How Metroidvania is it? Medium Fit. Progression is generally linear, with exploration being somewhat contained to areas. There are some rewards that are acquired only from backtracking but they are generally not required.
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat, Tricky Platforming
Time to beat: ~7 hours
Review Info: The Steam review code for Kunai was provided by the Publisher.
Buy Kunai if you like…
- Cute Graphics
- Power Fantasy
- Crunchy Sound Effects
- Swinging from Grappling Hooks
- Campy Characters and Plots
▼ Review continues below ▼
Take one look at Kunai’s trailer and you might be sold on its striking visuals and obvious style. Style does not necessarily mean there is substance, but Kunai’s general play design is built on a very solid foundation. It stands as a reminder that it’s okay for a game to be just about having fun. It unpretentiously flaunts its campy “bad guy wants to destroy the world” plot as an excuse to just jump around and break things. Its action is fast and energetic, which creates an almost therapeutic flow, making it perfect for escapism. However, it lacks meaningful depth, and as a result feels like there just isn’t enough of it.
Fluid movement is Kunai’s greatest strength. The title’s namesake and primary gimmick, the Kunai Grappling hooks, are so incredibly fun that you’ll be flinging yourself everywhere you go even if it’s not necessary. What makes them so fun is how easy they are to use. There is one grappling hook for each shoulder trigger on your controller and they are always aimed in opposite directions at a 45 degree angle up and away from your Tablet-faced avatar. While this rigid trajectory might seem restrictive, it enables the player to predict with accuracy how Tabby is going to move the moment they push the button. It’s pretty standard for grappling hooks in Metroidvania games to always fire at a similar angle, but having two at once allows you to switch directions instantly, as well as fly upwards anywhere you can access two walls.
Thanks to the impressive way Tabby controls, moving through each level is engaging, even when the level design would otherwise be a bit tedious. You are of course expected to swing over spikes and lava, and occasionally weave above and underneath various traps. Failure as always results in damage and sometimes instant death, but the consequences are relatively low. You get to keep any money you collected before you died, so the only penalty is returning to the last checkpoint you accessed. While the lack of punishment may make the game seem a little easy, the low risk of loss only encourages the player to be more recklessly experimental with the possibilities surrounding the Kunai.
Combat is at its best when enemies are used as pogo jump platforms in conjunction with Kunai’s fine movement design, and they often are. When you’re actually forced to face off with enemies, however, they’re a bit trivial. You can swing your sword as rapidly as you can tap your button, and virtually every enemy in the game is shredded quickly by your relentless button mashing. Some have shields and others have more difficult to access weakpoints, but they still crumble pretty quickly once you get the right angle on them. The value of combat therefore is the power fantasy, since it’s incredibly fun and crunchy to smash up robots. Were it not for the monetary rewards of scrapping foes though, enemies could often be ignored.
While not every game needs to be a nail-biting challenge, Kunai‘s weakness is that it doesn’t commit to any kind of focus. If it was going to be a game about killing enemies, then enemies needed to be more interesting. If it was going to be a game about tricky platforming, then perhaps there should have been more gauntlets to really test the player’s usage of the Kunai. As a result, Kunai’s gimmicks start to wear a little thin as the game progresses, and while I don’t think it ever gets boring, the lack of deeper applications makes completing the game feel unsatisfying. It may be a reason some players might complain that the game is too short.
Bosses are an example of Kunai’s lack of commitment to a gameplay focus. One or two of them do a great job showcasing abilities you had gathered up to face off with them, but others not so much. Most of them are phase-based, where you deal a specific amount of damage while they are vulnerable, then they move into an invulnerable pattern that you have to dodge until they decide to be vulnerable again. This isn’t necessarily bad boss design, but it does automatically diminish the value of upgrading the damage of your sword.
Phase-based boss fights also force a required time commitment to the fight that can be frustrating if you have to start the process over again. For most bosses they’re easy enough that it’s not really an issue. However, a couple of them poorly telegraph some of their attacks, so the sequence has a Simon Says quality to it. One boss in particular is especially frustrating since in his last phase his attack is instant death – I’m sure a majority of players are going to have to run the whole fight at least twice as a result. Unfortunately, the final encounter of the game is a culmination of every criticism I’ve just discussed except the instant death, when it should have been a test of skills you had been taught throughout the game.
Speaking now out of obvious bias, I think the biggest missed opportunity with Kunai is its failure to be a meaningful Metroidvania game. Ostensibly it has all of the features – ability gating, optional pathways, and backtracking – but instead of rewarding the player for exploring, it rewards the player for breaking things instead. I mentioned early on in this review that Kunai’s strength is its movement, so stopping to kill or even grind monsters just breaks the pacing of what it does best. The most meaningful upgrades are locked behind the game’s shop, and are thus optional. Making movement upgrades optional means the levels have to be designed so that they’re effectively useless, and as I mentioned earlier, upgrading your weaponry is subverted by the most challenging encounters being scripted anyway. If the money system was completely dumped, Kunai would be a stronger game. Instead of leaning into its ultimately fleeting combat, it could have been about flying through the map to get the associated upgrades instead. Then, optional challenges could have built upon themselves, with the rocket jumping and slingshot upgrades leading into even more secrets that astute players would seek solely for the glory of completion. As-is, the only two things you absolutely must explore for in Kunai are heart pieces, which are useful, and hats, which are fun, but I only really needed one to be satisfied.
The most unfortunate part about Kunai’s lack of focus is that it burns out completely by the end of the experience. The advantage of having an upgrade system compared to what I recommend above is player expression, which could lead to choices inspiring replay, and I think I’ve covered ad-nauseam why that falls apart. The more guided linearity of the game is also a problem. Two of its areas are straight up platforming levels, and for others there just isn’t a whole lot of variation on how you can tackle them. Without optional depth or replay value, what Kunai really needed to wrap up all the things that are good about it was a satisfying ending, but that too is just not there.
When I try to write with brevity, criticism comes off as biting even if I don’t really mean it that way. So I want to conclude this review by emphasizing that Kunai is still a very fun game. The core mechanics are so ingeniously designed that it would be fun even if it was just a white room with walls to grapple off of. Breaking robots and speed running through levels is a playful treat. The level design overall is definitely not bad either, but for all of the reasons I have laid out, the experience as a whole falls just short of great. Kunai, for the most part, is a fun time, and for many players that’s fine enough.
It's incredibly fun and crunchy to break other robots, but not particularly challenging with a couple of dud bosses
Movement is this game's greatest strength, and flying around with the Kunai is incredibly satisfying
Heart Pieces and Money are the only game-affecting things you can find, and they aren't in abundance, nor are they hidden in a challenging way.
Not a focus for the game - only occasional puzzle platforming
Campy mustache twirling villains are threatening the world, and it's your job to break them. It's all a video game needs.
The style of the graphics are basically perfect, and the action is conveyed in a satisfying way.
Eastern Style music gives a relaxing Zen mood to the game which ironically fits well with the action.
Kunai runs its gimmicks pretty thin by the end and ends at a wise point. It's fun enough to replay but it doesn't have any features to entice it.