An age of monsters, demons, and dark magic grips 17th century Japan. Through force of will, and the collective efforts of the people, the vicious warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu is dethroned and exiled. Though peace reigned for a time, one fateful night the vengeance of Ieyasu came to moon-lit shores, bringing with it a towering castle filled with vicious monsters.
In the titular dungeon of Hyakki Castle, developed by Asakusa Studios and published by Happinet, the player is tasked with guiding the path of four warriors of varying skill and species to discover the source of the mysterious castle and put an end to its evil. The world, though terrifying, has a kind of eerie beauty, based on Japanese mythology and folklore. Taking inspiration from first-person dungeon crawlers like Legend of Grimrock and Dungeon Master, Hyakki Castle hopes to set itself apart from it peers with a unique aesthetic and the ability to divide your team into two groups.
Hyakki Castle is available on Steam for $24.99.
Hyakki Castle opens with a simple plot introductino, giving the player just enough to understand the characters' motivations. The story tells of a former ruler of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was removed from power due to his people tiring of his rampant war lust. Rather than executing him, he's exiled to a faraway island, where they hope he will live out the rest of his days.
Unfortunately for the people of Japan, Ieyasu does not take his banishment in stride. When the time was right, Ieyasu returned to the shores of his former kingdom in a sudden burst of dark magic. A mysterious castle stands before the frightened citizens. Four heroes are called upon to enter the castle and find a way to destroy it, and Ieyasu, for good.
Beyond this brief (albeit with gorgeous illustrations), the player is not given much more plot than that. The basic story exists primarily to give the player a reason to explore the castle, beyond an innate desire for exploration and discovery. Monsters and bosses come and go with little to no explanation, and that's fine. Minimizing the information the player has makes for a more haunting environment. Regardless, not many points can be award to a story this minimal.
The flagship feature of Hyakki Castle is the team-split function. In other games in its sub-genre, the party moves together, occupying one square at a time. In Hyakki Castle, players are encouraged (and required for puzzles) to break their 4-man team into two groups, allowing them to flank enemies to deal massive damage. If this feature sounds like it would cause some confusion while playing, you're right. It's almost like trying to write two different things with both hands on separate sheets of paper. It's almost impossible to maintain both parties with precision, leading to some messy outcomes.
Your main form of defense is manually side-stepping an enemy just as they're about to attack. While there is a tank-type class, whose purpose is to direct the monster's attention to himself rather than the squishier party members, it simply doesn't work well enough, if at all. Your damage dealers will pull hate easily, causing damage to be centered on them rather than you're beefier tank. The class's abilities to draw aggro works better when splitting the team up, keeping the attention of the enemy on one group while the other is free to peck away at the monster. Balancing these two plates is extremely difficult with just one enemy on screen, and impossible with two or more. So it becomes better to just dodge left, right, or backward, making sure to be aware of your space so you don't get boxed into a corner.
Though the rest of the game functions as intended, the dissonance between the team-split's intention and its reality means that most players will not be using the advertised feature. Outside of combat, dividing your team is required to solve some puzzles, nearly all of which require one team to stand on a pressure plate while the other team goes to find the second. These are paint-by-numbers puzzles, and in no way use the feature to elevate the experience beyond face value.
Even though the team-split system requires a lot more polish, the hunger system I believe should be done away with entirely. With every step and attack, your party members become hungrier and hungrier, requiring you to feed them some of the Japanese dishes you find inside clay pots or on corpses. Unfortunately, food is just not plentiful enough to completely offset the effects of hunger, and soon your team will have heavily diminished attack and defense stats, making a hard game even harder. It's a function that dissuades the player from exploring, from filling out the map completely. Your hunger will take many more hits, too, if you plan to make regular stops at the save point.
Each floor in the Hyakki Castle comes with a save/restoration point near its entrance. These fountains are the only places you can save the game. This becomes a serious problem when a player is deep into the floor's corridors and desperately needs to save before risking further ventures into the darkness. The trip back and forth between save point and current position means your hunger will drop down even more than intended. Becoming famished is a risk most players will likely take, as going into a fight with reduced stats is more appealing than risking losing an entire's floor progress to a trap or big demon.
Before the game starts, you are asked to assemble your quartet. Each member has four different species and four different classes to choose from, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. You can have a human, an oni, a tengu, and/or what amounts to a common housecat (albeit with combat prowess) on your team. You're then asked to assign them specific classes, including samurai, monk, ninja, and the big tanking warrior mentioned previously.
By far Hyakki Castle's best quality is its aesthetics and design. Players get to move from the Western medieval dungeons of past games, tasking them with exploring a dungeon with Japanese architecture and creatures. The monsters in the game are both beautiful and terrifying, the graphical design of the game making the creatures look amazing. Nearly every monster scared me, at least a little, when I first encountered them (although the crab with a man's face didn't terrify me until I realized how resilient he was). The giant eye at the end of some hallways, appearing just as the player approaches, shocked me more times than I care to admit.
There's not much in the way of ambient sound, sadly, so the visuals have to do the heavy lifting to pull the player in. This does free the player up to listen for the sounds of monsters and traps that might be lurking around a corner. When the music does start up, particularly during boss battles, a stronger mood is set. The score is nearly as amazing as the visual design. It's just a shame that the music isn't used more regularly throughout the floors.
In the end, Hyakki Castle should please fans of dungeon-crawlers like Grimrock. It's not without its faults though, some of which are impossible to ignore. A truly gifted player could probably make better use of the two-party system than I could; sadly my skills just aren't what they used to be, I suppose. The stringent save system, paired with a god awful hunger mechanic, and the flavored with the game's overall punishing difficulty, will likely turn players away. For the most part, though, Hyakki Castle works as intended.
The world created through visuals, and to a far lesser extent the audio, helped to keep me invested in the gameplay, even though I was struggling against some enemies. I was eager to see more of the creatures that lurked higher and higher up in the castle. That feeling of exploration is just sadly hampered by the hunger mechanic that doesn't want you to take any more than the required number of steps and attacks to reach the next level.
The average player should expect to get 12-16 hours out of the experience, which isn't too bad given how short many modern games are. Paired with a $25 base price, you'll be getting plenty of content for your buck. It'll just be a matter of seeing if you can handle the difficulty and unpolished features in order to see the experience though to the end.
|+ Amazing art direction and smooth graphics.||– Save system is cruel.|
|+ Plenty to explore and experience.||– Hunger system dissuades exploration.|
|– Two-Party system is too unwieldy for this kind of game.|