Wot I Think: Hyakki Castle

Hyakki Castle

It’s almost impossible to talk about Asakusa Studio’s debut game Hyakki Castle without invoking the looming western spectre of Legend of Grimrock. While this particular formula for party-based first-person dungeon crawlery (real-time grid-based movement and all) dates all the way back to Dungeon Master in the 80s, Grimrock is the game that re-launched a genre, and a solid yardstick by which to measure imitators.

Hyakki Castle, then, is Legend of Grimrock – the original, rather than the more open-world sequel – in Medieval, mythical Japan. It’s a pure dungeon crawl with only the most threadbare of stories: a team of four heroes are sent to a cursed castle to stop an evil wizard. Boilerplate, even by dungeon crawl standards. Hyakki Castle has few ambitions of its own and while it comes tantalisingly close to Grimrock at moments, more often than not it feels like a shallow imitation that doesn’t even wear its own aesthetic as comfortably as it should.

I’ve found my time with it enjoyable enough – it’s a genre I’ve always enjoyed, but it’s almost impossible to shake the sense that everything here has been done better elsewhere, and the two defining aspects of the game (the Japanese mythological setting and the option to split your party in half, controlling them separately split-screen style) don’t feel as well baked as they needed to be.

The sense of superficiality begins as early as character creation. Beyond personal expression, there’s little mechanical reason to deviate from the default party provided, as it features one character of each of the four races (only offering slight stat deviations from the human norm) and four classes, which for all their eastern trappings fall into the tried and true Fighter, Rogue, Monk & Priest archetypes, all of which level at the same rate, and gain new abilities through a simple skill grid.

Character creation over, you’re given a brief intro and are unceremoniously dropped into the dungeon without even a guide on what the buttons do. I eventually found there is a limited in-game guide, which I had to refer to just to figure out where my individual party member’s health bars were located. It should say something about the state of the UI’s usability when the top developer-pinned sticky thread on the Steam forums is dedicated to explaining how to move items from one party member’s inventory to another.

Combat balance is a little strange in Hyakki Castle. Enemies tend to only have two or three attacks – usually well telegraphed and evadable with a quick back or side-step – but the damage output can vary enormously just between the melee or ranged attacks of a single monster. A close-range hit might take off a fifth of one character’s health, but a ranged shot might outright kill a party member in one shot, and many larger monster attacks can hit the entire party simultaneously.

If the mechanics presented are to be believed at face value, the game wants you to evade rather than absorb damage, which makes one of the four classes being tanking-oriented (aggro management skills and all) all the more baffling. For the most part, it’s easy to avoid any and all damage if you can fight a single enemy on your own terms, but get cornered between two or more baddies and death seems all but assured.

Hyakki Castle

‘Objection!’ I hear someone completely real at the back shout, referencing an entirely different game. ‘But what about the party-splitting mechanic so heavily featured in the trailers?’ asks this not-at-all hypothetical individual. Well, yes, you’d be right that the game does let you split your party, but as interesting as the idea could have been, there’s almost no reason to do it outside of the handful of puzzles (and I use that term loosely) that require you to stand on two pressure plates at once. It’s an exciting yet woefully under-utilised gimmick.

While you could theoretically try running a party with damage dealers on one side and a tank on the other, the single-square-wide hallways and incredible dexterity required in juggling the two parties in combat makes this less than viable as a playstyle. It’s a shame, really – there are so many ways that they could have leveraged this in the design, but instead it feels like they’ve tried to shoehorn a new mechanic into the Grimrock template without expanding the design to give it room to breathe.

The Japanese myth aesthetic also seems superficial at best. While the monster designs are interesting to look at – a mix of undead critters, spirits, animated angry walls and worse – they feel largely like reskins of standard dungeon crawler foes. This feeling continues in the loot that you get – rather than require a bedroll or a tent to rest (at the expense of hunger), you use a Zabuton, a traditional Japanese floor cushion, which is even more bizarrely disposed of after you’ve had a little sit-down. This might seem fitting if you’re running a party of four Nekomata (cat-folk), but otherwise feels like a cheap reskin of another studio’s design.

