Kunai Review – Handheld Killing Machine

Kunai’s premise is a familiar one. Humankind has reached the pinnacle of technological advancement and brought about their own downfall, inviting an army of AI-controlled robots to nearly wipe out all life on earth. A small resistance of remaining humans and conflict-averse droids begin fighting back, but without a miracle, that battle is all but lost lost. Tabby, a cheerfully emoting tablet in ninja robes, is that miracle.

Kunai is both outlandish and endearing, starting squarely with its odd protagonist. Tabby–a dexterous tablet in a world dominated by robots with CRT-like heads and barely any traces of humankind–is on a quest to extinguish an AI uprising and prevent humanity’s extinction. Kunai’s world is fragmented into varied areas, giving you multiple paths to explore in its opening hours, with your growing toolset opening up new avenues to explore as you progress. Kunai features the familiar DNA of action-platformers and Metroidvanias, combining satisfying platforming and engrossing combat to great effect.

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You start out with just a sword, and you can use it to quickly carve through the metal exteriors of robot foes and stylishly protect yourself from projectiles with a flurry of swings. You have a generous jump, too, that allows you to attack from above and continuously bounce between enemies after each swipe. Getting into a rhythm of bouncing off one enemy and directly onto the next while not missing an attack in between is both easy to grasp and satisfying to pull off. Kunai’s combat scenarios generally feature only a handful of enemies at a time, too, giving you ample space to feel like a kickass ninja consistently.

Adding to your airborne maneuverability early on are the kunai, a pair of grappling hooks equipped in each hand that let you swing around environments with ease. Augmenting standard movement with the aerial freedom of your kunai injects combat with a captivating sense of flow. It’s effortless to chain together swings to maintain airtime while bouncing between enemies to attack.

A variety of layouts from screen to screen challenge you to use your tools creatively. More open expanses let you freely hop around, but don’t offer many points for you to hook your kunai into. Cramped pathways limit your aerial maneuverability, encouraging you to deflect more projectiles and choose your attacks wisely. Each area throws in unique elements that supplement this–the dense forest features vines that you can use to climb on while mines feature fragile walls that crumble if you swing from them–keeping platforming and combat entertaining throughout.

You’re free to explore the multiple areas of Kunai’s large map as far as your equipment will take you. Each new item you find doubles as both a weapon and a tool to navigate the world in new ways. Your dual machine guns, for example, act as both a powerful medium range attack and a creative means to float over large gaps, since you can use downward fire to sustain your jump for as long as you have bullets to fire. Each new item’s use is also easy to understand from the get-go, calling to mind locked doors or obstructed pathways that can now be cleared with your new abilities, making it easy to decide where to push onto next.

Each new item expands your limited moveset in exciting ways, but navigating to each specific part of the map where they might be useful becomes taxing quickly. Individual segments in Kunai’s areas offer up enough variety in their construction to encourage different combat strategies, but they don’t coalesce in a way that makes navigating the same spaces as interesting on return visits. In some cases coming to the end of a critical path and reaching its respective goal is deflated by the realisation that you need to navigate all the way back to where you started, sometimes without anything new in your arsenal to shake up the return journey. It’s disappointing to brush through an area with a fine comb only to be contacted over radio and redirected without any real narrative progression, especially when there are no fast-travel systems to alleviate the backtracking.

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This is exacerbated in some later stages in which it can be unclear where your next objective lies, with all possible paths requiring a tool you don’t yet have. The aimless wandering is especially tiresome because poking around Kunai’s world isn’t incredibly rewarding either, even with optional chests hidden throughout each area for you to uncover. Some contain cosmetic hats for some visual variety while others hold valuable in-game currency for upgrades, but it’s the few featuring parts of a health upgrade that are worth seeking out. The issue is that the majority of the chests lie at the end of passageways hidden entirely from view, only revealing themselves when you accidentally brush close to their entrance and cause the textures obfuscating them to fade away. It’s a disappointingly basic way to hide them, making your discoveries feel more lucky than well deduced.

