There’s something strange about Umihara Kawase Fresh! It’s not the fish with human legs; it’s not the tadpole that lays frogs. It’s not even the pork pizza you serve to a pig. What’s strange is that it can’t seem to decide how difficult it is.
Assuming you are not familiar with the Umihara Kawase series, the opening of the game will make you let your guard down. It’s pre-schooler fare: cartoon animals all being friendly to one another in their little town. Protagonist Kawase Umihara rocks up and joins in on all the friendliness. She’s a travelling sushi chef and she’s seeking room and board in exchange for work at a restaurant. Not chef work, mind you: deliveries.
This sets up the game’s structure. The 'town' is just one enormous platforming level made of the usual platform shapes with a very sparse scatter of houses and NPCs for you to deliver things to. The delivery errands make for nicely separated missions, all tied together by your restaurant job, and the missions are on a big list where you can pick them off in order, or jump ahead a few as you complete some and open up more.
On every mission, you’re guided by arrows so you’ll never be lost and, although there are secrets to find, you’re never required to explore. That’s even true of quests where you’re asked to go and find, say, five sexy-legged fish. You’ll literally be pointed straight to the five nearest fish.
So far, this sounds like a simple game for tiny children, right? It certainly seems like that at the beginning when you receive almost absurdly thorough tutorials. These start with how to move and how to jump. Umihara Kawase Fresh! takes a screen to tell you which button is jump, then asks you to give it a go, then returns to the tutorial screens. It treats the player as if they’ve never played a platform game.
The over-explaining doesn’t really let up, either. After a good dozen or so missions – in which you have, every single time, followed the onscreen arrows then pressed X on the giant pulsing X that they lead to – you get a special tutorial all about an elevator. “About elevators,” it begins, showing part of the level with an elevator door on it labelled 'Elevator' in large letters beside an enormous X button. What are we to do? We follow the arrows, like every other time, to this big X button: fine so far. But until now we would always just press X – whether the big X is by a house, a tent, a pig or a bag – but what on Earth do we do when it’s by an elevator?! The tutorial continues: “Press X to use the elevator.” Phew.
It’s important to understand just how elementary the game is in these regards because all this 'my-first-platformer' dressing is hung on a movement mechanic that is subtle, complex, full of possibilities, thrilling, liberating – and infuriatingly hard to master. We’re talking red-faced, white-knuckle fury when you fail – but loving, open oneness with the universe when you succeed. To put it another way, this is definitely an Umihara Kawase game.
Kawase runs and jumps while carrying a fishing rod. She can cast her lure to grab onto enemies and platforms, then reel things in or swing around. The line is elastic and by lengthening and shortening it and building momentum in a swing, you can fling Kawase around the level in all sorts of emergent ways – then Spider-Man the next thing and keep on flying. When you pull it off, this is incredibly satisfying. However, it’s tough. The physics are far from intuitive – when hanging you press up to go down and down to go up – but they are consistent and can be learnt, so the game feels fair. It’s hard, but not impossible.
Fair, however, is not the same as nice. A punishment can still be fair. Having swung and bounced and flicked up screen after vertical screen, a little slip – or just a failed jump that you could see was always 50/50 – will send you falling a thousand miles to goodness knows where. You don’t die; you’re not forced to restart. No, you can always choose to restart, you quitter, or you can get your rod out (probably underwater now, slowly drowning) and flail about like a sad animal, nothing left but your dignity, then let go of your dignity as well to really get into the flailing thing, all naked and humiliated – and then die. Which is fair: you missed the jump, after all.
And then you’re given a video about how to press to X next to a big X.
This mix of handholding kindergarten presentation and MLG pinpoint 'skillz' might sound entertaining: to an extent, it is. However, Umihara Kawase Fresh!'s confusion about its own difficulty means the player doesn’t get the explanation, support and encouragement needed for such a challenging game – neither in its tutorials nor its level design nor its mission structure.
In apparent acknowledgement of the expertise needed to control Kawase, other characters become available early on and can be selected freely on restarting a mission. These are wildly easier to play with – one of them can fly! – but it reveals how hard the game is when having a very generous extra jump isn’t game-breakingly easy. In fact, it’s so satisfying to play as Cotton, with her mid-jump flying broomstick, that the game might have been better if Kawase could do that and the missions were then built around that ability. The chance to rescue yourself and have another go is a breath of fresh air – but it feels like cheating when you elect not to play as the titular character and simply skip some of the toughest tests.
Compounding the bonkers difficulty fluctuations are the incredibly short, basic missions that crop up right in the middle of a bunch of rock-hard ones. The overall effect of all this is that you’re never quite allowed to build confidence or feel the satisfaction of progress. It might make you want to give up, rather than encourage you to learn its intricacies. Umihara Kawase Fresh! does offer some friendly assistance in the form of cookable buffs. You collect ingredients and learn recipes as you go, then can prepare pizzas and soups and so on which will boost health and add toughness, extra oxygen, a bigger jump, and so on.
The collecting and cooking needn’t be obtrusive but it again seems to undermine what there is of a difficulty curve. If you can just whip up a teriyaki pizza and suddenly make all the jumps on a mission easy, why torture yourself? And if that’s the best legitimate way to beat the level then why is menu operation made so central to platform gaming? A particularly niggling example: the campsites. These allow you to establish checkpoints during a mission. However, you can only build a camp with the right resources, so you may find you can’t have a checkpoint this time – or just hesitate to make one in fear that you’ll need the gear later on. It’s an unnecessary interference with the basics of playing the game, making it just a little bit harder to have fun.
You’ll be menu-fiddling for a couple more things, too. First, a hunger gauge acts as a time limit that can be extended by selecting food to eat. Second, there are the bosses, which can also be beaten easily by just eating and buffing throughout the fight. (There’s also a tutorial on how to beat them, natch.) The bosses, unfortunately, suffer from the same repetition and inconsistency as the level design.
All in all, Umihara Kawase Fresh! is presented smartly, if quite bizarrely. Its movement system is fiendish, sometimes frustrating, sometimes free-flowing. Unfortunately, it asks a lot of the player and manages to hide its best bits. The level and boss design are unlikely to inspire anyone, especially when already taken to wit’s end by the stuttering difficulty, but that’s not enough to undo the game’s unique charm. If you’re already an Umihara fan then Umihara Kawase Fresh! will give you your fix like nothing else. For anyone else, it’s harder to love – but not impossible.