Available On: PC (Steam), Switch
Shovel Knight was one of the most popular and well-received indie games of the last several years, lovingly ripping off NES-era pixels and gameplay.
With fun abilities, excellent level designs, and a charming art style, I’m declaring Kunai the Shovel Knight of 2020, though Kunai shoulders the much more expansive (and oft-overused) genre of metroidvania, and not without some significant growing pains.
In Kunai you play as Tabby, a robot with an expressive (and adorable) tablet for a face, a blue cloak, and a katana sword. Tabby is activated by a band of resistance robots in a bleak post-human world, fighting against an oppressive robot army. There’s little in the way of plot save to direct me from one area to the next, gaining new abilities and weapons, though I enjoyed finding and friendly NPCs around the monochromatic world.
If Shovel Knight emulates that saturated 8-bit pixel era, Kunai is all about that 90s GameBoy aesthetic. From the Quantum Forest to the Haunted Factory, the world is draped in a classic gray-green-brown palette. Characters are a slight exception, with allies in blue and enemies always having a splash of red to help them standout.
Despite the limited palette, the world feels varied and interesting thanks to the stellar level designs, which feature the perfect mix of claustrophobic tunnels and corridors with huge open areas that take full advantage of the unique traversal mechanics – the titular roped daggers.
One of the first tasks upon waking up is acquiring a pair of kunai that turn Tabby into robo-Spider-man. With the flick of the right or left shoulder buttons I can fire off the kunai into either direction, auto-targeting the nearest wall space that I can grapple and swing from.
It’s instantly fun to swing around levels and grapple to higher places, though the auto-targeting takes some getting used to. Thanks to the kunai, Tabby can take advantage of vertical level designs that are much more interesting to traverse than most action-platformers, including a literal climb up a gigantic mountain, and a boss battle that challenges my rapid ascension skills.
Tabby isn’t limited to just the sword and kunai, however, eventually gaining a pair of high-powered guns, a classic double-jump and dash, and even a hilariously over-powered rocket launcher, each with their own expandable upgrades. Aside from the lame early-game shurikens, I delighted at using all these new weapons and tools.
The steady ramp of difficulty from region to region features more challenging enemies, like robots with guns, hovering samurai-bots with rockets, and cloaked teleporting and exploding bots. Thankfully the level designs hit a perfect balance of hazardous traps, hidden secrets, and new enemies. I never felt like I was doing any one thing, or exploring any one area, too long, and the entire game is easily finished in under eight hours, possessing that rare quality of leaving me wanting more.
Unfortunately Kunai stumbles with the metroidvania element of back-tracking. Acquiring new abilities and items that unlock new paths in previously explored areas is a classic staple of the genre, but Kunai’s lack of map annotations, along with a complete lack of fast-travel, all but ensures I’ll never return to comb through an area looking for previously blocked paths and secrets. Just because you have an old-school 8-bit design doesn’t mean your map needs to be completely bereft of information.
Kunai has not been rated by the ESRB. There’s no voice acting and limited dialogue, and the gameplay can become quite challenging in the final hour. The all-robot world may be bleak but it’s also infused with lots of humor from the various friendly robots Tabby meets. There’s no blood or gore, with defeated robots poofing into an explosion of gems.
Metroidvania may be the single most overused genre in indie games in the last decade, and I’ve played my fair share. Despite my annoying quibbles with the map, Kunai provided one of the freshest, tightest, and most enjoyable experiences in the genre I can remember – though make sure you play it on console, or have a controller handy for PC for the optimum experience.