While somewhat antiquated in its controls and visuals, Hyakki Castle is a strange game that uses its stellar atmosphere and exceptional enemy designs to hearken back to the classic era of first-person dungeon crawlers.
Developer: Asakusa Studios
MonsterVine was supplied with a PC code for review.
Hyakki Castle is something of an enigma to me. I hadn’t heard of it until a week ago, yet I was instantly drawn towards it when I saw how inspired it was by Japanese folklore and mythology. If my fanboyish love of Yo-Kai Watch didn’t give it away, I quite like the strange and often surreal creatures that are present in ancient Japan’s culture. This naturally attracted me to Hyakki Castle, and for the most part, I’m glad it did.
“Naturally, being an evil mage, Doman begins to do some suspicious stuff, prompting the Shogun to send a team of warriors to the island to stop whatever evil machinations the mage may have.”
After assassinating the council of elders and trying to kill the Shogun, Kigata Doman, an evil sorcerer, is exiled to an isolated island far from civilization. Naturally, being an evil mage, Doman begins to do some suspicious stuff, prompting the Shogun to send a team of warriors to the island to stop whatever evil machinations the mage may have. The entire plot is presented to you at the very beginning of the game, and is portrayed through a series of images that emulate art from the Edo Era of Japan. The presentation is exceptional, and I quite like how the entire story is given to you right out of the gate. Being able to jump straight into the game is a welcome feature, as the simple but sufficient story does not impede on players before the game even begins.
Hyakki Castle is a first-person dungeon crawler, a genre that has become somewhat lost to time in the mainstream gaming industry. This perspective makes the dank and gloomy dungeons feel more imposing, as any dark corner could have a samurai zombie or an old hag just waiting to murder you on the spot. This is made even more tense on the many occasions where you control two parties at once. See, Hyakki Castle constantly encourages you to divide your party in two in order to solve puzzles, or to battle enemies from two different directions at once. Controlling both parties at once can be difficult at first, especially if both parties are being attacked in different locations, but once you get the hang of it it’s quite rewarding to keep both parties alive until you can combine them again. I do wish there was a better way of learning the controls though, as I had a difficult time figuring out how to do certain things. There is very little instruction at the beginning, so figuring out how to play will likely be a somewhat frustrating task for many. Once you’re used to the controls, the game is a lot of fun and fairly easy to control. I highly recommend playing with a controller however, as it’s a lot easier to learn the numerous functions behind party splitting and battling when the controls are mapped to the average controller.
At the beginning of a playthrough you get to pick your class (Samurai, Shinobi, Monk, or Priest) and your species (human, Tengu, Oni, Nekomata), as well as your voice and name. As a weeb, naturally I picked a human samurai with a deep voice and named him Zoro. Each class has different attacks and skills, and you’ll be given a party with each class and race regardless of your chosen player character. Defeating Yokai throughout the castle grants experience that is used to obtain new skills for each class, ranging from elemental attacks to healing magic. These skills can decide whether you live or die, so constantly buying new skills is incredibly beneficial to your playthrough.
The combat is fitting of the genre, but somewhat basic at its core. You attack, wait for the attack to refresh through a cooldown period, then attack again while dodging enemy strikes. Attacking with your whole team at once is quite fun though, especially as they get more visually impressive moves later on that blend well together. Hitting enemies from behind vastly increases your damage, and trying to split your party to attack from both sides is as challenging as it is rewarding. There’s a reasonable difficulty curve as you advance to higher levels of the castle, which makes upgrading your skills and finding equipment feel necessary. I like that Hyakki Castle never stops feeling like a challenge, as it keeps you from becoming too comfortable and confident.
“There’s an uncanny valley to the somewhat dated 3D models for the enemies, but this is one of the rare occasions where I actually think this adds to the game.”
The best part of Hyakki Castle is its atmosphere and design. The enemies are all based on Japanese folklore and mythology, so these foes range from small dragons to long-necked ladies. There’s an uncanny valley to the somewhat dated 3D models for the enemies, but this is one of the rare occasions where I actually think this adds to the game. There’s a creepiness to the models that you don’t really see in games now, as it’s typically associated with PC games from the mid to early days of 3D gaming. This adds to the feeling of unease that is so pungent in the dungeons, as it feels like there’s something “off” about each enemy. It’s a strange case since most other games would suffer as a result of this antiquated style, but Hyakki Castle manages to turn this into a strength. I do wish party members had 3D models though, as splitting up the party lets you see that your player characters are just basic figures that look like chess pawns. It just feels a bit lazy.
The audio in Hyakki Castle is odd. There’s very little music, and the voice acting is largely limited to enemy groans and party member grunts/attacks. I’d say this adds to the spooky atmosphere of the castle, but it seems a bit too empty. I’d have preferred to have some unnerving music to add to the stellar feeling the castle gives off through its visuals.
The Final Word
Hyakki Castle is a strange game. Its gameplay is simple but satisfactory, its controls are difficult to get used to, and its audio is lacking. But the visuals, enemy design, and challenge to controlling two parties makes Hyakki Castle a fun but flawed journey through the strangest parts of Edo Japan’s culture.
– MonsterVine Rating: 3.5 out of 5 – Fair