Although navigating each area multiple times isn’t as fun as it should be, the gorgeous visual shifts between them are a delight. Kunai’s limited color palette is used to accentuate its varied areas with subtlety. Each of the areas features different muted colours for their backdrop, such as the flat greys and dim blues of its opening factory and the bright greens of its AI-infested forests. The variation makes shifting between each area not only clear but visually delightful too. While most colors are muted, bright reds are especially prominent. Not only does it help make enemies and points of importance stand out from the background, it imbues each slash of your sword and subsequent connecting strike with a powerful punch that bathes the screen in sharp, contrasting red hues. It works in tandem with a well-measured screenshake effect that gives Kunai’s combat a stylish look in motion.

This sense of style doesn’t transition, however, to Kunai’s limited story. It sets up an initial premise and gives you an understanding of what you’re fighting for, but doesn’t leave much for you to uncover about its world beyond that. The only avenue for learning more about Kunai’s world is through limited but surprisingly entertaining interactions with other resistance robots. Usually denoted by their chunky CRT monitor heads and calming blue shading, these side characters add some levity to the setting by making light of disastrous events with silly puns and small, humorous anecdotes. Although there are other important named characters that are meant to add more to the narrative, they don’t stand out as much as each brief interaction you have when arriving at a new camp.

It’s disappointing that there isn’t more to dig into when it comes down to Kunai’s set dressing, especially when it’s paired with such a striking visual style and engrossing combat. Kunai’s level design pushes you to keep adapting while affording you the space to finish off a group of enemies with a series of pinpoint grappling hook swings, precise double jumps, and intelligently integrated swings of your sword. Kunai loses some of its momentum far too frequently, but when it hits a balance between its engrossing combat and satisfying platforming, it’s difficult to put down.

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Kunai Review – Slicing Through Skynet

Kunai’s premise is a familiar one. Humankind has reached the pinnacle of technological advancement and brought about their own downfall, inviting an army of AI-controlled robots to nearly wipe out all life on earth. A small resistance of remaining humans and conflict-averse droids begin fighting back, but without a miracle, that battle is all but lost lost. Tabby, a cheerfully emoting tablet in ninja robes, is that miracle.

Kunai is both outlandish and endearing, starting squarely with its odd protagonist. Tabby–a dexterous tablet in a world dominated by robots with CRT-like heads and barely any traces of humankind–is on a quest to extinguish an AI uprising and prevent humanity’s extinction. Kunai’s world is fragmented into varied areas, giving you multiple paths to explore in its opening hours, with your growing toolset opening up new avenues to explore as you progress. Kunai features the familiar DNA of action-platformers and Metroidvanias, combining satisfying platforming and engrossing combat to great effect.

No Caption Provided
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You start out with just a sword, and you can use it to quickly carve through the metal exteriors of robot foes and stylishly protect yourself from projectiles with a flurry of swings. You have a generous jump, too, that allows you to attack from above and continuously bounce between enemies after each swipe. Getting into a rhythm of bouncing off one enemy and directly onto the next while not missing an attack in between is both easy to grasp and satisfying to pull off. Kunai’s combat scenarios generally feature only a handful of enemies at a time, too, giving you ample space to feel like a kickass ninja consistently.

Adding to your airborne maneuverability early on are the kunai, a pair of grappling hooks equipped in each hand that let you swing around environments with ease. Augmenting standard movement with the aerial freedom of your kunai injects combat with a captivating sense of flow. It’s effortless to chain together swings to maintain airtime while bouncing between enemies to attack.

A variety of layouts from screen to screen challenge you to use your tools creatively. More open expanses let you freely hop around, but don’t offer many points for you to hook your kunai into. Cramped pathways limit your aerial maneuverability, encouraging you to deflect more projectiles and choose your attacks wisely. Each area throws in unique elements that supplement this–the dense forest features vines that you can use to climb on while mines feature fragile walls that crumble if you swing from them–keeping platforming and combat entertaining throughout.

