bows, matchlock guns), as well as crude explosives which are ideal for lobbing at tougher enemies loitering on platforms.
Our favourite of the lot, though, is the umbrella – a bit of weaponry we didn’t expect to encounter in a scowling game full of demons and burning infernos, but actually turns out to be one of the most useful items we’ve encountered so far. “We decided to use this from the beginning of development,” Murato tells us. “The Japanese umbrella is the only weapon that can use both guard and parry… Also, players can descend slowly by opening the umbrella. The attack ability is less than other weapons in that point, but if the player can master it, it will become a strong weapon.”
Undying Moon marks something of a change of direction for Konami. Not only is it unusual to see the firm revive one of its more obscure properties, but it’s also the first time the Metal Gear developer/publisher has dabbled in Steam Early Access. “We want to use Early Access to get user feedback to improve the content of this title,” says Murato. “By listening to users and creating discussion, we believe that we can further increase the quality of the game before opening it up for a wider audience.
“Any opinions on our Steam community, Discord, or Twitter pages will be read by the development team and we’ll consider the updates in the future by keeping user feedback in mind. Similar games to GetsuFumaDen: Undying Moon have also shown us that the genre works well for Early Access release.”
Back in the game itself, and I’m gradually getting the hang of its combat system. Even common enemies like a club-wielding ogre deal huge amounts of damage, so precise dodges are as important as well-timed attacks.
I’m still dying a lot, since Undying Moon’s roguelike nature means you can sometimes get a bit unlucky with the placement of enemies – getting two of those ogres in one spot can make for a serious challenge, especially if you’re low on health. Get to the end of the first stage, meanwhile, and more punishment awaits: a colossal, angry skeleton with an equally imposing health bar. It’s quite a battle, but once again, its difficulty is leavened by the beauty of its design.
GetsuFumaDen: Undying Moon is a surprise from Konami, then, but certainly a welcome one. And who knows? If this release is a success, maybe Konami will revive some of its other neglected properties. A new 2D Castlevania, but given this level of style and polish? Now that really would be a treat.
Format: PC / Switch (2022)
Developer: Konami / GuruGuru
Release: Out now (Early Access)