When your genre is already a portmanteau of two games, it’s always going to be a challenge to find ways to avoid being derivative. Incidentally, KUNAI’s first weapon, the katana, liberally borrows from Hollow Knight with its bouncing, downward-slash attack. That said, if I hadn’t relied on this bouncing tactic too much early on, I would’ve realised that the katana can also deflect bullets. Now that’s something you don’t usually see in a Metroidvania.
Developer TurtleBlaze does its best to mix things up, starting the moment you acquire the kunai themselves. These dual weapons make for invaluable traversal tools, and behave much like grappling hooks. They auto-target attach points in the environment pretty reliably, so swinging along ceilings or scaling up walls feels effortless. Mapping respective kunai to the left and right triggers makes traversal particularly satisfying, as you zip up tunnels with alternate trigger presses.
The action isn’t solely centred on the kunai, though. As you progress through the post-apocalyptic world – taking in a story I found little motivation to pay attention to – you’ll find plenty of other gadgets. Some, such as the shuriken, adhere closely to the ninja aesthetic; others, such as an overpowered rocket launcher, not so much. You’ll recall abilities like double-jumps and dashes from other games, but there’s still the occasional novelty, like firing downwards with a pair of machine guns to keep you hovering in the air.
The pixel artwork has a retro vibe, but with its own distinctive twist: the fanciful explosions and expressive animations recall the sprites of Metal Slug, while its mostly monochromatic palette recalls the Game Boy Color. The stern challenge is retro, too, with some decent bosses, though some set-pieces involve defeating waves of enemies, which isn’t as fun. The difficulty mostly stems from the lack of health recovery items, and sometimes it can feel like you’ve been wandering around for an age on low health, only to get taken down by an unexpected enemy – or worse, caught by the odd insta-killing environmental trap, which boots you all the way back to the last save point.
There are flashes of ingenuity and more than a few niggles here, but KUNAI’s mostly a capable entry in an increasingly oversaturated genre. If you’re a fan of Metroidvanias, you’ll lap it up for the few hours it takes to reach the endgame, before facing a walloping in its late difficulty spike, then happily moving on to the next thing.
When garbed in ninja robes and a number of cosmetic hats, it’s easy to forget you’re playing as a sentient tablet, hence the name Tabby (I think Paddy would’ve been a great alternative). The character’s surprisingly expressive too, compared to the blank monitor-faced NPCs you encounter. Better yet, there’s even an app that puts Tabby’s interactive face on your own phone or tablet.
KUNAI might not push the Metroidvania subgenre forward, but it has a few novel touches that make it just fine.
Genre: Metroidvania | Format: Switch (tested) / PC | Developer: TurtleBlaze | Publisher: The Arcade Crew | Price: £15.29 | Release: Out now