2012 saw the mighty Legend of Grimrock trap wave after wave of unprepared players in a torturous battle for survival. Almost Human’s indie hit tossed willing victims into a maze of traps that updated the classic Dungeon Master concept. Now, Asakusa Studios is ready to drag us all the way back to a Japan full of Shogun and samurai, with an interesting take on the classic dungeon crawler.
Like Legend of Grimrock, Hyakki Castle is a real-time, grid-based RPG that mixes traditional dungeon exploration with a series of traps, challenging players to work their way out of trouble. While the Grimrock series is a magical medieval mystery that lures adventurers through a maze of ruins, Hyakki Castle has a slightly less western influence to it. The inaugural outing from the team at Asakusa Studios is completely unlike any JPRG I’ve ever seen and utterly eschews the expectation of energetic teenagers and kawaii creatures for a much darker aesthetic. This is our Hyakki Castle review.
Opening with a gorgeously animated mural, Hyakki Castle tells of the rise of the Shogun, brave warriors, and an evil sorcerer, appropriately presenting a traditional Edo setting for the game’s narrative. This is accompanied by a haunting score, made up of traditional Japanese music, that really frames this as an old horror story. The eerie aesthetic is maintained as the game opens on a dungeon so dark, that color barely registers. A series of claustrophobic corridors wind around the eponymous castle, and an overwhelmingly oppressive shade of brown washes over everything.
The dank twisting set of hallways hide a multitude of traps and horrors including some utterly bizarre monsters. Giant skeletons, floating heads, and vengeful spirits wait patiently in the darkness for unsuspecting victims, only revealing themselves when it’s almost too late. The complete erosion of joy form this environment is accompanied by some great sound design, adding just the crackle of flame, the percussion of falling water, and the moan distant monsters to ratchet up the tension. While composers such as Akira Yamaoka regularly craft fully fledged soundtracks capable of delivering an atmosphere of terror, the decision of Asakusa Studios to take this minimalist approach is understandable and largely works.
The massive range of quite unusual creatures that fill Hyakki Castle, and are clearly inspired by traditional Japanese ghost stories. Undead samurai, fox spirits, twisted poltergeists, Kamikiri, and creatures that defy explanation are all resident in the castle of Kigata Doman. These present an appropriately themed challenge and are far from a simple puzzle to unravel. While these enemies might not be the most intelligent I’ve ever come across, they can be distinctly deadly, felling a samurai or any member of your party in just a few blows.
As a result, any combat inside the castle’s walls must be carefully considered. While a good Dungeon Master will warn you to stay with your party and ensure you stand the best chance of survival, Hyakki Castle’s party system is not exactly traditional. In fact, it actively encourages players to divide their party. In a unique twist on the standard dungeon crawler concept, the game divides the screen with each section representing one of two groups. Opening on a lone samurai and a separate group of imprisoned warriors, Hyakki Castle encourages players to navigate a series of scenarios that require a thoughtful approach to success. Enemies can be caught in a pincer movement, traps may require multiple switches to deactivate, and exploration can thoughtfully improve by dividing forces. Splitting does still carry an obvious element of risk, with a prospect of death trapping everybody behind the only avenue of escape. This introduces a refreshingly different take on a genre that can sometimes feel more than a little linear.
While players can pick from a number of party compositions, including Human, Oni, Tengu, and Nekomata, this is undermined by some problematic design choices. Despite a good range of stats, skills, and abilities across all party members, it is not immediately obvious what role each of these can play. Opening descriptions of each class are just about vague enough to obscure their fundamental roles and opening stats vary so little that it can make deciphering the designer’s intentions difficult. Skill progression, among other things, is also obscured. Hidden away with no obvious method to deploy new abilities, until I blindly clicked the correct button, the skill menu can go completely unnoticed by beginners to the game. Skills do however benefit from tooltips which is more than can be said for much of the game’s systems.
While the minimalist design is not uncommon in dungeon crawlers, Hyakki Castle verges on the ridiculous at times. Players dropped into the opening scenario are given no instruction on managing either of their teams and very little direction. Controls, such as the inventory, combat, and skill systems are simply not intuitive. Little to no tooltips exist, and even the controller configuration options are largely unhelpful. Despite a welcome roster of gamepad and keyboard support settings, it remains difficult to unravel what to do when facing off against the demons trapped Hyakki Castle with you.
Combating restless Yokai reveals yet more odd design choices in Hayaki Castle. While a grid style system and a limited freedom to move around the dungeon is reasonable, combat relies on a mix of WASD movement and mouse clicks, Each character can utilize up to four skills on a toolbar, yet these each need to be individually triggered by clicking on them. This makes the process of fighting out of hectic battles or managing the various roles in real time, chaotic and generally unsatisfying.
After spending several attempts trying to get my fallen warriors out of Kigata’s cursed castle I found it to be a frustrating affair that undermines a fantastic concept. Asakusa Studios have taken the Dungeon Master genre, developed a really unusual aesthetic, and thrown in a unique party twist. Where it fails is the some of the core fundamentals. A few idiosyncrasies aside, tooltips, instructions, inventory management, and a better-judged combat system are all areas this game needs to improve upon. Despite some great puzzles and an interesting group mechanic, I will be waiting before returning to Hyakki Castle. If you love dungeon crawlers and need something new, give it a try. If you are new to the genre then maybe start with the superb Legend of Grimrock. Hyakki Castle is out now on Steam.
Final Score: 6.5/10
- interesting theme and story
- split-team concept
- definitely disturbing
- totally unintuitive controls
- lack of party management