There seems to be this inherently high bar being set on the Nintendo Switch right now by fans, and I kind of hate it. Don’t get me wrong, I am ecstatic that AAA titles like DOOM, LA Noire, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and so many others are available now and even more are in the pipeline. Owners are absolutely crowing over the success of things, and rightfully so: Nintendo had to eat just a bit of pie with the underloved but arguably convoluted Wii U. But, as a result of these great titles, there’s this backlash against anyone bringing something casual to the Switch. People are screaming and crying about mobile games hitting the storefront, ported over from smartphones and tablets, and they view it as some kind of demise signal to the Switch’s quality. They often forget they don’t HAVE to buy any of the damn games that come onto the eShop: your money is still very much your own. Don’t support titles you don’t like. Don’t play genres that you inherently hate. And don’t bemoan the fact that Yodanji is a smartphone port, because I had a goddamn great time.
First and foremost, the game is mostly pretty clever in terms of setup and presentation. Turns out that a smartphone next to a rice cooker confirmed the suspicions of millions of Japanese that yokai (or folklore monsters) are 100% real and exist everywhere. Smartphone companies then rushed out software to emulate the rice cooker’s waves (because why the hell not) so that everyone could capture yokai on their phones. The first sweep of the software now installed on your Switch reveals three different kind of yokai in your immediate area, and then proceeds to tell you there’s more to be found along the way. So you decide, sure, let’s go catch them all, and off you go. And if you think this is even close to a Pokémon game, you are sadly (but understandably) incorrect.
Yodanji plays like a straight up roguelike dungeon crawler, closer to Izuna than Quest of Dungeons, but still pretty 8-bit in presentation. Your selected yokai needs to descend into the dungeons, find scrolls and combine them to get more yokai. Along the way there are a ton of yokai to fight (but not capture, of course not), food to find and eat and levels to be earned through mythical blue flames that are scattered within. You move on a grid system, only really have four directions, and your inventory is limited to five items that you can pick up, usually food related. Each level down you move the enemies get exponentially harder, so simply seeking out the stairs and diving as fast as possible is a really great way to get murdered in seconds. Then again, if you’re an old hat at Nethack or something similar, you might quickly work out some strategies on what to do and the best way to survive.
The skills and such that your characters develop are very akin and similar to what you’d see in other dungeon crawlers, but I appreciate the presentation that we give to each of it. The abilities tend to have elements and style that are written in a way that match the yokai that you’ve chosen, and the effects are not glamorous or showstopping, but, rather, straight to the point and activate in a timed fashion. Newer players will find that the nekomata is a great place to start, as resurrecting the corpses of your foes to fight in your undead army is perfect in terms of exploration, but not great for actual combat once things get more intense. Even still, it’s all about how it looks, not necessarily what it does, and the pixel art delivers in a solid way.
As a very trivial but important matter, I absolutely adore that Yodanji uses real yokai for both the monsters you fight and the ones you control. In the last few years, there’s been a resurgence of yokai interest in both Japan and America due to a show called Yokai Watch, which is a bargain basement version of Pokemon that uses “yokai.” I mean, they’re vaguely yokai related, but mostly they’re just carbon copies of the same stupid demon cat over and over with slightly different names and they’re much cuter in a clear cash grab attempt. But Yodanji goes and dives full in on the traditional monsters, from kappa and the living umbrellas (karakasa) to the stranger ones, like tofu beasts, multi-tailed cats and the water demons that haunt ships. Just that alone was a huge point in the favor of the game to me.
Additionally, as simplistic as it is, there’s a lot of satisfaction in the presentation and the stripped down nature. A lot of roguelike dungeon crawlers do their best to imitate the form and then build on it exponentially: as much as I love Nethack, there’s so many frigging things to find and do that it just about scares off new players. Yodanji gives you a small number of choices at the beginning, expanding only as you unlock the creatures through skill and repetition, and opening up more choices based purely on your experience. You don’t have to do the questing, either: if you’re seriously just down for dungeon crawling, there’s an endless mode that lets you delve in and test how far you can go with just your wits and your natural level progression. Once you fully unlock the complete league of yokai to use, you’ll find plenty of enjoyment diving time after time into the dungeons, seeing how far you can get. That is, if you’re into dungeon crawlers of the classic variety.
And that’s just it. As much as a lot of the game felt like deja vu, there was a satisfying and solid experience to Yodanji that helped me stay invested and continue playing in spite of a relatively simple crawler with a ghost and demon palette swap. It’s not going to win game of the year, but this actually functions much better on a portable console instead of crammed into the average Android phone. Moreover, it’s going to do what all games should strive to attain: entertain and distract. I could easily dive into the dungeons over and over again for a good hour, just seeing what I can fight and how far I can get, and I’m given the additional bonus of everything being yokai themed. Ever since moving back to the US, I haven’t laid eyes on nearly as many of the beasts and baddies that used to roam the back alleys of Tokyo, so it’s nice to have my own machine full of creepy, delightful creatures that doesn’t require me to suffer through awful, gimmicky mascots like Whisper. If you want a decent roguelike that doesn’t break the bank and brings something new to the table, Yodanji is a great choice.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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