Metroidvania titles these days are fairly common to see on Switch. There are several good ones, but truly great ones shine through the rest and make a name for themselves, often through tight and purposeful gameplay, gorgeous visuals, and the sense of reward and accomplishment that is often coupled with backtracking through areas you’ve already visited. Kunai, the debut console title from developer TurtleBlaze, is exemplary of all of these things. While there isn’t much in the way of surface-level narrative (though there are some interesting themes beneath it all), Kunai is a refreshing take on the Metroidvania genre that was thoroughly difficult to put down.
In Kunai, you play as Tabby, a sentient ninja tablet that is tasked with taking down a horde of evil-A.I. robots bent on destroying Earth and all of human-kind…you know, the typical tablet-versus-robot plot. Despite the narrative mostly serving as a way to take Tabby through each of the game’s twelve areas, there are some interesting themes in terms of human nature and fascination with technology—which we won’t get into, as that gets into spoiler territory in terms of the game’s overall narrative.
Though Kunai’s narrative certainly isn’t its strong suit, it doesn’t have to be, nor should it be—gameplay is what matters most in a Metroidvania, and Kunai has plenty in that department. While the weapons and abilities are the highlight of the Kunai experience, general movement and platforming just feel…smooth. After a few minutes with the game, and after each upgrade that substantially changed the game in terms of movement and traversal—of which, there are many—I felt in complete control of Tabby’s movements, and any error I made could be attributed to a miscalculated jump or missed step on my part and never to a flaw in the game’s design.
But let’s talk upgrades and weapons. The first weapon Tabby gets at the very beginning of his journey is a katana, which is the main weapon Tabby uses throughout the game. The katana is light and fast, and through upgrades purchased using in-game currency Tabby earns by defeating enemies, it can be—and often is—lethal. Even after scoring electrical shurikens, SMGs, and rockets, the katana was still my weapon of choice for most encounters. That’s not to turn my nose up at those other weapon choices, because each is valuable and necessary in certain situations—shurikens open certain doorways, SMGs can be used to float mid-air to platform across large gaps, and rockets can be used to launch Tabby into the air and reach otherwise unreachable heights—but I found the katana the most versatile. The katana can be used to attack up, down, left, or right, and it can even deflect projectiles. For the starting weapon to have such versatility—even in the end game, where difficulty is ramped up significantly—is a testament to how well Kunai not only uses upgrades to bolster Tabby’s arsenal, but the player’s increasing skill as well. Some of the enemies met in the back half of the campaign are brutal, and often the most effective weapon used to dispose of them was my trusty katana.
I would be remiss to cover weapons and upgrades if I didn’t also cover the game’s namesake—the kunai. Kunai are essentially Japanese daggers, and in this game, they serve as Tabby’s hookshots, more or less. Found one almost directly after another, Tabby uses two kunai—one for leftward movement, one for rightward movement. The kunai will attach to just about any material but metal and is an integral part of Tabby’s traversal throughout the world. Not only will there be some areas only accessible by using the kunai, but they often make platforming faster and easier. Using both kunai to latch onto opposing vertical walls, for example, can be used to slingshot Tabby up for faster and higher traversal. They’re an essential part of the game (which makes sense, given the name), and I don’t know that the feeling of pixel-perfect platforming and traversal would be possible without them.
There are plenty of other abilities and upgrades that you’ll find along Tabby’s journey, but I won’t spoil them here. But how you get these upgrades is rather interesting. Rather than allowing the player to hit the pause menu and upgrade weapons using the in-game currency whenever they’d like, sometimes you’ll notice a wi-fi symbol toward the top of the screen. This indicates a wi-fi robot is nearby, and using one of these robots is the only way you can access the Tabb Store and upgrade Tabby’s weapons using currency. One bar tells you there’s wi-fi in the area; two bars tell you you’re getting close; and three bars means it’s directly nearby. Often these areas will be hidden, much like in the New Super Mario Bros. games, and typically it takes a bit of trial and error to find these hidden spaces, which may also contain chests with either more currency or a new cosmetic hat for Tabby to wear.
There are several boss battles to be had in Kunai, and they all feel well-designed in terms of art style, abilities, and attack patterns. Some of them gave me vague flashbacks to Kirby’s Dream Land in terms of animation style and some of the attack patterns. While it did feel like some of them were artificially difficult—usually by piling hazards onto the player—all of them, at least for me, were conquerable within a few tries. That said, during at least two boss battles, I had to either stand in a corner or continuously dodge the boss during its never-ending animation loop (at least until enough damage was dealt to it) because I was low on health, and my health regeneration upgrade only gave Tabby a sliver of health every few seconds. With healing otherwise solely tied to the game’s less-than-plentiful save points (though that’s staple design when it comes to Metroidvanias), I often felt trapped, as losing to the boss would mean being sent to my last checkpoint. That said, checkpoints are usually found before big boss battles, but I do wish there was some kind of health potion or canister that could have been consumed in those scenarios.
Overall, while Kunai’s strengths lie in its tight gameplay, the game is just pure fun. Tabby is a cute and fun protagonist, and the faces he makes during different actions are priceless. Add those with the many hat customization options, and Tabby is now atop my list of personal favorite game protagonists and mascots. (Now, give me a Tabby amiibo, already!)
Gamers often cite titles such as Axiom Verge or Hollow Knight as being the more recent great Metroidvanias, and I would add Kunai to that list as well. Though narrative is light and the difficulty of some of the boss battles feel artificially inflated at times, Kunai is a pound-for-pound amazing Metroidvania and is deserving to be played by Switch owners and Metroidvania fans alike—though I suspect those groups probably overlap a fair bit.
Disclaimer: A review copy of Kunai was provided by the game’s publisher.