You’re free to explore the multiple areas of Kunai’s large map as far as your equipment will take you. Each new item you find doubles as both a weapon and a tool to navigate the world in new ways. Your dual machine guns, for example, act as both a powerful medium range attack and a creative means to float over large gaps, since you can use downward fire to sustain your jump for as long as you have bullets to fire. Each new item’s use is also easy to understand from the get-go, calling to mind locked doors or obstructed pathways that can now be cleared with your new abilities, making it easy to decide where to push onto next.

Each new item expands your limited moveset in exciting ways, but navigating to each specific part of the map where they might be useful becomes taxing quickly. Individual segments in Kunai’s areas offer up enough variety in their construction to encourage different combat strategies, but they don’t coalesce in a way that makes navigating the same spaces as interesting on return visits. In some cases coming to the end of a critical path and reaching its respective goal is deflated by the realisation that you need to navigate all the way back to where you started, sometimes without anything new in your arsenal to shake up the return journey. It’s disappointing to brush through an area with a fine comb only to be contacted over radio and redirected without any real narrative progression, especially when there are no fast-travel systems to alleviate the backtracking.

No Caption Provided
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This is exacerbated in some later stages in which it can be unclear where your next objective lies, with all possible paths requiring a tool you don’t yet have. The aimless wandering is especially tiresome because poking around Kunai’s world isn’t incredibly rewarding either, even with optional chests hidden throughout each area for you to uncover. Some contain cosmetic hats for some visual variety while others hold valuable in-game currency for upgrades, but it’s the few featuring parts of a health upgrade that are worth seeking out. The issue is that the majority of the chests lie at the end of passageways hidden entirely from view, only revealing themselves when you accidentally brush close to their entrance and cause the textures obfuscating them to fade away. It’s a disappointingly basic way to hide them, making your discoveries feel more lucky than well deduced.

Although navigating each area multiple times isn’t as fun as it should be, the gorgeous visual shifts between them are a delight. Kunai’s limited color palette is used to accentuate its varied areas with subtlety. Each of the areas features different muted colours for their backdrop, such as the flat greys and dim blues of its opening factory and the bright greens of its AI-infested forests. The variation makes shifting between each area not only clear but visually delightful too. While most colors are muted, bright reds are especially prominent. Not only does it help make enemies and points of importance stand out from the background, it imbues each slash of your sword and subsequent connecting strike with a powerful punch that bathes the screen in sharp, contrasting red hues. It works in tandem with a well-measured screenshake effect that gives Kunai’s combat a stylish look in motion.

This sense of style doesn’t transition, however, to Kunai’s limited story. It sets up an initial premise and gives you an understanding of what you’re fighting for, but doesn’t leave much for you to uncover about its world beyond that. The only avenue for learning more about Kunai’s world is through limited but surprisingly entertaining interactions with other resistance robots. Usually denoted by their chunky CRT monitor heads and calming blue shading, these side characters add some levity to the setting by making light of disastrous events with silly puns and small, humorous anecdotes. Although there are other important named characters that are meant to add more to the narrative, they don’t stand out as much as each brief interaction you have when arriving at a new camp.

It’s disappointing that there isn’t more to dig into when it comes down to Kunai’s set dressing, especially when it’s paired with such a striking visual style and engrossing combat. Kunai’s level design pushes you to keep adapting while affording you the space to finish off a group of enemies with a series of pinpoint grappling hook swings, precise double jumps, and intelligently integrated swings of your sword. Kunai loses some of its momentum far too frequently, but when it hits a balance between its engrossing combat and satisfying platforming, it’s difficult to put down.

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Kentucky Route Zero Review – Where The Streets Have No Name

There’s always something deeply unnerving about a gas station at night. Depending on the road, it can be the only point of light for miles and miles, and beyond is nothing but an infinite abyss of curves and strange noises in between you and your destination. That Kentucky Route Zero’s very first image is a gas station at twilight is apt. The game knocks you off-kilter in the first seconds, placing you in the last fading glow of sunlight before nightfall on a threadbare stretch of road. Even when the game’s at its most peaceful and gentle, it never quite feels stable or permanent, like everything good, bad, strange, or affecting that happens in the next five acts could disappear into the darkness at any moment.

