Haunted Dungeons: Hyakki Castle Review
Release Date: August 30, 2018
Publisher/Developer: Happinet Corporation
Platform: PS4 (reviewed); Nintendo Switch, Steam
Despite it being a niche genre, I've found myself reviewing a lot of dungeon crawlers lately. Haunted Dungeons: Hyakki Castle attempts to stand on it's own by mixing with a Japanese horror story featuring Yokai ripped from traditional lore. As an "action-based" dungeon crawler, you lead a team of samurai, healers, cat warriors, et cetera around the dungeon whilst enemies come at you in real time. You have the occasional jump scare to throw you off, but a lot of the game comes down to the old fashioned "explore the dungeon until certain criteria are satisfied, head to the next floor" kinda stuff. Hyakki also mixes in a boss battle from time to time to liven up (deaden up?) the affair.
The game mechanics really try to push the idea that you can split your party of four into two separate teams to take down the enemies. Some yokai can only be hit from the back, for instance. Therefore, you split in two and use one inactive party (with higher defense) as a decoy so the other team can sneak around back and take out the enemy. This sounds good on paper, but proves to be difficult in a genre built on moving square-by-square and maneuvering around actively attacking enemies. If they moved fast enough to be "scary" you would never have time to set this up, so most of the enemies I faced would simply walk/fly/teleport toward you and smack at you. After a few interactions with each ghoul, you'd start seeing their tells and know when to dodge and attack. You develop more skills as the game goes on, but it is rather tedious at first with the slow charge times of your basic attacks.
The two-party mechanic could be interesting if it were played like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. In that game there was a way for two characters to be controlled independently, and you could wrap your brain around maneuvering each together. Haunted Dungeons has you physically swap between two, leaving one party uncontrolled and vulnerable while you move the other into place. Usually this just turned into me ambushing an enemy in a corner and swapping parties each time it's attention shifted. Since they tend to move slow at the start of the game, it felt like "find the scary thing, corner it, and whack." It's a hard sell for an opening act, particularly since the graphics follow the dungeon crawler genre, what with it's constant 90 degree angles and similar wall patterns. I ended up finding myself with the attitude of "oh, they expect me to use the split up mechanic here" rather than "how can I use this neat mechanic to overcome obstacles," which is sad. I'd like to see the mechanic make more sense to naturally use.
The game does a good job of mixing traditional Japanese lore and artwork into the mix. Each enemy is supposed to be based off of a monster from that lore. As an American citizen without those ghost stories growing up, I suppose I have a different take on it. If the same game had Bigfoot, Slenderman, the Headless Horseman, the Blob, an Alien, and a Predator, I could get the constant dread, but the enemy designs don't hold as the stuff of nightmares for someone not steeped in the lore. The slow moving of enemies lets you see their simple designs that could have been crafted a generation ago as well.
As a dungeon crawler, Haunted Dungeons is standard fare, with levelling systems, skill trees, and equipment changes. Outside of combat there are loot possibilities and the occasional puzzle, but those boil down to "which switch to flick first" or "get two parties on two separate buttons." On one hand, it makes puzzles easy, but on the other it gets frustrating to push back from your last save point through the same monotonous bits because an enemy or a trap one-shotted you. I also wish you could at the very least check a mini map without going into a full pause, as there are a lot of narrow corridors and branching paths that I would get lost on due to the similar walls.
Audio-wise, I wish there was more. I enjoyed the intro video, full of colorful Japanese art, a menacing narrator, and traditional music. When I got into the game, though, it was eerie silent. I suppose that was for the horror vibe, but it just pushed me further into noticing the repetitive sound effects.
All this being said, fans of the genre will enjoy the game. It's a take on the genre I've never seen before, with different enemies and an edge-of-your-seat horror vibe, though most of the scares come from figuring out positioning after a jump and worrying that an enemy is right around the corner you can't see until you are in attacking range. If you are looking to convert someone to a fan, Haunted Dungeons may be a bit too hardcore, and it's mechanics may be confusing. The ideas show promise, they just need a little more time in the oven. Perhaps a sequel that can choose between the turn-based dynamic or ramp up the action and make you feel more in control. The two mixed make for a lesson in tedium that deadens the horror vibe.
-Exquisite idea of merging horror with traditional Japanese Yokai
-Interesting party split mechanic shows promise
-Plenty of power-ups and save spots to keep you moving
-Simple puzzles offer a bit of variation
-Horror and grid-based have a hard time meshing well
-Graphics and audio appear simple and dated
-Defining mechanic seems shoehorned in and forced rather than natural
Special thanks to Happinet Corporation for providing a PS4 copy for review.