Hyakki Castle

The game even appropriates Grimrock’s blue mystical save points which fully restore your party to health. Any party member dying is your cue to backtrack to the last save point to get them revived for free, because otherwise they’ll miss out on any combat experience the rest of the party earn. It makes death feel more irritating than impactful, as your path back to the last save point will always be clear, turning the return trip into a long, pointless march.

In a truly odd twist, there is a ‘seppuku’ skill which all characters begin with, but must be manually equipped. While described in-game as a way to return to the last save point, it just seems to be a thematically darker way of reverting to your most recent save file. A process done much quicker just by loading your save directly. It feels like Asakusa Studios were just rifling through a grab-bag of Japanese cultural cliches to mash into the game with little idea of how to make them fit.

As a series of combat encounters, Hyakki Castle is solid enough, with some fun traps and ambushes to work around, but otherwise the level design is very straightforward. It lacks Grimrock’s more complex interactions with the world. Items only exist in treasure chests or your inventory, never on the floor. Things cannot be thrown, hidden switches cannot be searched for, and riddles cannot be solved by plugging arbitrary inventory items into holes in the wall. While functional enough in their design, I’ve seen procedurally generated dungeons elsewhere with far more of a human touch.

Hyakki Castle

Every few floors (14 in total, unless I miscounted), your adventure will be punctuated with a boss battle, which largely play out like the regular combat, only on a slightly larger scale. Boss attacks tend to hit across a large area, are even more telegraphed, more deadly (several can kill the entire party instantly) and generally a bit more interesting to look at, but other than needing to hang back and learn some visual tells before diving in, they’re still largely just a matter of hopping forward, unloading every attack skill you have and backing quickly away. Rinse, repeat and Bob’s your shogun.

So many of these sins would be easier to forgive if the game was an atmospheric and aesthetic powerhouse, but it manages to fall short of Grimrock (the original, even) there, too. Relatively simplistic 3D graphics (especially the chunky particle effects) can spoil the mood, with wall textures repeating frequently enough to make many corridors within a given dungeon floor appear identical. This compounds with a slightly-too-small minimap (and a larger map frustratingly hidden within sub-menus) to make for a less comfortable dungeon exploration experience than it should be.

Hyakki Castle

Lastly is one especially bizarre graphical shortcoming that may be a dealbreaker for some. After multiple tests, the game doesn’t seem to scale up to other resolutions as gracefully as it should. At the default window size for the game everything looks pin-sharp. While 3D graphics seem to improve slightly when scaling higher (hard to gauge, given how uniform many wall textures are), the HUD becomes noticeably blurry, as it wasn’t designed to be rendered at any higher than 1280 x 720.

The most frustrating thing, when all is said and done, is that Hyakki Castle isn’t a bad game. It’s just a hollow imitation of a great one, and no matter how many monsters you dress up in traditional Japanese garb, it’s impossible to hide the fact that this is held back by a litany of individually tiny sins that collectively weigh the whole thing down. Grimrock was dungeon crawling comfort food. Simple, satisfying, vertical and easy to binge on, like a tube of Pringles. Hyakki Castle feels like a generic alternative. It’ll fill the gap for a while, but once you pop, stopping might be easier than you’d hope.

Hyakki Castle is out now on Windows for £19.49/$25/€23 via Steam.

44 Comments

  1. and its man says:

    Well, a fair review.
    I’ve been enjoying it so far. But in my westerner’s eyes, its strong point remains the looks of its creatures.
    More than reminding me of Dungeon Master, the game brings me back to a feeling of ‘strangeness’, like when I first met the inhabitants of LucasFilm’s The Eidolon.

    • Dominic Tarason says:

      I guess the creatures lose a little bit of their thrill value when you’re fresh off playing Shin Megami Tensei games and Nioh, and know almost every one of these weird Japanese demons and ghosts on a first-name basis.