That sense of impermanence is such a crucial part of Kentucky Route Zero, more so now that it’s a complete work with a full arc and definitive ending. Beyond the various oddities and nonsensical moments, at its heart it’s a game about American progress and the corpses it leaves in its wake, a pensive Wizard of Oz-like point-and-click adventure through a country whose yellow brick road is built on futile hopes and unanswered prayers. Its version of Kentucky is a nothing-place of American dreams breathing their last, if they’re not already dead. Its protagonist, a grizzled, tired delivery truck driver named Conway, is headed in the same direction.

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Conway ends up here making his final delivery for his friend Lysette’s antique store, after which he intends to retire. However, the road to the delivery address on 5 Dogwood Drive takes him through the Zero, an abstract Kentucky highway where, it seems, all things obsolete–people, places, objects–come to make residence. The Zero is, essentially, America’s purgatory, a place that looks like cubist paintings of Silent Hill, and sounds like detuned radios and the white noise of old TVs. Hiding behind all of it are old creaky workers lamenting that they never earned enough to move away and coal miners crushed to death after giving their blood and sweat to a corporation they will never stop owing money to. Their stories are underscored by soul-shaking music that only the wrinkled and withered remember or perform. Every major beat of Conway’s journey is punctuated by American requiems, ranging from mournful bluegrass elegies about people time forgot, sung by shadowy riverfolk, to ethereal love songs so powerful the skies literally open up over the stage to accept them.

You navigate the Zero–in all of its fever-dream weirdness–primarily through dialogue trees and old-school adventure game mechanics. It’s fairly linear when it comes to the particulars of making progress; either a tiny box will come up at your destination telling you to click on it to proceed, or you can simply run through every option until you proceed anyway. But staying on task is harder than it seems. Every area has one interaction that will advance the story, but there are a dozen other objects to examine, a dozen other NPC stories to hear, or a dozen other switches and buttons and context-sensitive areas to walk that shift the perspective of the entire area. All that added potential context really takes effort to ignore.

In the first area of the game, Conway has a talk with a friendly gas station attendant about the road, about old age, about poetry, even. Then the power goes out, and Conway has to make his way into the gas station’s mineshaft-turned-basement after the lights suddenly shut off. There, while flipping the circuit breakers, you come across and invisibly assist in grabbing some fallen dice for what appears to be a D&D game in progress in another dimension. Why, exactly, is there a D&D game happening in another dimension? You never quite know–there are, admittedly, some long threads to pull on in this game that lead nowhere, and although that’s deliberate, it is occasionally frustrating–but that deceptively simple task is what passes for a tutorial in Kentucky Route Zero. It shows you exactly how it’s going to try and sway you from the end goal time and time again.

The vast menagerie of characters Conway meets on this journey contain multitudes; their dwellings and belongings are full of histories and unresolved relationships. These things beg for your attention and curiosity, urgent gold boxes waiting to be clicked on your way to the next critical step in the story. Often, they create more questions about these people and their world than they answer, but it becomes clear over time that there are answers, in every area, begging for you to chase them down. The entire game is a minefield of curiosity, where the only way to plow through to the end of each Act is to either thoroughly exhaust your curiosity or have absolutely none of it. The former is much more rewarding, and the game excels at making you want it, always placing the next narrative breadcrumb or the next leading question or the next inquisitive line of dialogue within easy reach, even if the payoff is miles down the road. However, it also means it’s very easy to lose the main plot in the process.

That’s especially true since much of the poignancy and power of the main plot often requires you to proactively listen to and learn from the world. The stories being told along the way can take many forms–from homespun wisdom to analytical science theses to ordinary phone conversations between loved ones–but the game bets the farm on you being comprehensively thorough about engaging with all of it. With no way to rewind and play specific scenes over again without replaying the entire Act, missing a specific bit of information can leave entire portions of the game as obtuse, and not in the intentional way some scenes are.

