Released On: November 15, 2017 Genre: First-Person Dungeon Crawler RPG Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Asakusa Studios Publisher: Happinet MSRP: $24.99 USD/$29.99 CAD on Windows via Steam
Hyakki Castle attempts to take us back to an earlier genre of gaming, and one that has been reproduced to varying degrees of success since it’s inception. The first-person dungeon crawler made its mark on gaming in the 1980s, with Wizardry and the oft-lauded Dungeon Master at the front of the crowd. First-person dungeon crawlers in recent history have been few and far between, and they’ve often fallen starkly on one side of the spectrum or another. The classic RPG medium hasn’t withstood the passage of time as well as some other genres have, and because of that requires new mechanics to help redefine and move the genre forward for new generations of gamers who weren’t around to experience the initial birth of the systems.
Enter Hyakki Castle, a first-person dungeon crawler set in the vein of Dungeon Master, which attempts to do just that with its unique party-splitting system, allowing you to take on dungeon-crawling in a completely different way. The game is set in 18th century Edo Japan with a strong focus on the Samurai culture and mythology of the era. You take on the role of four secret agents of the Shogunate who have been sent to a mysterious castle which has appeared on Hyakki Island, and tasked with bringing swift death to a banished sorcerer Doman Kigata, who slew everyone and proclaimed himself The Lord of Hyakki Castle. The game has been designed in the beautiful and classic Ukiyoe art style, which translates to “floating world” and accurately describes the wispy images which flourished in Edo Japan and became a defining part of the era. Everything except for the dungeon itself, including character models and to an extent the enemies you encounter are designed or influenced by this medium, which really adds a strong air of authenticity to a game set on recreating the feel of the 18th century.
You begin as one of the four secret agents, tasked with setting your three comrades free from the lowest dungeon of Hyakki Castle so that the four can embark on your quest to slay Doman Kigata at the top of the mysterious castle. You’re immediately just thrown into the game with relatively minimal instruction on how to defend yourself, or perform any of the other major functions in the game, which made for a bit of a stumbly first couple of hours. Hyakki Castle features an extremely minimal tutorial, if one could call it a tutorial at all. While the game attempts to vaguely tell you how to perform key actions such as fighting demons and combining/splitting parties, instead of actually detailing which buttons perform which actions, a vague command appears on-screen and you’re required to make a few jumps in logic to figure out which button corresponds to said command. The “Controls” section of the Settings is minimally helpful, as even after learning that “Alpha 3” combined or split up my party, it took me a little before I figured out that I needed to move both of my groups to the same square and then press number 3 to get the option to manage my team.
Luckily the controls in the game are relatively simple, so after I figured out how to manage my party there were minimal roadblocks moving forward and the pacing of the game improved exponentially. You control the movement of your teams with WASD and arrows, but you click on icons in each character profile along the bottom of the screen to perform actions such as attacking or casting spells. It was a bit of an odd system to get the hang of at first, but the combination of the two control schemes works well for the medium. While I was initially very hesitant with my attacks, clicking once to attack and moving backwards, after joining my party together combat soon became a flurry of clicking along the bottom of the screen and dodging deftly from side to side as I waited for each of my characters’ attacks to refresh. Movement is a little clunky — you only travel along 2 axis with less maneuverability than we’re often used to in 2017 — but this made me feel like I was playing a first-person dungeon crawler from the early 90s.
Combat in Hyakki Castle is exceptionally simple at its core, but does involve a decent amount of strategization before going into battle to ensure you don’t wind up losing one of your parties. Your characters gain experience as you progress through the dungeon defeating enemies, and I found that leveling up was absolutely necessary before pressing on in most instances, as enemies got exponentially harder every time you ascend to a new floor. Combat was easiest in most fights when controlling all four characters as a single group instead of split teams, as it allowed you to immediately access everyone’s abilities without having the additional layer of switching between the teams. That being said, the ability to split into teams of two allowed me to simultaneously tackle multiple enemies when I was getting surrounded in one instance, but for the most part I preferred fighting as a single group.
Characters gain active combat and passive skills as they level up, and you can assign any of the active skills to the panels below your character’s name, allowing you to click on the new ability the next time you enter combat. It would have been nice if there was an option to hotkey attacks and abilities — as in the heat of battle it was easy to click the wrong little square — but it likely would have required upwards of 16 hotkeys to manage the full team which realistically may have been even more complicated. Combat does often devolve into quickly clicking as many skills as you can and dodging around awkwardly side-to-side while you wait for them to recharge, but the simplicity did hearken me back to my earlier gaming days and I think worked really well for the medium. Trying to add many more layers to the combat would have really taken away from the classic Dungeon Master-esque feel of Hyakki Castle.
