At a glance, Kunai sounds like an easy sell. Coming from developer TurtleBlaze and publisher The Arcade Crew, it is a Metroidvania with a beautiful visual aesthetic, including attractive animations and strikingly cohesive color schemes. The game further distinguishes itself in the genre with its titular kunai mechanic, which allows your character to grapple onto walls and ceilings to swing around with great mobility. Unfortunately, despite these positives, Kunai is full of uninspired design decisions that prevent it from realizing its full potential.
Break your enemy or the game
The protagonist of Kunai is a sentient ninja tablet named Tabby who fights with a sword. The story is forgivably irrelevant, being a tongue-in-cheek narrative of robots in a post-apocalyptic world. Although, there are weird jokes referencing random things like GameStop and Star Wars memes that fall flat hard.
As the game progresses, Tabby also gets shurikens, machine guns, and a rocket launcher, and currency collected from treasure chests and fallen enemies may be spent to upgrade all equipment. One of the early sword upgrades lets you do a charge attack, which automatically locks on to enemies and gives you the chance to kill everything on screen at once. It’s so effective that there’s rarely a reason to use any other weapon. Worse than that, the attack has a rare bug where you might accidentally fall through the floor, causing you to wind up in a different area or just softlock the game, forcing a reset.
There is a good variety of enemies though, if you excuse the fact that you will dispatch most of them the same way. Admittedly, it actually wasn’t uncommon for me to die, and Kunai is quite accommodating about that. You lose no progress or items whatsoever upon death, with the only punishment being that you are sent back to your last save point. Since save points often aren’t abundant, this is actually a fair and non-frustrating way to handle death.
The handful of bosses in the game adhere to pretty clear attack patterns and don’t throw too many curve balls, but at least each boss is distinct. What’s disappointing though is that only a single boss requires extensive use of the kunai grappling mechanic, which is ostensibly the game’s defining feature, and that boss fight isn’t even clever. It just involves tedious wall-climbing.
Meanwhile, the final boss is brutally tough and full of health, and the game makes the bizarre decision to auto-save immediately before the fight. So if you are struggling with the fight and think you should go back to get some more upgrades — that won’t be possible. You are stuck in that fight forever until you beat the game.
Disappointing level design
Kunai’s actual level design does some things well. There is a vast abundance of collectible hats for Tabby hidden around the world, not yielding a gameplay advantage but still providing novelty. Surprisingly, there are also some scripted auto-scroller sections, where getting caught on the screen’s edge or falling in a bottomless pit means instant death. (You’ll start back at the beginning of the section again though.) It feels like an earnest effort to elevate the action beyond that of a typical Metroidvania.
Aside from these segments though, the level design is ultimately bland. The first few zones of the game all feel basically the same gameplay-wise, not providing a diversity of challenges. A factory zone adds spinning blades and crushing blocks to the mix, and mines offer a gimmick of fire and lava. But it doesn’t get much more creative than that.
Kunai’s worst offense though is how it is so uncreative with its grappling mechanic. Kunai are used constantly throughout the game to get from point A to point B — but that’s it. The platforming is almost never imaginative or challenging. As a result, grappling feels like a gimmick instead of a critical gameplay mechanic.
And even beyond that, sometimes the level design is just strange. More than once while playing, I stopped to just wonder why certain things were arranged in such an arbitrary fashion. Kunai clearly isn’t a Yacht Club production.
Kunai is a decent effort
Ultimately, Kunai is a competent and attractive Metroidvania title let down by uninspired game design, underutilized mechanics, and some bugs. Still, this isn’t a bad effort by TurtleBlaze. In fact, I think a sequel that learns from this game’s mistakes could be a blast.
A review code was provided by the publisher.