We didn’t quite know what we were getting ourselves into when we agreed to review Yurukill: The Calumniation Games. On one hand, Yurukill fronts as a murder-mystery adventure similar to Danganronpa or – if you squint hard enough – Phoenix Wright. On the other, Yurukill also throws at you some shoot ‘em up segments that seem thematically unrelated. Finding clues and reading through line after line of dramatic dialogue before shooting down hordes of enemy ships to an electronic beat seems to go together about as well as pickles on ice cream, yet somehow developer IzanagiGames (along with shmup dev G.Rev) pulls off this bizarre mixture way better than we thought possible.
Yurukill begins with Sengoku Shunju waking up on a prison ferry on its way to Yurukill Land – an amusement park filled with murder-themed attractions. Joining him are five other prisoners, including a foul-mouthed biker and his straight-laced twin brother, a snobbish rich kid, a peppy teenage idol, and a bumbling detective. Prior to finding themselves on their way to Yurukill Land, all of them were convicted of some crime or other. Sengoku, for example, was sentenced to 999 years in prison for causing nearly two dozen deaths by burning down an entire apartment building.
The Prisoners soon team up with their Executioners, which are people somehow related to the crime they committed. The Executioner decides whether or not to press a button on their Yurukill tablet that will inject the Prisoner with poison from a collar. The Prisoners, meanwhile, try to convince their Executioner of their innocence from clues found throughout Yurukill Land’s attractions, which aren’t roller-coasters but replicas of their crime scenes brimming with puzzles to solve.
The first part of each chapter takes the form of a puzzle-heavy visual novel from the perspective of one of these teams. The disquieting art style – particularly the large, oddly coloured eyes of the female cast – might not be for everyone, but the Switch OLED in particular makes the vivid blue-and-purple carnival aesthetic pop. The voice acting (of which Japanese is the only option) follows suit. It’s over-the-top but professionally done. For example, the unhinged mask-wearing guide called Binko speaks in a child-like voice one moment to explain an attraction’s rules before screeching and making sexual innuendos when a Prisoner steps out of line the next.
The exaggerated voice acting gave us a bit of whiplash that wouldn’t have been much of a problem if there wasn’t so much dialogue (yes, even for a visual novel). Characters often repeat plot points ad nauseam as if the developers didn’t trust players to follow along. Still, we found ourselves endeared to the eccentric – if initially unlikable – cast and became committed to solving each mystery even if we had to mash 'A' through what we’d already heard.
The puzzles themselves vary from simple to frustratingly obtuse. One has you using a cipher from a piece of paper to uncover a passcode for a door. Another tasks you with matching the Major Arcana from a Tarot deck to the capsules on two separate Ferris wheels. A hint system is available for those that would rather not Spend (or waste, depending on your point of view) time thinking through each conundrum, though a handful of puzzles required such a leap in logic or obscure information that the hints did not help, leaving us frustrated with their poor design.
Things get wild once a Prisoner clears an attraction. Binko hooks up both Prisoner and Executioner to a Brain Reality shoot ‘em up game for the second half of each chapter. It’s up to the Prisoner to battle their way through three stages to break through the Executioner’s prejudice against them by defeating them as a boss and infiltrating their mind. It’s like Phoenix Wright-lite taking place as a shmup, complete with selecting evidence after clearing each stage in order to prove a Prisoner’s innocence, except that presenting the wrong evidence results in the loss of extra lives.
Yes – it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.
Somehow this works despite the loose justification the story provides. With our disbelief sufficiently suspended, we looked forward to this section at the tail end of each chapter because it came as a welcome change of pace from moving a cursor around to examine cupboards and look under carpets. Furthermore, clearing the shmup levels reveals truths about each conviction, which we were eager to compare with our assumptions.
Muddy background textures and periodic slowdown do little to help the top-down-spacecraft action, however. While dodging projectiles and shooting down hundreds of enemy craft is a relatively good time on Normal difficulty and a steep challenge on Hell, Yurukill is unlikely to make any Best Nintendo Switch Shmups lists. A few mechanics shake things up: the better we answered questions about the mystery at hand, the more lives we received. Each Prisoner also pilots his or her own craft with unique attack patterns, and a score attack mode with online ranking promises to entice score-chasers. Yet without the story-based reward, the shmup sections would be a chore to complete in the later chapters. It's the peculiar characters, their supposed crimes, and the clever twists and turns leading up to a thrilling finale that kept us invested.
Despite our relative indifference toward the shmup sections and our frustration with some of the puzzles, by the time we cleared each team’s attraction and really got to know the eccentric cast before the intense final chapters, Yurukill: The Calumniation Games had thoroughly hooked us. Individually, the puzzle-solving and shooter elements aren’t anything particularly special, but they come together with some ridiculous characters to form a game greater than the sum of its parts. We’d go so far as to say we like pickles on ice cream now, and – while you might think us as crazy as Binko – we think you might, too.