It is absolutely necessary to maintain both teams well-being while adventuring through the castle, as the ability to split into two groups is needed to solve the puzzles that you’ll encounter, as well as tackling several of the boss fights. One of the key defining features of Hyakki Castle is this dual-party system which allows players to split their team of four up and solve the castle’s multitude of puzzles, many of which require you having one team stand on a specific weighted panel, while another team ventures to unlock a second similar pressure plate. I encountered a wealth of these puzzles throughout the game, and after the first couple they ceased to retain much of their logistical difficulty. Step on plate, split party, find other plate, progress. This was one part of the game that I was fine with not having received any type of tutorial on.
Venturing through the environments got a little repetitive after a while, as much of the castle looks fairly similar with repetitive stone or wooden walls and similar objects strewn about. Some of the later floors were much more visually appealing, eliciting the traditional feel of a Japanese domicile, but this again may have also been an intentional design choice to help the game retain its more classic feel. Running very counter to the environments are the enemy models though, which are as varied as they are well designed. Coming across everything from dragons and Oni to deadly Kabuki-style maidens and other characters from Japanese mythology which I was not as familiar with. While the game does have its shortcomings, Asakusa Studios did a wonderful job with Hyakki Castle making sure that all of these aspects related explicitly to the period of time and the style of game that they were trying to achieve.
Unfortunately the lack of instruction during key moments seemed to be a bit of a trend for Hyakki Castle, and after mastering the basic controls I still found occasionally myself in situations where I had absolutely no idea how to manipulate the controls to get myself out. There was another instance where my solo party member died — this was before I had stumbled across figuring out how to combine them — and I had come across a puzzle requiring two teams. After spending a considerable amount of time trying to figure out if it was possible to heal the character or split the second team up — which there was not — eventually I came across the option in the Party menu to commit Seppuku (suicide) with my second team which sent me all the way back to the beginning of the game. Save points are only in specific areas, and since I’d yet to hit one in the game I was forced to restart my journey, shamed as a failed Samurai. Maybe this was the whole point; maybe I was meant to struggle through the controls until the only logical option left was Seppuku. This did remind me once again of some of my earlier experiences before games held your hand with lengthy tutorials, but I still feel that Hyakki Castle on the whole could have done a better job explaining some of its systems.
I think it’s a great idea to have a Seppuku option to give an era-accurate way for players to realize their mistakes and revert back to a checkpoint, but like many other aspects it could have been either detailed in a tutorial, or even just acknowledged that this was a feature within the game. Admittedly these first couple hours of stumbling through the game left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, but once I got into the swing of the systems and the hang of splitting my party up to tackle everything from puzzles to giant skeletons, the gameplay really flowed. My favorite part of the game were each of the boss fights, which often required you to split your party up to take advantage of a perceived weakness, or in one case send part of the group off to attack another part of the boss in a different room.
Hyakki Castle definitely transported me back to some of my first experiences gaming on PC in the early 90s, including the frustration that I often felt from not being able to figure out relatively simple systems. While I can appreciate the effort to force the player to learn the game through trial and error, some less-than-intuitive aspects noted above made the experience for the first couple hours feel like more of a pitfall than a boon. Suffice it to say, a small but actual fleshed out tutorial at the beginning with some of these mechanics would have been beyond useful and likely would lift a roadblock which I could see deterring some players.
With this in mind, once I had mastered the controls I had a smooth time with Hyakki Castle. The environments got a little redundant and the combat is fairly simple at its core even after you’ve leveled up your team, but the game does a great job eliciting 18th century Edo Japanese mythology alongside an oft-forgotten genre from the 1980s. It’s a juxtaposition of atmosphere and gameplay that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before, and combined with a two-party system which has never before been utilized in the first-person dungeon crawling genre, make Hyakki Castle a genuinely unique title, albeit one with some control and pacing issues.
Final Score: 6.5/10
Hyakki Castle does a great job importing Japanese mythology into a classic genre, but pacing issues and a lack of tutorial detract from the overall experience.
The review copy of this game was a digital code provided by the publisher.
Author: Matt Ferguson
Matt Ferguson holds a Master of Arts in Foreign Policy from Carleton University, and a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in History & Classics from Trent University. In his short time being involved professionally in the video game industry he has managed live streaming events at bars, ran competitive tournaments in Canada, worked with G4, and started his own Twitch Community.
He also spends far too much time cuddling his cats.