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To play Kentucky Route Zero means having to be present and honed in on the world in a way that doesn’t happen often in games. That frequently means hearing information relayed in a vast rainbow of ways, the game subtly training you to hear other people whose voices and experiences we are often trained by the modern world to tune out. The sharpness of the dialogue is so crucial and executed so well in that regard. Information is conveyed through every interaction, but even with the minor NPCs, the game emphasizes their worth as a character first and a mechanical function of the game second. Whether their next line opens the way to the next scene or not, there’s a sense in every line of dialogue in the game that lives have been lived, this character has a history here we will never know, and their weariness is on display and palpable. It makes the world of this game feel real and tangible and lived in, which accentuates the disquieting fact that there are people who actually live in such desolation.

Lines of dialogue from side characters can inform another character’s major decisions to take the journey of their lifetime later. A stray line during a radio broadcast can tell you why Conway wound up at a particular location or why a road is blocked, or why the history of a place matters. But as engaging as it all is, especially in the later Acts of the game where you start having more control over which character to follow into the next scene, new information and character development can happen in a scene that you might’ve missed entirely. Still, the solution is to play that Act again, and there’s so much to see and hear in the game that it’s possible to have a very different and equally worthwhile experience next time.

Sometimes the new information comes from choosing the dialogue in a straight one-on-one conversation; sometimes, you get a totally different perspective out of nowhere, like a segment where you select dialogue between museum researchers as they talk about your present actions in the past tense while watching you on a security camera playback. It forces you to think about how others view Conway and the companions who come to ride with him along the way with some level of psychological distance, a storytelling risk that pays off the more we start to learn about why these characters are who they are.

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That risk starts to pay off starting in Act III, where you can control the other side of a conversation, selecting responses for both Conway and the other participant. After seeing a doctor about an injury, and seeing the nightmarish remedy for that injury once he’s awake, you can choose to let Conway be out of sorts from the anesthesia or perfectly lucid. Through the next line of dialogue, you can let him and the doctor talk about continued treatment, let Conway stew in bitterness or very justifiable fear, or hop right into the worrisome particulars of the bill. It’s a captivating game of conversational tennis against yourself. You wind up experiencing and creating the story all at once, which makes the game more mechanically dream-like than anything. Combined with just how abstract many of the concepts and emotions you bounce back and forth can be, it’s not just a difference of agency so much as using that agency to form a group perspective, a collective conscience these characters will never know, but you do.

Very little in the overarching story of the Zero happens necessarily by your choice, and that’s a hard fact of real life that has been translated admirably here. No matter how much you tell your companions that your injury is fine or dodge questions about how deep in debt you are to those who help you, as Conway himself says, every man eventually has to settle up. And in that respect, the larger beats of this story will occur regardless of the choices you make. The intricate control you have over many of the game’s conversations isn’t about changing your fate, but how you parse it and accept it. That dovetails beautifully into the larger themes of the game, of getting to the acceptance stage of all the grief each character has endured. In that acceptance, you do have complete control. People in this game will get ill, you will miss your chance to tell someone you loved them, you won’t quite know what their last wishes were, and the world outside the Zero will often intrude and make life just a little harder for its residents once again. You can be angry, or petulant, or morose, and you can let that be the story of this world, but that’s a choice you can make in every scene. To sit with each interactable character is to sit with and have empathy for their failures.

That empathy is important given how alienating and lonely Kentucky Route Zero can feel. Much of the game’s interpretation of Kentucky life is portrayed in a very spartan, angular style of giant polygons meticulously fit together like puzzle pieces until they resemble minimalist facsimiles of human beings, trees, houses, and the like. It’s often stark and eerie, which makes the moments where it’s striking and stunning all the more effective. An early transition from the outside of a house to its interior occurs by watching the vector lines that form the building’s exterior move aside like shrinking geometric vines. One of the most powerful examples is a simple scene of Conway and Lysette sitting at a breakfast table. The geometric white streaks at Conway’s temples and his slouching back hint at his exhaustion, informing his decision to make this next delivery his last; Lysette’s face blank, but held wistfully, and framed by square glasses pointed blankly towards the outside world even. It’s an abstract picture that still speaks volumes.

It should be said that Act V ends not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with the kind of deep sigh you hear from working folks at five o’clock on a Friday after a hard week.

