Escape room puzzle game and arcade-style shoot ‘em up don’t exactly seem like they’d fit together. But that’s exactly what makes such genre mashups so fascinating: when you find (or create) common ground between such disparate influences, the results can be an unorthodox delight, even if there’s a bit of friction between them. That’s exactly what Yurukill: The Calumniation Games shoots for, and with an intriguing death game premise and an especially compelling villain behind it, the results are captivating—even if the individual pieces don’t always hit the mark.
With Homura Kawamoto (of Kakegurui – Compulsive Gambler fame) behind the story, you know Yurukill’s going to be a wild ride. Six prisoners—each of whom swears they’re innocent—are brought to a strange, creepy island theme park (“Yurukill Land”) and forced to compete in a series of deadly challenges. The prize? A full pardon, no questions asked, regardless of the truth of their alleged crime. The catch? Each Prisoner is teamed up with an Executioner: one of the victims of the crime they supposedly committed, who can choose to execute them at any time, for any reason. The Executioner in whichever team wins gets to have any wish granted, but actually getting to the finish line means working together with a Prisoner and trusting someone, by all accounts, ruined your life. Needless to say, drama follows, as desires for revenge and the search for truth conflict.
How that unfolds, in practice, is through a series of escape rooms themed around the various crimes committed. Working together, each team needs to solve puzzles and find the necessary items to proceed from one room to the next, uncovering clues and evidence relating to the actual crime in the process. At the end of each theme park “attraction”, escape rooms give way to danmaku shooting: a battle of wits and emotion between Prisoner and Executioner, as one tries to plead their innocence and the other has to make a decision about whether to pardon them or kill them on the spot. Oh, and the shooting game isn’t just symbolic; it’s a virtual reality battle where running out of lives means dying for real—for the Prisoner, at any rate.
While the puzzles and shooting are broadly discrete segments, they do have a unifying bond: the evidence and information you gather during the puzzle sections plays an important role in the shmup bits. At the start of each shooting stage, a quiz testing your knowledge of the relevant crime gives you a chance to earn more lives, and the boss fights are periodically interrupted with almost Ace Attorney-like cross examinations in which you need to try convince an Executioner of your innocence, using both evidence gathered and appeals to their emotion. Pick the right option, and you’ll be a step closer to survival; pick wrong, and you lose three of those precious shmup lives. It’s not always an elegant mix—more on that in a moment—but it’s certainly a creative one.
As for the shooting game itself, it’s exactly as refined and exciting as you’d expect with the shmup masters at G.Rev driving it. Tight controls, inventive and exciting bullet patterns that make clever use of the screen space, a small handful of characters that each have their own unique gimmicks with their secondary weapons, and a combo / scoring system with a lot of room to experiment make a dynamic, riveting shmup. In story mode, the arcade action is broken up by those aforementioned cross-examinations, but there’s also a separate Score Attack mode for those who want to focus on that side of the game. Seven three-part stages mean a single run is a bit longer than your average shmup (for better or worse), but you can also play any unlocked level individually. The story is arguably the main draw in Yurukill, but there’s plenty of longevity in its arcade roots.
The puzzle sections are a little less robust. They’re conceptually interesting, without a doubt: each one involves unpicking a bizarre reproduction of a crime scene, or even morbidly re-enacting the deed with creepy little robots as victims. But the puzzles themselves are excessively simple—not just in the sense of being easy to solve, but in the lack of any real depth or nuance to them. Needlessly drawn-out dialogue surrounding those puzzles adds a layer of annoyance, as characters meticulously go over details again and again as they apparently struggle to come to extremely obvious conclusions; simple puzzles are fine, but at least let me just solve them and get on with it.
And then there are the rare moments when Yurukill goes in the opposite direction, with puzzles that are just downright obtuse. Sometimes it’s an answer that’s a big logical leap from the clues provided, requiring a bit of guesswork; sometimes there’s a reliance on information not present in the game (can you determine a killer’s dominant hand based on the blood splatter on a knife?); sometimes the wording of questions isn’t write clear enough; sometimes there are multiple logically correct answers to a multi-choice but only one that counts as correct. In the escape room sections, a generous hint system means it’s hard to get too stuck, even if it sucks to be forced to rely on it due to clumsy puzzle design. But those cross-examination-style interludes are where the shortcomings really sting: no hints, and an incorrect guess costs three precious lives.
Those issues are amplified by a clunky user interface, especially when playing in handheld mode on Switch. The display window for browsing clues is small enough that it can be hard to see crucial details, with no option to zoom in. In some puzzles (the cross-examinations again, asking a few others), you’re given a handful of clues to select from, but without any of the additional information that you can usually access. I’ve also run into a few glitches with text display on Switch, mostly of a cosmetic or minorly annoying variety, but one that caused the whole game to lock up until I restarted it—I’ve seen other reports of that one, too.
The plot, for all its potential and intriguing premise, is similarly uneven. There are frequent moments where dialogue feels arbitrarily drawn out, usually with characters talking at great length about how to solve very obvious puzzles. At the same time, the overall story feels needlessly constrained, with otherwise fascinating characters not getting the time they need or deserve for their stories to fully unfold and thought-provoking ideas getting introduced but never fully explored.
That’s a shame, because so much of Yurukill does work brilliantly. The eclectic cast overflows with personality—especially Binko, the kitsune-masked villain who can go from professional to seductive to childish to downright psychotic in the space of a single line of dialogue (and with a masterful voice performance to match). The overarching plot is a scathing, unsubtle criticism of Japan’s infamously high conviction rate: it exceeds 99.8%, and comes largely off the back of confessions that are often obtained under pressure, where the chance of a false confession and wrongful conviction are high.
Yurukill is unflinching in its willingness to put that system in the crosshairs, in a way that’s both entertaining and pointed deserves commendation. That isn’t just in the premise of convicts who swear innocence, but also in the way the details of each case unfold, and the immense pressure on the Prisoners to prove their innocence, despite a “judge” that’s understandably doubtful—or outright hostile—to their claims. It all builds to an ending that, despite—or, perhaps, because of—a bit of cheese and predictability, manages to pull out all the stops for a rollercoaster of a finish that’s hard not to get swept up in.
So while it has some shortcomings and could stand a little more refinement, Yurukill: The Calumniation Games is exactly the kind of game I love to see: an unusual concept that puts creativity first and dares to experiment, even if the ideas don’t always quite click. And even with its pacing and puzzle design troubles, it’s still a rock-solid shoot ’em up, mixed with an engrossing crime thriller, carried by the most compelling villain since Monokuma.
Yurukill: The Calumniation Games
Developer: G.Rev, Izanagi Games
Publisher: NIS America, Izanagi Games
Genre: Shoot-’em-up, visual novel, puzzle
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC
Release date: 8 July 2022
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.