I was impressed with Kunai out of the gate. This Metroidvania action-adventure game serves up a hot mix of crunchy action with a flavorful side of ninja-like traversal mechanics. Within minutes I was branding a hard-hitting, life-stealing, bullet reflecting katana. (Yes, it’s as fun to use as it sounds) But I was well into the game before learning the game was made by Turtle Blaze, a small three-person dev team. Color me impressed.
The game begins with a jail-break. You play as Tabby, a sentient tablet, released by a band of robot freedom fighters that believe you’re the chosen one, uniquely created to save the world… or something.
There isn’t much context for what you’re doing. The story unfolds via neat sporadic cut-scenes, and you’ll get vague objective guidance through short bursts of text from quippy NPCs. In the end, all you need to know is that it’s the good blue robots vs the evil red and that the setup is just a means to get you right into the action/exploration loop.
Fans of the genre will be familiar with the meat of the game: fight enemies as you search for new weapons, purchase upgrades, and reach previously inaccessible areas. Kunai’s special sauce is its namesake dual rope grapples that you use to climb and swing through the world. Moving with momentum is a treat. The more you play, the more you understand that the levels are designed to compliment your moveset.
Once you unlock the dash, double jump, and other means of propulsion you can fall into a zen-like flow, navigating pitfalls and vertical obstacles with ease. The world is your playground, and oh what a beautiful robot world this is.
One of my favorite aspects of the game is reaching new areas. Kunai features a simple but striking retro art style and each new location is a showcase of interesting vistas, remixed color, and groovy music.
I especially enjoyed the vine-covered Quantum Forest and the sparsely lit hollows of the Abandoned Subnet. Each locale introduces a new atmosphere, enemy types, and some surprisingly well-done boss battles. Each boss encounter requires you to channel your inner acrobat in different ways. Most are challenging, fair, and demand your full attention.
Similarly, most solider enemies are visually interesting and fun to fight. Some are big hulking bots with heavy shielding, some fly with jet packs and give off Mobile Suit Gundam vibes. One is literally a fire breathing metal serpent.
Most enemies require different tactics to take down, for instance, some need to be stunned first, so learning each enemy’s mannerisms and weak points keeps you on your toes. Frustratingly, too many enemy types rush you and/or explode kamikaze style. I suffered cheap deaths from very high splash damage attacks way too frequently.
The visual flair of fire, bullets, and beams during combat is really eye-catching as well. Which is great because you’ll spend lots of time exploding enemies with an evolving arsenal. Juggling between your blade, throwing stars, SMGs, and rockets spice things up a bit, but ultimately, even fully upgraded, nothing felt as fun to use as the Katana, which is effective against most enemies, most of the time.
One of my favorite aspects of Kunai was its pacing and digestibility. In the early game, new abilities, weapons, and enemies are introduced at a steady clip and the new districts you discover feel bite-sized and manageable. Everything changes just in time to keep the gameplay and scenery fresh.
Unfortunately one of Kunai’s major problems is that this perfect pacing doesn’t last. Suddenly things stop evolving as quickly. An annoying amount of backtracking creeps in, larger sprawling labyrinth-like levels are introduced, and most egregiously the game starts giving you less and less direction.
NPCs cryptically hint where you need to head next, but with no markers or waypoints to guide me, I found myself circling large areas multiple times cluelessly searching for a switch I don’t know I had to press. Add in some platforming segments with high difficulty spikes and a few of those kamikaze enemies I mentioned and you have a sure-fire recipe for frustration.
Finally reaching save points brought on a welcome sigh of relief one minute, only to become a curse when I realized I was lost and that my goal was most likely on the other side of the map. During all that wandering, with a bit of skill and a keen eye, you’ll inevitably find secret areas and chests that contain a slew of collectibles.
Unfortunately only a few are useful, namely heart shards that come together to extend your life meter, and the majority are cosmetic padding. The allure of finding hats to slightly change my appearance didn’t ignite my inner completionist.
If I could pick one other opportunity area for Kunai it would be to flesh out the characters. The look of the NPCs and tabby infer a comedic tone, you play as a freedom-fighting iPad ninja after all, but ultimately the game sits on the edge of being comical but never commits.
That’s not to say the game lacks heart, the passion of the developers is apparent in so many ways. The Turtle Blaze team clearly loves gaming. Throughout the experience they sprinkle nods to classic titles and adopt familiar tropes, only to subvert your expectations and deliver unexpected moments at just the right time to keep things interesting.
Kunai is a shining example of high-quality small-team game development. It’s punchy action and nimble parkour pulled me along happily even through sloggy patches of wandering. Fans of the genre looking for a solid 10 hours of action should give it a try. It’s clear Turtle Blaze loves video games and their future work is on my radar.