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.
"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."
Everything's still vague, there's a cooking system, AND there are both items and characters that cheat the experience?! Glad I waited.
Edit: "So where's the constructive criticism?"
I'll put it like this: if this franchise's earliest entries were Mario Lost Levels/2JP, and this entry is NSMBU, then they need to make the Super Mario World equivalent - fun to play, more organic level design, and an immersive world, with secrets that (instead of being befuddlingly hidden) test your skill.
I'm definitly interest since I loved the 3ds game, plus the fact that it's a game hard in both a good and bad way really sound like the Umihara I remember XD
Still a little worried however, some changes here and there sound more aimed to try to hide or weaken the challange of the mechanics instead then improve or enchant it.
In other words: it's an Umihara Kawase game.
This is by far the best review I’ve read in a long time here on NL.
Sorry but the overall quality has really gone down, so I was surprised to see such a thorough review, especially for such a niche game.
What I mean by that is that this review takes the time to evaluate the game mechanics, how they interact, and what those interactions produce: for example, the reviewer noted how the cooking aspect and secondary characters undermine the difficulty and primary mechanic of the game (using the fishing rod), rather than synergize with them. That is objectively bad game design, and rightly he pointed it out.
Lately reviews on this site tend to amount to nothing more than a barebones compilation of what there is in the game (platforming/puzzles/combat/etc.) without any kind of critical insight, just a “you do this, it’s good/bad” and a number slapped at the end without much explanation.
Glad to see there’s still competent writing in here from time to time 👍🏻
This game is a blast. Its not as hard as other Umihara Kawase games but its still very satisfying to beat.
Excellent review from a non-Umihara fan perspective. Pretty on-point.
Just remember, folks: Everything listed here is what defines the franchise. If you went by Umihara logic, the game is instead a 10/10. I both love and hate the physics - On one hand I feel like some weird mix between a super saiyan and Tarzan swinging around, on the other hand things enter "human fall flat" levels of silly when I screw up a jump and spend half an hour watching her beat the skydiving record many times over.
After reading Hard in a good way and hard in a bad way, I have to ask, are we doing Nintendo phrasing now?
It is a game I really want to like, but I did find the 3DS one too difficult.
@Tandy255 The ironically-titled "Sayonara" was supposedly the most approachable of the entries prior to this one. Maybe it was, I'm not sure, not really enthused to try and compare it to the prior entries. Think I'd rather do lawn work. Hard in a good way in that the swinging mechanics are absolutely fun and nailing difficult sections/runs is a triumph, but dying constantly on such a margin of error is what's holding this series back. And it's for all of the same reasons that a 2D Sonic game shouldn't be open-bottom.
Update: Okay, let's be honest - knee-jerking reactions by shallow Westerners to even somewhat beautiful fictional women (Umi having a large chest but resulting in nothing, Shantae's belly-dancer garb always being played up only ever in comical ways, etc.) is also holding the franchise back. Not a fault, either.
Honestly we need more reviews like this, I laughed my ass off
That's really FIRM boobs on that cover...
Nice review! I disagree, or at least had a different experience with some aspects, but what is said makes sense to me. I love this game and junk it's the best Umihara Kawase game yet. It also runs perfectly at 60fps, which is awesome. It is hard and easy at different times, but the extra playable characters are a lot and can make the game fun just when it got frustrating. It's no joke about how steep the learning curve is. I'll never be good at this game. The fastest time trial times the game lists for various levels leave me speechless. It's weird, not for everyone, but totally a solid game.
This is easily the best thing I've read on this site in a long time. Nice work, Roland!
Anyone got any suggestions on where I can buy a retro Zelda t-shirt? I've be searching high and low, but no luck.
Not a bad review, but I cannot agree with this, sadly.
As with many Umihara Kawase games, the main delight of the franchise is its rubber-like physics with its roe, which can lead to intriguing playthroughs and tricks if used correctly. Therefore, all of the "frustrating" parts are more on the player's side than the game itself. Had it not been for this staple, there wouldn't even be as much speedrun videos of the franchise (albeit not as "mainstream" as the likes of Mario, Zelda, Sonic, and Banjo-Kazooie even).
Now, I'll admit that the latest game isn't "amazing" by any means, but after having unfortunately experienced the super-duper-uper disappointment that was Yoshi's Crafted World (and this is a HUGE Yoshi fan talking here), Umihara Kawase Fresh! revived my faith for my love for sidescroller platformers due to having good gameplay, good level design, and actual challenge, not to mention having worthwhile side content.
Opinions respected, but if Umihara Kawase Fresh! is truly a 6/10 game, then I guess that makes Yoshi's Crafted World a 1/10 game for me.
I really want to love the Umihara Kawase series, but I just can't. Sayonara was one of the few games I own that I simply couldn't beat. I tried for hours, going through different paths on the level select, until I ended with with a choice of 3 different levels and can't beat any of them. It's just too damn hard for me.
Why did they give her big defined boobies on the cover art and then give nothing to the in-game art? You've got to commit to the boobs, man.
Poshmark seemed to have some interesting choices.
Picked this up on sale the other week. It’s in the backlog. I like the interesting movement mechanic, hopefully I’ll enjoy the game.
Like others here, I played the game on 3ds, liked the visuals and mechanics, but strange difficulty spikes soured me on the game.
Thank you for the detailed review: I now know this game is similar to the 3ds game. I actually may buy it, if it comes way down in price.
Watches cover art... pro's a lot of bouncy...
(sorry, I am a simple man)
Sounds like a standard Kawase game to me.
I kinda just want this game for the great boxart
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