While some videogame genres remain quite open-ended in interpretation - puzzles or platformers, for instance - others have become decidedly codified. Perhaps no template exemplifies this phenomenon as much as the ‘roguelike’, a game type born from its 1980 PC namesake and with a modern presence on nearly every console under the sun. Yōdanji is a new instantiation of the concept from eShop RPG veterans KEMCO, and it’s a demonically difficult delight; fun, fast gameplay, a great theme, and tons of replay value and variety make this an excellent addition to the Switch’s treasure chest of old-school experiences.

Yōdanji kicks off with an appealingly left-field, Denpa Men-esque premise: yōkai - ghosts and monsters from Japanese folklore - are floating among us in the real world, and your Nintendo Switch is equipped with the power to scan and uncover them. After a cutely tongue-in-cheek introductory sequence, you’ll be introduced to three of the little creatures, and can then choose any one from among them to start your journey.

Yōdanji is an old-school, classical roguelike, which means you’re in for a dungeon-crawling experience with randomly-generated floors, turn-based movement and combat, a hunger system, and a heavy focus on positioning, items, and exploration. If you’ve played any recent Mystery Dungeon games - either in Pokémon Mystery Dungeon or Etrian Mystery Dungeon form - you’ll have a good idea of what to expect, although Yōdanji also retains another element common to older titles in the genre: a difficulty curve that points about 90-degree north.

Once you jump in, the gameplay is simple enough to grasp: you’ll move your monster one tile at a time with the left analog stick, and combat is handled automatically, Ys-style, with standard attacks doled as you bump into enemies. Every action - from walking or attacking to using an item or resting to recover HP - takes a single turn, and nothing else happens in the dungeon until you act, giving you plenty of time to plan out your strategies before putting them into action.

Each floor of the dungeon is procedurally generated from a set of basic elements - monsters, traps, stairs, and treasure chests - and your overall goal is to equip yourself well enough to make it all the way down. That preparation comes in the form of items like recovery potions, amulet upgrades which boost certain stats or abilities, and, of course, plenty of food. Incorporeal or no, yōkai still have to eat, and if your character goes too long without food, they’ll start to suffer and eventually die from starvation, meaning keeping hunger in check is one of the biggest keys to success here. Munch management is made much trickier by the fact that your inventory only has five spaces — shared across items, amulets, and snacks — so you’ll have to think and plan very carefully about what you want to take with you.

Along with useful items and a full stomach, you can also keep yourself in top shape by levelling up as you descend. Rather than levelling up from experience points, in Yōdanji you’ll raise ranks by finding and defeating a spirit known as the Hitodama, with one on every floor. This flighty blue wisp could be anywhere - including invisibly possessing another enemy! - and since levelling up is one of the best ways to ensure survival, tracking it down is of upmost importance, and a refreshingly unique take on character growth.

Once you’ve snared a Hitodama, you’ll also be able to allocate a single point to unlocking or powering up one of your monster’s four unique skills. These vary greatly between characters, and choosing to invest in certain skills can make for very different playstyles as well. The weasel-like Kamaitachi we started with, for instance, has access to a healing skill, a multi-hit attack, a paralysis spell, and a slap with a speed buff. Some runs, we chose to throw all our points into the heal for faster recovery, on others we went all in on speed, and once in a while we went for a more balanced build; experimenting is not only a great way to out what works, it’s also fun in and of itself, and helps make each dive into the dungeon feel distinct.

Typically, roguelikes challenge you with simple, subterranean survival; how far down into the ground can you make it before you expire? Yōdanji uses its theme to add a welcomely concrete goal to the mix: unlocking the rest of the 21 playable yōkai in the game. In the main Yōkai Hunt mode, your mission is to make it down 10 floors and collect three scrolls along the way, each of which contain part of a (creatively written!) tale centred on a certain yōkai. Placing all three in an altar on the bottom floor will trigger a boss battle, and if you defeat the massive monster, you’ll unlock the yōkai described in the scrolls as a new playable character.

This isn’t just a nice gameplay goal - it’s also a means to experience one of Yōdanji’s best features, because each of those 21 yōkai play vastly differently to the rest. They’re essentially each their own micro-‘class’, with different strengths, spells, and styles of play. Some (like our weasel friend) are focused on offence, others on defensive moves, and other still on running away from battles. Some have area-of-attack spells which cover long ranges, while others are entirely confined to melee combat. A very few have access to healing, while many more focus on inflicting debuffs of various kinds on your enemies to make things smoother. As an extreme example of the variety on offer, you’re even able to unlock the Hitodama, whose only attack is to ‘possess’ and then become any enemy they run across - a fantastically fun divergence from the norm.