      • and its man says:

        Yes, I got into the game with zero knowledge about spirits and monsters in traditional Japanese folklore. That certainly helped.
        But there’s something raw in the way they are represented in Hyakki Castle that I do like, and which brings out quite effectively the grotesque of its bestiary.
        In comparison, I’m less tempted to try Nioh, where creatures seem to be treated visually with much more emphasis and ornaments. More like ‘classic’, heavily-detailed fantasy imagery.
        Add the unnatural ways they are moving in Hyakki Castle, -impassively performing their intro animations, taking right angle turns, repeating simple loops-, and you get something that feels nicely bizarre.

    • jj2112 says:

      Those Lucasfilm games were great… I never got to play this one but I loved Koronis Rift and Rescue on Fractalus.

  2. Zack Furniss says:

    It’s a shame. Nothing seems to be able to scratch my Legend of Grimrock II itch. It’s sincerely one of my top 10 games ever. Had high hopes for Vaporum, but it’s similarly underbaked.

    • wcq says:

      Same here, man.

      I refunded Vaporum after playing it for an hour and not encountering anything interesting. It also ran like garbage on my machine, so there was that.

    • G-Lord says:

      Take a look at StarCrawlers, I really enjoyed that.

      • wcq says:

        Isn’t that one randomly generated, though? I mean, the things I personally loved the most about LoG II were the puzzles and the hand-crafted world.

        • G-Lord says:

          The levels are procedural, but there are different missions to choose from a hub.

          • DEspresso says:

            The Storyline/Campaign Levels are fix, it’s only the Sidemissions which are random (it think).

      • vahnn says:

        I personally am not a fan of LoG’s and other titles’ realtime combat that’s restricted to the grid and requires you to move forward and back while clicking away at all these icons. Starcrawlers’ simpler turn-based approach is much more my cup of tea and I looooove the game. I can play it passively while grinding away at simpler side missions while watching a movie, or I can pay close attention to the small hints in the environment or datapads, finding secrets and hidden rooms and solving puzzles for hidden stashes of loot.

        But for me it all comes back to the combat, which I really, really enjoy.

    • RuySan says:

      There are some excellent new adventure mods of the first Grimrock on Steam Workshop. I don’t know why LoG2 never got the same mod support from the community.

    • AlienEyes says:

      Maybe you’ll like the next Bard’s Tale.

  3. Someoldguy says:

    “…four classes, which for all their eastern trappings fall into the tried and true Fighter, Rogue, Monk & Priest archetypes…”

    There’s a tried and true monk archetype? I’d be expecting some sort of wizard there.

    • Dominic Tarason says:

      Monk is the kinda-tanky one. The priest character CAN be specced to be more wizard’y, but it’s either that, or a 50% full party heal.

      You do eventually get both, but early on, one is hugely useful and the other is a minor damage boost.

      The healing is almost as silly as the full-party damage. The numbers in this game are all squirly. I found the vast majority of my hunger was replenished not by eating, but just by levelling up. Murder fills your stomachs, apparently.

      • Beefenstein says:

        “Murder fills your stomachs, apparently.”

        I can’t think of many foods that are eaten without it having been killed previously or dying in the act of its consumption.

        • Dominic Tarason says:

          True, but we get into strange territory when you can spontaneously return your stomach to fullness by stabbing ghosts.

          It’s quite a maddening game. Aside from possibly the complete lack of tutorial, I can’t think of any part of it that’s actively *bad*, but there’s also nothing here that’s especially good.

          It’s a game that exists, and that’s about it.

          • Ghostwise says:

            Perhaps one can use highly advanced breathing techniques to inhale the ghost and derive nourishment from it ?

        • poliovaccine says:

          I heard it said once (and liked it a lot) that the central ethical problem of existence is that our diet must necessarily consist of other living souls. It is metaphysically sound, isnt it?

          • Hypocee says:

            While it’s valid to take a saying however you want to if it expresses you, know that that saying comes from the Inuit, whose diet was in fact nearly 100% carnivorous and whose religion had a bunch to do with hunting and eating respectfully so the ghosts of the prey wouldn’t come and take revenge. The most widely promulgated phrasing is “The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls”.

    • goodpoints says:

      >There’s a tried and true monk archetype?

      Monks were one of the original 5 core classes in AD&D 1e and have been in every edition since. There’s a variant of it (punchy ascetic who’s a secondary tank/healer/buffer) in pretty much every class-based (MMO)CRPG.

