This is where I’d do an introduction about how many Metroidvanias the indie scene has been inundated with lately, but instead, I’m going to list a few. Hollow Knight, Sparklite, Dead Cells, Ori and the Blind Forest, Chasm, Owlboy, Axiom Verge and Steamworld Dig 2. That’s the intro.
Am I being cheeky? Yeah. Smarmy? Absolutely. Most importantly, I’m trying to make a point: there’s a lot of competition on the field. A lot of it is good-to-great, too, meaning any upcoming title has to seriously deliver on innovation, aesthetics, or both. And in this corner, we have Kunai, packing striking pixel art and not one, but two, grappling hooks.
At first glance, the most noteworthy thing about Kunai is its playable character, Tabby — an anthropomorphic tablet with a cute face and the soul of a samurai warrior. In this world, those boomer comics about iPhones being evil came to providence, as there’s an evil inventor a la Doctor Wily trying to innovate humanity out of existence. You, along with a group of other androids who call themselves the Resistance, are attempting to #Resist the scourge of Silicon Valley rejects that stalk the earth.
Tabby does so by obtaining new weapons and upgrades that, predictably, allow him to reach new, previously inaccessible areas. The first act of the game is one of the strongest, with a Mario Bros. 3-esque airship sequence and some strong platforming challenges. This is when Kunai is at its strongest: when the action is flowing and the back-tracking is at a minimum.
Not to imply that back-tracking isn’t fun — I haven’t even mentioned the grappling hooks. Early on, Tabby is granted two kunai with ropes attached, letting him swing from ceilings and hook onto platforms like iOS Spider-Man. This is Kunai’s main innovation: quick, momentum-based platforming with great freedom of movement and smooth animations. Tabby stretches and squashes when he runs and jumps, and his face is as expressive as can be thanks to its lack of physiological limitations. He’s a charming little dude, and trying to get from point A to point B is usually a pretty good time.
The combat of Kunai is something between Katana Zero and Hollow Knight. As awesome as that sounds, it’s not all that tight. Your main weapon is Tabby’s katana, which can be swung as fast as you can mash the attack button. Unfortunately, attacking foes sends Tabby sliding back by a considerable amount. This means that after each hit, I was trying to force myself back into position, making encounters feel a little tedious. There are ranged weapons as well as a few upgrades for the katana, but nothing quite remedied the slightly “off” feeling I got from the combat.
Level design, likewise, is just a bit lackluster. A heavy reliance on locked doors — which are opened from afar with a simple switch — leads to unsatisfying back-and-forths within the world’s zones. There are secrets to uncover, and a few areas where later upgrades can be used to find them, but it’s a far cry from the excellence of exploration in genre staples. Luckily, encounters within zones are pretty well-paced, and the heal-on-kill mechanic meant I could comfortably trek far distances from save rooms.
As I mentioned before, modern Metroidvanias thrive on their innovation and artistic vision. Kunai has a bit of both, having beautifully rendered (but less beautifully animated) pixel art and an absolute earworm of a soundtrack- – I can still remember several tracks off the top of my head. The grappling mechanic is fun, if a bit under-utilized, especially when alternative modes of bypassing platforming sections later present themselves. Combat could be tighter, but it’s far from flat-out bad, and there are some pretty good boss encounters, save for the final boss, which was a trial of rote memorization and inhuman reaction speed.
So who’s it for? Die-hard genre fans, Switch indie enthusiasts, and those who take a particular shine to the art. I liked my time with Kunai, and while it didn’t quite rise to the level of recent gems, it’s a satisfying adventure that I’m glad to have experienced.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by The Arcade Crew.
Kunai knows grappling hooks are cool, so it gives you two of them. But beyond its best feature, it's an indie adventure that falls just a bit short of its excellent peers.