You awake in what seems to be a graveyard for robots. Or, more of a room with piles of dead robots filling every corner, piled up to the ceiling. Your rescuers are among them, their bodies blending in with the countless others. This world has been run into the ground by a tyrannical overlord, and you, an anthropomorphised computer tablet known as the Chosen One, have been freed in order to save it. Your task is simple: find the Kunai, kill the evil robots, and steal some hats. Oh, and save the world.
It’s a story we’ve heard countless times before. Whether you’re the Dovakhin or the Wanderer, games love putting the player in the position as the “chosen one” to give you a reason for your quest. As tropes go, it hardly feels original, but Kunai’s pixel art opening sequence details the decline of a civilisation, putting some gravitas behind your mission. You’re one of the Resistance, and you’re ready to fight for what you believe in: hope.
After you break free of your oversized test tube, the first few levels start very gently. Getting those rusty joints moving again is a slow process, as you are drip-fed instructions and eventually, in the second level, the fabled weapons themselves, the Kunai.
The eponymous weapons allow you to move more quickly, freely, and ably but are essentially dual-wielded grappling hooks. You still use your robo-katana to dice up enemies as if they were sushi, and they can even drag enemies towards you. You can upgrade them further down the line, but it is an interesting decision to make the fabled “experimental weapons” that give the game its title aid movement and movement alone; the first boss doesn't pose a threat once you know how to use them.
However, it was during the trek through the forest that Kunai showed what the true nature of the apocalypse was. It’s not oblivion or tyranny; it’s mundane repetition. Checkpoints are few and far between, as is a habit in roguelikes, but dense vines make the platforming slow progress. Some you need to “swing” from – occasionally allowing a double jump, other times failing to register – but others you can simply cut down.
New enemy types appear and are defeated. Simple platforming puzzles are overcome. And then, usually, just before the next checkpoint (although that is unbeknownst to you), a seemingly impossible task appears that nothing has prepared you for. You'll fail and began the five-minute trek past easy enemies and paltry puzzles that you’ve navigated ten times already, beginning to truly understand the meaning of the apocalypse.
However, just as you’re about to call it a day, something clicks. It’s easy, how did it take you so long to master a little combination of Kunai-swinging and katana-slicing? And then, a checkpoint. And that little section is no trouble any more, even if you decide to backtrack and try again. This happens every time you feel stuck. As soon as you feel like all is lost, that the world will never be saved, you stumble across the necessary skills and soldier on, your robotic brain clinging on to one thing and one thing only: hope.
Thankfully, the pace soon picks up and you leave the most frustrating situations behind. As you’re running through levels, pixelated face grinning on your tablet screen, the music swells, pushing you forwards as much as the other members of the resistance. Suddenly, you understand this game. The Kunai are still only used for movement, but you’ve mastered the art now. Slingshotting yourself, swinging like a friendly neighbourhood Spider-tablet, or just dodging out of the way of enemies, your Kunai are a part of you now; an extension of your own arms.
Besides, you’ve now got other ninja weapons to deal damage. And once you’re out of the early levels, learning how to take on new enemies and utilise the tools at your disposal, you might actually win this. It’s all going so well, you’ve come so far, until – ouch. You’re dead, and you’ve got to start over. But this time, you might just do it. At least you’ve got hope.
The Switch is fast becoming the perfect home for roguelikes, and Kunai is in esteemed company. The game holds itself well and is great fun, even if it lacks any real innovation. The unique weapon combinations can make each run different and interesting, but the repetitive nature of each level means that Kunai's replayability could be in doubt.