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.
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.
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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