The game’s aesthetic is capable of portraying breathtaking Midwestern landscapes, stark monuments to the coldness of industry, unfeeling research rooms, and cathedrals to forgotten American ephemera, bolstered ever so slightly by some new and subtle graphical grace notes added to the game since Act IV’s release. New lighting effects have been added, with specific scenes being brightened, and, most notably, a dazzling starfield effect during the game’s stand-out musical number, “Too Late To Love You.” Those scattered moments of warmth and wonder have been sweetened all the more by the changes, making the scenes of respite even more welcome and memorable. Still, it all pales in comparison to what awaits you in the long-anticipated Act V: a heavenly place of sun and grass, demolished by the raging storms and flooding. The visually exhilarating elements of the final landscape make the horror of all the death and destruction hit even heavier.

Despite that initial visual gutstab of Act V, it should be said that it ends not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with the kind of deep sigh you hear from working folks at five o’clock on a Friday after a hard week. I assumed, going into that final Act, that we’d be looking at a story of rebellion, a day of reckoning for the marginalized and downtrodden. I should’ve known better. Kentucky Route Zero isn’t screaming for vengeance against all that America has lost, though there is an undeniable righteous anti-capitalist streak running throughout.

The game doesn’t so much resolve all the seething tensions and unfulfilled promises seen prior, but demands that you shoulder some of the weight of remembering and honoring what you’ve seen and heard. The overall point of the game is that not everyone’s life will be paid off in a way that provides catharsis, or comfort, or satisfaction. Sometimes it just ends, sometimes it keeps going whether we’re there to see it or not, and sometimes it’s just disappointment. Conway has debts to pay, and there is a chance he drops dead working to pay them back. That is as American as it gets in the 21st century. What Act V does, though, is give everyone one last chance to rail against that fact, mourn it, continue to have hopes regardless which, too, is what it is to live here. Kentucky Route Zero has been priming us for seven years to recognize that life isn’t fair, though we’d gain so much if it was, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to make it as fair as it can be. But just as often, we’re not. Kentucky Route Zero is ultimately a story about America’s ghosts, literal and metaphorical. It’s a story about entire ways of life coming to one singular place to die quietly, hopefully with dignity. In all of its oddity, it never backs down from the fact that all that is now dead will stay dead, and for those who have settled in along the Zero, that includes the American dream.

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Kingdom Hearts 3 Re:Mind Review – Don’t Remind Me

Kingdom Hearts 3 Re:Mind’s title doesn’t lie. It’s more of an addendum to Kingdom Hearts 3 than a meaningful addition. In some ways, it’s fitting that a franchise as labyrinthine as Kingdom Hearts received such a strange expansion. Re:Mind is a brief but laborious retread of events we already experienced last year, dressed up with new details that only make the already maddeningly elaborate story all the more obtuse. The DLC also brings back Replica Data bosses, which provide a ridiculous challenge that requires inordinate level grinding. [Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers for the ending boss and area in Kingdom Hearts 3.]

Kingdom Hearts 3 ended with Sora going off on his own to search for Kairi. Re:Mind takes you on that quest in typical Kingdom Hearts fashion: neither simply nor cleanly. It runs synchronously with the events at the Keyblade Graveyard, meaning you actually have to replay the climax again from the Keyblade Graveyard maze all the way to the showdown with Xehanort. Though the explanation for how this is possible is very silly, Re:Mind is essentially a director’s cut.

As a reminder, the Keyblade Graveyard doesn’t really feature any exploration. It’s a series of boss fights separated by lengthy cutscenes. Luxord still hides behind a playing card taunting Sora, and cutscenes stop the action in similar spots. Some of the dialogue and cutscenes are reworked while others are new, but the biggest difference is the option to play as Riku, Roxas, Kairi, or Aqua in several fights. Unfortunately, playing as these characters actually makes the slick and stylish combat less fun. All of them feel like weaker versions of Sora with limited movesets, and it also doesn’t help that the Keyblade Graveyard itself is the blandest world in Kingdom Hearts 3, devoid of the colorful and pleasant trappings of the Disney worlds that made the majority of original campaign hum.

