Despite its prominent place in Japanese art history, there haven’t been too many games that channel ukiyo-e; Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines, it’s Japan-only predecessor Ore no Shikabane wo Koete Yuke, and Tokyo Tattoo Girls are the only ones that come to mind. Asakusa Studios, based in Tokyo’s historic Asakusa district, is looking to change that. As well as a humorous-looking samurai dodgeball game that’s on the way, they’ve just released their debut, Hyakki Castle, and it’s one of the best video game takes on ukiyo-e I’ve seen.
Hyakki Castle is a dungeon crawler based loosely on the legend of Hyakki Yagyō, or “The Night Parade of 100 Demons”. Set in the Edo period, it sees a group of four heroes sent to the mysterious Hyakki Island, a former prison colony that’s been taken over by demons, to kill a villainous onmyōji who plans to overthrow the shogun.
Things get off to a poor start when the group find themselves captured and imprisoned in the dungeons beneath the eponymous Hyakki Castle. From there, they begin a slow, dangerous journey to the castle’s top floor in order to confront the onmyōji once and for all. As you might expect, the castle is full of all manner of traps and demons.
These demons are where Hyakki Castle really captures the ukiyo-e spirit. Horror is a prominent theme within the art form, with many an artist drawing on Japanese folklore to depict terrifying yōkai, and Hyakki Yagyō itself is the feature of more than a few pieces. These works in turn serve as the inspiration for the enemies you face in this game, each of which is stunningly, horrifyingly brought to life. From the giant skeleton Gashadokuro (made famous in Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre) to the tsukumogami portrayed in Hokusai’s The Lantern Ghost, from the snake-like yure-onna to the wanyūdo firewheel, each enemy in the game draws directly on ukiyo-e tradition.
The result is a game with that’s completely unique in its tone and atmosphere, even if it plays similarly to other dungeon crawlers (more on that in a moment). It’s creepy and unsettling, and the same enemy can inspire awe and fear even after fighting them dozens of times. It’s easy for non-boss enemies in games to just blur together, but there isn’t a single foe in Hyakki Castle that I don’t have vivid memories of, and I know I’ll carry those for a long time.
Character options, too, draw from the folkloric ukiyo-e well. Aside from human, the race options are all creatures that will be familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Japanese mythology: oni, tengu, and nekomata. Classes are also uniquely Japanese: samurai, ninja, sōhei (warrior monk), and miko (shrine maiden), and the equipment and items you find hidden away in the castle are all based on Japanese history.
The story is told primarily through narration over ukiyo-e style image stills. The plot is straightforward and limited to an introduction and epilogue, but it’s enough to provide all the context you need for a dungeon crawling adventure. Moreover, the stills used in those cutscenes are stunning, with all the personality of the classics and a richness of colour that’s only possible in a digital form.
This sense of style and history makes up for what can be, at times, a rather lacklustre dungeon crawler. It’s similar to games like Legend of Grimrock in that it has you exploring a grid-based map, but the game itself—and, crucially, enemy movements and attacks—play out in real time. Where Hyakki Castle falls short is that the puzzles and encounters that make up the obstacles between you and victory tend to be very simple in their design, making them not particularly exciting to solve. The vast majority of puzzles are simply a case of finding a switch to open a nearby door, or finding a key and then backtracking to a padlocked door you passed by earlier. There are a few puzzles that are a bit more creative in their design, but sadly they’re the exception.
Hyakki Castle comes with the unique ability to split your party into two groups that can be controlled individually. While this is a fascinating concept, the game doesn’t deliver on its potential. Puzzles that force you to split your group aren’t uncommon, but they’re almost always a case of having one group stand on a pressure plate while the other goes through a door, to either stand on another plate and let the first party through, or grab something out of a chest before regrouping. Again, there are a handful of cases that involve a bit more thought, but they’re rare.
The party-splitting mechanic also ostensibly has a use in combat, by having one party draw a monster’s attention while the other flanks it for extra damage. Unfortunately, this almost never works in practice, due to the simple fact that you can control only one party at a time, but dodging is vital and standing still is a death sentence. Even a burly tank-like sōhei can only take a couple of hits before dying, and the weaker ninja and miko classes getting one-shot killed by just about anything. When you fight as one party, though, you can easily just dodge every attack that comes your way to keep everyone safe.
This doesn’t mean that Hyakki Castle‘s an easy game; figuring out enemies’ animations, attack areas, and evasion timing takes a bit of trial and error, and death comes swiftly when you’re figuring things out. The game also has plenty of nasty traps that can wipe you out in an instant if you’re not careful, and the only checkpoints are at the start of each floor (though you can return to them partway through to save progress). That said, the game’s probably still on the easy side as far as dungeon crawlers go, for better or worse.
Hyakki Castle also commits the grave sin of not making discovery particularly exciting or rewarding—which is a huge part of the appeal of a dungeon crawler. Treasure chests rarely give you anything of note, typically offering up restorative items that don’t often come in handy or equipment with seemingly useless elemental stats. Despite generally being obsessive about getting 100% map completion in these sorts of games, here I often found myself just sticking to the “main” path, with little incentive to explore every nook and cranny.
Finally, the classes leave a lot to be desired; they almost feel like an afterthought. Each has a simple skill tree, with a few attack abilities and one or two buffs or debuffs. The sōhei has some hate-generating attacks that allow it to play a tank role, but given the awkwardness of split-party combat, they never really has a use. The ninja has some ranged attacks that hardly ever come in use; aside from that they’re weaker, squishier samurai. The ideal party seems to be three samurai and a miko (whose healing spells can be helpful in emergencies).
Despite all that, I still enjoyed my time with Hyakki Castle a great deal. It’s not a bad game at all, just one that, gameplay-wise, doesn’t really live up to its potential or to its peers in the dungeon crawler space. Its ukiyo-e inspiration, historical Japanese setting, and uniquely creepy atmosphere more than make up for that, though, and I can’t wait to see what else Asakusa Studio has in store.
Hyakki Castle is developed by Asakusa Studio and published by Happinet. It’s available now for PC.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.