America - Front
America - Back
By Evan Norris 06th Feb 2020 | 3,751 views
If Luddites required an excuse to eye the forward march of technology with apprehension, they need look no further than Kunai, a side-scrolling action title about a sentient tablet with a life-stealing katana in a post-apocalyptic world. This grim reality isn't likely too soon—human beings still struggle to connect their smart devices to the internet, after all—but it sure makes for a fun video game. With smooth and stylish action, rewarding exploration, and an oddball cast of robotic freedom fighters, it's a solid action-platformer that falls a bit short of excellence.
Kunai takes place after the fall of humanity. The evil A.I. Lemonkus, having wiped out human life, reigns supreme, countered only by a fledgling resistance of robots. Players take control of TBY-1134 AKA Tabby, a sentient tablet infused with the soul of an ancient warrior. A Neo-esque figure, Tabby is the last hope of the opposition.
While the story in Kunai suffers from some frustrating narrative gaps—even as the credits roll you might be unsure what exactly led to the rise of Lemonkus or the advent of the resistance—it's populated with some funny and memorable characters and more than a few knowing jabs at the games industry and consumers. Tabby is immediately loveable, despite his violent ways, and the ragtag group of robot survivors who guide him on his quest are lots of fun.
Developer TurtleBlaze describes Kunai as "a quirky, fast-paced action adventure/metroidvania", which is partially accurate. It's a 2D side-scrolling action-platforming game with an interconnected world and room to explore, yes, but it doesn't conform fully to the Metroidvania model. It is most similar to Iconoclasts, which provided opportunities for backtracking but never prioritized them. In the same way, Kunai will reward players who revisit areas and search for secrets, but they can experience most of the campaign by proceeding in a linear way. More secrets and shortcuts—and a better way to track them—would elevate the game even higher.
Whether traveling in a straight line or zig-zagging across the game's many biomes looking for hidden heart pieces and silly hats, Kunai is an absolute treat mechanically. It features smooth, snappy, and gratifying action, thanks to responsive controls, Tabby's parkour skill set, and, perhaps most importantly, the titular kunai. Once found, these serve as dual grappling hooks, which allow the heroic tablet to swing over bosses, scale vertical walls, and in general move around each screen like a total badass. At the risk of angering the video game reviewer gods, Kunai makes you feel like a ninja.
These kunai are useful both in combat and in a number of platforming challenges. Kunai throws several tricky obstacles in Tabby's path, where he needs to swing and clamber to safety. In Robopolis, there's an especially difficult timed platforming event—the Trial of Mocsemag—that requires zero mistakes and clever use of unlocked upgrades; clear it under the required time and you'll earn a rare hat. The only problem: this challenge is one-of-a-kind.
That speaks to the biggest drawback in Kunai—there's just not enough of the good stuff. The game could use a few more boss battles, several more challenging platforming trials, side-quests, and more to do and explore. Right now it feels like a solid template begging for a bigger and better sequel.
Apart from kunai, Tabby will unlock shuriken and other weapons, including SMGs and a rocket launcher. Players can upgrade all using coins collected from defeated robots and treasure chests, and enhance the main melee blade, the katana, via a forge in resistance HQ. In a brilliant stroke, TurtleBlaze designed the SMGs so that they carry Tabby over gaps when fired downward; they're a short-range jetpack, for all intents and purposes.
Kunai isn't the most gorgeous game, but its silly character designs, smooth animations, and faded Game Boy color palette go a long way. Its soundscape and score are strong as well, with unique, evocative tracks for each biome.
If humanity truly is destined to fall, at least a cute tablet with a sword will avenge us. Tabby is a rising star, and Kunai is a solid effort from developer TurtleBlaze, thanks to smooth action, acrobatic gameplay, rewarding exploration, and a weird world populated with strange places and colorful characters. The story can be vague and there's plenty of room for more bosses, quests, and optional challenges, but devotees of action-platformers and Metroidvanias should find few reasons to complain.