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Even the new content that’s spliced into the repeated events largely fails to make the journey worthwhile. Scala ad Caelum opens up to reveal a new section before you square off against Xehanort. Though the area is fairly big, it’s desolate and exists only as a space to complete a rather banal fetch quest. It’s filler content in a story filled with recycled fights. There’s a fan service sequence that’s actually pretty enjoyable, however. Without spoiling it, it’s the type of scene that will make fans fondly remember the decades-long journey that brought us to this point. It’s a brief event that doesn’t make up for five hours of deja vu, but it still stands out.

For die-hard fans, the Limit Cut Episode that unlocks after watching the same closing cutscene from the base game is the meat of the package. Those who played Kingdom Hearts 2 Final Mix will be familiar with the mode, which sees Sora in a computer simulation fighting data versions of Organization XIII members like Xigbar, Ansem, and Xehanort. It even features cameos from the long-lost Final Fantasy characters.

Unfortunately, the barrier for entry is extraordinarily high, because Limit Cut bosses are exponentially more challenging than any of the fights in the base game. If you didn’t grind near or all the way to the level 99 cap in the main campaign–and there was no need to–Limit Cut will probably feel like an insurmountable challenge. I’m still working my way through the bosses, and I seriously doubt that I’ll ever actually beat them all. The ocean that exists between the difficulty of the base game and the data bosses is jarring.

It’s of course impossible to separate the DLC from the game it builds off of, and Kingdom Hearts 3’s best moments came in the Disney and Pixar worlds–the individual stories of friendship and love and good conquering evil that could almost be appreciated as self-contained short stories. Re:Mind seeks to tell a very specific story, but along the way it becomes blindingly clear that Kingdom Hearts’ strengths lie in its pieces and parts, not its convoluted sum that threads through and disrupts the franchise’s magical moments.

Even as a longtime fan of the series who adored Kingdom Hearts 3, it’s hard to muster up any sort of enthusiasm for Re:Mind. What’s more, Re:Mind made me understand Kingdom Hearts 3’s story even less, which is a testament to how bonkers it really is. It’s not all that surprising this happened; after all, it’s Kingdom Hearts. Nevertheless, Re:Mind is an incredibly peculiar expansion that simultaneously falls flat and partially obscures the brilliance of Kingdom Hearts 3.

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Lenna’s Inception Review – Press Start

In the southwesternmost corner of the overworld map sits a building that houses a slot machine. You’ve seen this sort of mild gambling den in any Zelda game; pull the lever, match three heart pieces and you win. Here, though, row upon row of slots are being played, their skeletal victims under permanent house arrest by the one-armed bandits. The building is, in fact, a bank. Betting on the slots requires you to purchase shares in various enterprises, all of which are owned by the bank that is manipulating the odds; the financial system is a casino and the capitalist always wins. This isn’t your typical Zelda clone.

Lenna’s Inception is a top-down action-adventure that is–ahem–very heavily inspired by the Legend of Zelda. Mechanically it is extremely similar to Link’s early adventures, but thematically and through a couple of mechanical surprises it finds its own voice. The result is a playful and inventive homage to a classic series of games that manages to distinguish itself from its inspirations.

The setup immediately departs from Zelda tradition, with schoolteacher Lenna roped into saving the world after the prophesied hero–and clear Link analogue–succumbs to an unexpected demise in the tutorial dungeon. Elsewhere, an evil banker has imprisoned the prince of the land, archangels are signalling the end times, glitched-out pixels are spreading across the world, and somewhere a mysterious fridge is on the blink. This is weird Millennial Zelda, touched by creepypasta yet restrained enough to not go full internet meme.

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My opening paragraph was a little misleading. In my game the bank was to be found in the southwest corner, but in your game–or indeed my subsequent games–it may not be. Lenna’s Inception generates its maps procedurally, shuffling the contents of its world to ensure a new route through the quest each time you start a new game and to allow players to share “seeds” of maps they particularly enjoyed. There’s a daily challenge seed, too, further encouraging the sense of a shared experience.

