Given recent articles on unionisation and the hazards of game development, I have tremendous sympathy for all who dare enter the profession, wide-eyed with dreams of entertaining others as they have been. I admire anyone who has the courage to enter this saturated field; who has the ability to learn all of the programming and philosophy that goes into making a great game. On the road to making a gripping adventure, several things can go wrong. I don’t know what happened with Katana Kami, but the only thing that brings me less pleasure than cutting down this samurai-themed dungeon crawler is actually playing it.
The playable character, a wandering ronin during Japan’s Meiji era, comes upon a blacksmith whose daughter has been kidnapped as collateral due to an exorbitant debt. The ronin agrees to help the blacksmith pay off his debt, but only if he can wed the daughter. Brilliant. So, now that we’ve established a noble protagonist and courageous employer, we can get down to some dungeon delving.
Awakening from his slumber on the first night, the ronin discovers a nearby tree containing an entrance to Jikai, a realm of death, demons, and eternal grinding. In standard dungeon-diving fashion, each floor contains a series of rooms, hallways, and enemies. Somewhere on each floor is an exit to the next floor, and so on. Every five floors hosts a big battle, which can be a locked-in area with several enemies or a big boss. Though every floor’s layout is randomized upon dungeon entry, the family of enemies and treasure remains stable.
Combat plays out isometrically, with players using light and strong attacks, dodges, and blocks. Different abilities are gradually revealed, such as the ability to build up enhanced attacks by having one’s blade sheathed for a lengthy period of time. Also, if a block is correctly timed right before an enemy attack, players can immediately execute a swift high-damage counter attack.
Everything here sounds fine and typical of the action RPG genre, but the execution and implementation are so horrendous that the game quickly becomes a slog. For example, the ronin’s movement feels stiff. Blocking requires locking on to an enemy, but since foes are fond of swarming the player, it is seldom practical. A frontal-block exposes oneself to the rest of the room and in the rare event that blocking doesn’t result in getting dogpiled, a counter is difficult to trigger during that short, precise window. More often than not, you will either take damage or block damage without countering. Even when not locked-on, the angle is sometimes off just enough for the block to fail.
As a result of these shortcomings, I used two one of two combat methods. In a room with one or two enemies, I could spam light attacks until the target relented and died. Alternatively, I would kite eight to ten enemies around the map until my charged attack was ready, and release its powerful area-of-effect ability to kill or brutally damage the group. Either way, the game becomes a mindless grind.
The debt collector returns at set increments, asking for increasing amounts of money. Getting the funds isn’t initially an issue, but the game hints at future financial hardship on the player’s part. Cash can be earned by either by selling goods obtained in the dungeon or finding loose piles of coin. Primarily, players will likely sell goods, as loose coins won’t be enough. Unfortunately, I learned early that selling an expensive item can be wasteful. Due to the coin purse’s limited capacity, I initially lost a great deal of money without realizing it. The coin purse can be expanded with accessories, but that means accessory slots are taken up for utility instead of raising defense, resistance, stats, etc.
While item bag limits aren’t new, that’s the problem: they’re an archaic mechanic. Collect enough swords, and you’ll find yourself having to throw away weak weaponry or unwanted accessories. One might suggest just not picking up weak weapons, but another draconian mechanic is weapon durability. Weapons can only be repaired with rare whetstone drops, by visiting a blacksmith, or stumbling across the dungeon’s randomly-found stations. Sharpening the blade requires, you guessed it, other weapons, so unwanted gear must constantly be picked up in order to maintain a preferred blade; a tiresome mechanic to slow down the pace of an already awkward endeavor. Players can eventually smelt weapons to get ingredients to upgrade a sword, which can either increase its max durability or damage. Nothing flashy here: get the requisite ingredients and increase a number. Repeat ad nauseam with each higher-quality weapon discovered.
Supposedly, the game offers several different stances to change up gameplay, but each only offers a new stat increase or resistence and minutely changes the way the player swings the blade. Pragmatically, each stance brings almost nothing new to gameplay, and serves more as a hollow marketing device than anything exciting in-game. What at first seems like a thoughtful piece of strategy and nuance is quickly revealed as a thin coating of gold.