Unlocking new yōkai is a real highlight, but it’s also very much easier said than done; as we alluded to above, Yōdanji is a seriously tough time, even on the easier ‘Yōkai Picnic’ mode which gives you more favourable conditions on earlier floors. And the fact that the easier mode basically only grants better RNG shows one potentially polarising aspect of Yōdanji: a great deal of your success is down to pure, rotten luck. The random systems in place don’t particularly care about being ‘fair’, so on some runs we found ourselves surrounded by monsters that could each one-shot us individually on the second floor. Getting hit with two particularly nasty status effects at once, not finding any food when you need it, or being ambushed at low health are all just a few of the fatal scenarios that killed us at least once, and which will swiftly introduce players to another feature of the rougelike genre: permadeath.

There aren’t any ‘save points’ as such in Yōdanji, and dying means heading back to the main menu, with progress completely reset and the dungeon re-randomized for your next attempt. Happily, however, your score and time for each run is saved, and is shown in comparison with other adventurers in online leaderboards. We found this helped quite a bit with the motivation to dive back in, and considering how many times we watched the death counter rise (well over 50 attempts in before we unlocked our first yōkai) that’s saying something.

And while luck plays a starring roll here, there’s still plenty of strategising to be done, and the quick-fire nature of the game (we average about five minutes per attempt) means that trying out novel approaches each run- with new characters, new spell sets or new techniques - is a distinctly satisfying option. Even as we stretched into triple-digit dungeon dives, each time through felt appreciably unique, and we always had a story to tell; whether that involved success and a new yōkai or dying in the first 30 seconds, each trip was worth it. It’s telling that following our first win, after having already spent several hours trying to make it to the last floor, the first thing we do is jump right back in again to try and beat our score. Yōdanji is punishing, but snappy enough that that never works against its appeal.

In terms of its gameplay, Yōdanji is simple but endlessly compelling; diving through the dungeons is a blast, and unlocking new yōkai makes for a wonderful feedback loop of replay incentives, where you’ll want to test out each new monster to find a winning strategy for unlocking the next. And when you’re done hunting yōkai (or just want something different), a Challenge Dungeon option provides the endless dive of traditional roguelikes, where you can attempt to get as many floors down into an infinite abyss as possible.

Its presentation, in contrast, is more of an acquired taste. Graphically, Yōdanji hearkens back to the days of its genre’s genesis, with a limited colour palette, heavily tiled textures, blocky, full-fill pixels, and the stark white-on-black fonts of the computer consoles from which these adventures originated. Some of its more archaic aspects are charmingly so — like the text-based log which keeps a running account of everything that happens — but others are eyesores, like the massive inventory overlay and the controls cheatsheet which takes over a good bit of the right side of the screen.

The controls legend can be turned off, but another problem is that you’ll likely need it; originally a mobile title, Yōdanji’s transition to Switch comes with an unfortunately awkward control mapping that never totally makes sense. Using the left stick for movement is easy enough to grasp, but things get more complicated from there; pressing ‘A’ will use an item you’re standing on, but to pick it up and add it to your inventory, you need to flick the right analog stick to the left, while flicking the same stick to the right will drop the top item in your inventory. Expanding and collapsing your inventory fall to the vertical axis of the right stick, though navigating through it is back to the D-Pad, and only when it’s active on the screen; a distinction which we found difficult to make quickly.

Each of your character’s four potential spells are also mapped to the D-Pad, which makes sense in and of itself, but we’d much rather have seen spells on the left stick and movement on the pad. Since there’s no hold-to-run option when enemies are on-screen (an understandable function of the turn-based system), you have to flick the analogue stick continuously to move across a room when running away from danger. It feels silly and cumbersome, and seems like a much better fit for the discrete buttons of the Switch’s D-Pad, while spells would work fine on either input.

These quirks are manageable, but it all adds up to an interface that feels more than a bit clunky. It’s a shame especially because elsewhere, Yōdanji feels lovingly polished: the genuinely well-written lore and backstories for each yōkai and colourful portraits on the character select screen, the cleverly balanced movesets of its many, many classes, and the sunny Japanese theme of mochi, tofu, and sake cups that lends a playful feel to the otherwise dreary depths. While its fast pace and clear goals make it perfect for Switch’s portable play, a bit more optimisation would have been needed for it to feel entirely at home on the console.

Conclusion

Bite-sized but very tough to chew, Yōdanji is a devilishly tricky roguelike with a fun theme, addictive, goal-based gameplay and massive replay value. Its 21 unlockable characters are the key to the latter, with each yōkai essentially acting as its own unique class, and discovering and trying to master the mechanics of each monster is pure old-school joy. Its anachronistic presentation won’t be for everyone, and clunky controls make for a sometimes confusing crawl, but anyone looking for a tough-as-nails good time with plenty of personality will get more than their money’s worth here.