Experiments with the map generation revealed that it’s not just the overworld being reconfigured. All but one of the dungeons you enter are unique to your playthrough, from the overall layout to the design of individual rooms, from the critical-path boss dungeons to the small secret lairs you might find hidden away behind a bush or a rock. Further still, the key items you collect along the way are shuffled to the extent that one playthrough might hand you the bomb item immediately while the next might make you wait for it until near the very end.

In itself this doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on the quality of the level design, though in general the suspicion is always that a compromise must have been made somewhere, that a procedural level could never be as good as one that was hand-crafted. The trade-off seems acceptable here: We forgo one painstakingly intricate design for the prospect of near-endless hopefully good variations. Certainly the overworld I played through (seed “ystreath” if you want to try it yourself) felt consistent and well-designed–no jarring sections that felt obviously untouched by a human hand. It had a mazelike quality that demanded exploration and was crammed with teases of just-out-of-reach areas I’d have to note to return to later and that in any other non-procedural game I’d credit to smart design.

Dungeon design is mostly solid, with an emphasis on having the right item to allow you to bypass obstacles and finding the various coloured keys to open their respective doors. Save for the final dungeon, they all lack the light puzzle elements you would find in a typical Zelda dungeon, and are poorer for it. The last dungeon, however, takes full advantage of the environment-altering ability of a late-game item to push puzzle design to the fore. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s the only hand-crafted dungeon in the game. Where the procedural generation truly detracts is in the little side dungeons that throw you into a handful of random rooms, lock the doors until you’ve killed all the monsters, and then reward you with a health or weapon upgrade. They’re not terrible in isolation, but they are all essentially the same and wear out their welcome long before you’ve acquired all the pick-ups they house.

As you find new items–such as a spring that enables you to bounce over gaps or a cigarette lighter that lets you melt ice–you can unlock new regions of the map or return to previous areas to find secrets in classic Zelda fashion, a facet of the genre that is as inherently compelling here as it so often is, even if the execution is slightly off. The random order in which items are acquired does have a tendency to flatten out the experience. Some items have multiple uses, lending a degree of redundancy that diminishes the impact of obtaining a new piece of gear. Still, it’s rewarding to nab a new ability and start mulling over all the possibilities, the new places you can now explore. It’s a high that never diminishes.

Perhaps as a consequence of the non-linear item progression, fighting regular enemies doesn’t require you to use items other than your sword. They can be damaged by several of your items–the lighter sets things on fire and does useful damage over time while the bow, hammer, axe and bombs can all be effective–but there isn’t a single enemy that, for example, must be staggered with the hammer before taking damage from your sword. With little variation it’s sufficient to mash the attack button in order to survive any non-boss encounter.

Bosses themselves are smartly designed even if they hew closely to the Zelda archetype. The rule of threes applies here, as each boss requires you to perform the same set of steps three times in order to beat it. And each one demands the use of a certain ability you’ve picked up, though the precise execution tends to not be telegraphed. Quite a few of the bosses had me puzzling things out for several attempts before the eureka moment hit and I knew exactly what I had to do. Fortunately in such instances, death isn’t a hassle and you find yourself respawning in the chamber before the boss room.

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The procedural aspects of Lenna’s Inception lay a solid foundation upon which to build. On top you’ll find a handful of NPC quests to follow, some of which test your lateral thinking as you chuckle along with the mischievous sense of humour of the writing. Moments of oddness abound. I found what the game described as a “urine potion” before cheerfully informing me that I would have to drink it to discover what effect it had. My first follower companion was a chicken that would relentlessly peck enemies to death. My last was a librarian who could hurl books with pinpoint accuracy. At one point I donned a growth tunic and ran around as a giant Lenna until she couldn’t fit through the door to escape the dungeon. Surprises like these are scattered throughout the entire game and are never less than a joy to discover. There’s even an option to play the entire game with either 8-bit or 32-bit graphics.

Lenna’s Inception is a lighthearted Zelda-style adventure fuelled by levity and a taste for the bizarre. At its heart, though, it’s a testament to the powers of procedural generation. On balance it gains more than it loses, delivering an endlessly rearrangeable, replayable quest that suffers only slightly from the lack of a guiding human touch.

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