The stakes are essentially a press-your-luck mechanic since death results in losing everything earned in that dungeon session. Several levels of insurance can be bought for increasingly ridiculous amounts of cash. However, since the whole point of the game is to pay off the blacksmith’s debt, the option is only useful once the dungeon’s sum reward far exceeds the cost of insurance. Even then, if the player makes a profit after using the insurance, but can’t keep up with the debt collector, they have to beg for forgiveness to get an extension. In modern games like Dark Souls, where death is a central design theme, I don’t want to die because I’ll lose my souls, but also because I want to see what comes next. In Katana Kami, I don’t want to die because I don’t want to dive into the same repetitive dungeon floors again. And again. And again.
That’s right: there’s almost no permanent progression. Each time a player enters the dungeon, they start from the first floor. What this means is that if you exit twenty-five floors in, after toppling the hardest enemies you can muster, you have to start all over again the next night. Katana Kami tries to ease this repetition by putting portals in random places, but they only skip around three floors, and may not even appear at all. Essentially, this leads to either searching entire floors of irrelevant enemies to find a portal, or sprinting straight through twenty or so exits before the game becomes even a little bit challenging again. Why not just let players go to a preferred, already explored floor? Ah, because they might earn a quest!
Upon each entry, quests randomly show up with such awe-inspiring conditions as “reach this floor,” “find me on floor seven and take my quiz,” or “kill the man-faced dog on floor thirteen.” The game’s built-in encyclopedia seems to encourage players to “catch ’em all” because it lists what seems like a hundred question marks just waiting to be filled. What’s most unforgivable about this is that the quest rewards don’t always occur. This means that if I’m promised 1,000 coins or a rare trinket, I may not get them. Although clearly a bug that will be patched out, it speaks to the caliber of design that can be expected from Katana Kami.
Outside of the dungeon, three warring factions can also be pitted against each other by arming some more than others, creating a higher demand for weapons. This gives the blacksmith the inspiration to make better swords and increases the amount of income each day. True, this sounds exciting, but so do most of the ideas described. What ends up happening is that players give any old sword to a faction, and the next day that faction will give the same thank you message with a pittance. Wait, what’s this? They want twelve swords the next day and will give me 240 coins instead of 12? Gee golly, mister!
It wouldn’t be a Spike Chunsoft game without shameless fanservice, and if the premise for this game wasn’t enough, Nanami, the blacksmith’s daughter, sends out a newsletter every day, describing the point value each suitor has earned for delivering gifts to her. I’m not kidding. If you deliver enough goodies to her, you’ll get a fancy rice ball with a ho-hum effect. Yes, after four days of delivering sake, peaches, or maps to her, players will enjoy a pink consumable. Oh, and your “competing” suitors have wonderful lecherous nicknames to make you feel like you fit right in.
Graphically, Katana Kami doesn’t look bad, but it looks cheap, as if it were from the previous generation. As stated, I suppose it controls fine, but everything feels stiff. At no point did I get a sense of fluidity or life from the visuals or controls. On the other hand, I enjoyed the dungeon music quite a bit. Most of the time, the soundtrack helped me get a sense that, yes, this is a samurai game. Despite all the battling I was doing, I found it strangely calming; though this is likely because the combat wasn’t all that intense to begin with.
Katana Kami is the worst game I’ve ever reviewed at RPGFan. While it works from a technical standpoint, the design is as flat and disgusting as a glass of soda that’s been sitting out on the dining room table all night and into the morning. The ideas are there. I can almost hear the exciting discussions during the beginning stages of development. On paper, this game sounds tenacious and engrossing, but everything done after those initial meetings was clearly a disaster. I never got a sense of import or consequence. Katana Kami is a black hole that sucks in time and gives nothing back. As a matter of full disclosure, I didn’t beat it. This is the second game I’ve reviewed for RPGFan and haven’t finished, and the first one I didn’t finish because of a game-breaking bug dozens of hours in. Someone might say, “You only played seven hours,” but I might say, “I will never get those seven hours back.”