As far as I was concerned, the genre of dungeon crawling was a form of gaming that had long become lost in the realms of the past. During the days of the Commodore Amiga or Atari ST, there was an abundance of murky corridors to explore and weird creatures to slay, but for me, since the popularity of home consoles, the portcullis on this style of adventuring had long shut and remained firmly locked. It may be a different case on the PC, but as this was a platform on which I didn’t play, it may be something that I wasn’t aware of. However, since the majority of my playing time now revolves around the Nintendo Switch, the darkest depths of these dungeon exploration games have resurfaced with a resurgence of titles upon Nintendo’s hybrid machine.
It’s been refreshing being able to delve into the deepest of dungeons again, having played a variety of titles that follow the same concept of games gone by, yet incorporate a more modern element to make their style fashionable again. The latest of such titles to see the light of day, comes in the form of Happinet’s Haunted Dungeons: Hyakki Castle, a real-time dungeon-crawling role-playing game, but one that contains a very unique mechanic in its split-party/split-screen capability that needs to be utilised in order to overcome the many traps that lay within the labyrinth of Hyakki Castle, as well as a host of seriously creepy Yokai, a series of mythological Japanese monsters that create a truly horrific experience for any would be adventurers.
Although it’s not a central theme of the game, or a particularly heavily used element, the story revolves around a party of four agents made up from differing races, Human, Oni, Tengu and Nekomata, who are sent to investigate the sudden appearance of a mysterious castle on Hyakki Island. Set during the Edo period in Japanese culture, the island was used as a prison where its inhabitants were to sentenced to a life in exile. As they begin their voyage from the mainland, a storm begins to brew, separating the party and beaching them amongst the shores of the foreboding island; where they are duly rounded up and thrown into the darkest depths of Hyakki Castle. As the party is re-acquainted, it’s up to you to escape from each of the maze-like floors of the castle, making your way from the deepest level up to the pinnacle of the castle’s tower to face off with the overriding force that now governs the island.
Viewed from a first-person perspective, you guide your party through the grid-like labyrinths that comprise each of the levels. From the start, you build your party of four heroes, selecting their race, appearance, name and voice style before embarking on your quest. Each of the races, available from a set of four, each possess their own strengths and weaknesses within the disciplines of Samurais to Ninjas and Sobei’s to Shinkai’s; the latter two who are more magical wielding warriors rather than the swords and blades of the more familiar fighters. After a brief, but informative tutorial, you then begin to make your way through each of the levels, solving its puzzles, disarming its traps and slaying its beasts, until a hundred percent clearance is achieved, opening the doorway to the next level.
The first thing that you’ll notice when you embark on your journey, is the presentation of the levels themselves, and even the mechanics of the gameplay, being of a rather basic model. All of the elements which comprise the game, from exploration to the role-playing mechanics and the aesthetical feels and sounds to the dungeons contain a bare-bones feel to their look and style. However, this isn’t a game that needs a state-of-the-art presentation in order for it to work, as it contains a few aces up its sleeve to give it a nice pace in playability, as well as a uniqueness in its execution that produces a very different way of playing a game within its genre.
With your party of four, you can split them into two different parties; separating them into a split-screen mechanic that allows you to explore different regions of the dungeon independently from each other, as well as get the jump on the variety of particularly creepy and well-modelled Yokai that inhabit the claustrophobic corridors of your environment. With movement controlled by the left thumb-stick and rotation mapped to the right, you can set attacks and items to the face buttons, whilst ZR activates levers or opens chests and ZL forces the party into two. With this mechanic, you control each party to help them in working together to overcome the obstacles that lie within each of the levels. These can consist of the need to activate two switches in unison in order to open a door or within the mechanics of the game’s combat in order to flank or outmanoeuvre the enemy.
When faced with one, or more, of the terrifying Yokai creatures, you can set one of your parties to create a distraction for the other party as you position them in order to maximise your attack. Attacks from the side or rear cause more damage, giving you a two-pronged approach to combatting each of the enemy types. Whilst you control one party, the other duly turns into stone, allowing them to up their defences and take a lesser amount of damage, then with the other party members, you can alternate between the party members with the L and R shoulder buttons, unleash a barrage of attacks upon the fabled beasts by taregtting their weaker points. As the enemy turns to face its attackers, you can switch parties, unleashing another barrage from the opposite angle. It creates a nice style to the combat and puzzling elements of the game; although the split screen execution can take some getting used too, but the basic implementation of the game’s mechanics don’t make it a confusing element to learn.
The Yokai themselves, are also nicely presented within the game. Their forms are superbly modelled, based on the real-life fables of Japanese mythology and literature. Creatures such as the giant skeleton, Gasha Dokuro and the abnormal form of a woman’s head conjoined to an arm are suitable scary, both in look and scale. As you progress through the game, the varieties of Yokai become more extreme and present tougher challenges, forcing you to find the need to be more tactical in your approach and utilize the variety of weapons, moves and items available to their maximum efficiency. It isn’t all about exploration and fighting either, as party-management also plays a pivotal role within the game. As with the majority of dungeon-crawlers, an abundance of loot can be found within the labyrinths, offering variations in weapons and armour, items of healing properties and food to keep hunger at bay. Yes, this is a game that contains the dreaded hunger bar element, something which I’m not a particular fan of, but here within the confines of the castle, it’s an element of the gameplay that works well, instead of hindering or causing an unnecessary distraction.
Overall, Haunted Dungeons: Hyakki Castle presents a varied and unique take on the dungeon-crawling genre. It’s basic presentation and feel harks back to the good old days of dungeonesque gaming, but also adds elements of modernity into the mix with its suitably scary monsters and split-partying mechanics. Its pacing is well-balanced too, as well as the challenge in its difficulty, producing a title that plays and sits nicely upon the Nintendo Switch; especially with its style of play that fits perfectly within the casual category. There’s nothing here particularly enthralling or exciting, but its gameplay elements combine to produce an extremely playable title that never demands too much from you. The linearity of its design and production values may not appeal to all, as well as raise some question marks over its long-term appeal, but at its current pricing, this is a wonderful example of dungeon-crawling that holds enough value to keep it entertaining throughout the exploration of its creepy and down-right fun labyrinths of corridors.
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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