      PoE has the most interesting variant of it as far as ability mechanics and lore imo. (mortification, etc.)

  4. elbkhm says:

    Shame this didn’t turn out so well, I was waffling between this one and Vaporum. Sounds like I made the right choice, Vaporum is turning out to be pretty great, in my opinion.

  5. Lord of Beer says:

    Crikey, those graphics look awful. Looks like it belongs in 2002.

  6. Holderist says:

    I’m actually taken by the music of the trailer. What do you call it? Anyone know where I would find more?

    • sagredo1632 says:

      Not sure of the exact provenance, but the music sounds like it’s traditional Japanese. Search youtube for “shamisen” or “koto” for similar stringed instrumentation.

  7. Michael Fogg says:

    Congrats on first RPS WiT Dominic! I might have tried the game if it had implemented some sort of turn based fighting. I enjoyed Grimrock but I don’t think it deserved to have its own wave of clones. I don’t feel like repeating the ‘strike just as they come close then move back’ thing.

    • Caiman says:

      Yes, that was the premise of the original which LoG homaged so well. LoG II went a little further though, with more depth in combat, quite a few encounters could be (and had to be) completed in a face-off. The game Legend of Dungeon Guardians has an interesting take on this combat; it’s a mixture of LoG and MMO combat, and it works quite well and strategically at times. Trouble is, that’s really all there is to the game, and it gets repetitive after a few levels.

      I’ve always enjoyed this genre, I hope we see more (and better) attempts, but I must admit I miss the Might and Magic approach as well. Pity MMX didn’t do so well.

  8. fuggles says:

    So I can flank AND pincer attack? What a time to be alive.

    Ps – hired guns says hello.

    • Kefren says:

      As soon as I read the review I did CTRL-F for Hired. Hello back!

      I replayed Hired Guns recently. It was always easier with two players, but even on my own I regularly split my team. 80% of the time it went wrong and they all died. 20% of the time it was amazing when my play to cover every exit from an area with three team members and an autosentry actually worked, while the fourth member flushed enemies into the ambush. All played with one mouse or single-button joystick. I became adept at switching characters, setting up follows, toggling inventory and so on. Though thrown explosives were always a risk, and to this day I hate some of the Lemmings levels, such as Reactor.

      My proud moment was completing the game once. I vaguely remember a baddie who was so tall I could only see his legs.

      Great mood, great music, great atmosphere to Hired Guns. I feel another session of it coming on (Amiga emulator).

      • jj2112 says:

        As good as it was back then, I don’t think I could replay Hired Guns now and enjoy it… And I still have my A1200 and a copy of the game somewhere around! But it really was groundbreaking at the time, and the music was great.

        • Kefren says:

          It’s surprising. I replayed the whole of Dungeon Master and loved it. Same with Blood Money and a few other titles. But there were others that I used to love but now seemed so dated. Luckily Hired Guns didn’t feel dated at all, and once I worked out how to move and change equipment I really started to fall into that world again. I loved sending the robots on missions underwater since they couldn’t drown, meaning the sharks were less of a threat.

          The advantage of an emulator is being able to save anywhere with a single keypress, and being able to “turboload” so any loading is about three times quicker.

          • jj2112 says:

            Now that made me remember Captive, loved that game too, it was quite similar to Hired Guns.

      • Suspiria72 says:

        Man, Hired Guns. What a game that was…..
        Same for The Eidolon, weird one. Still have my C64 copy ;-)

  9. Nosebeggar says:

    I already had this impression when I first saw the game. It’s like a legend of grimrock reskin that lacks love and something unique apart from the gimmicky party-splitting.

    I’m always cautious with RPS reviews though, since UnderRail was SEVERELY UnderRated (pun intended) on this site, an opinion of mine which the entire comment section agreed with. In my eyes, UnderRail is the best cRPG ever made, so I might try Hyakki Castle for myself someday.

  10. poliovaccine says:

    Hey so this is probably super dense of me, but does RPS call its reviews Wot I Think so that it abbreviates to RPS “WIT,” as in, “Have you read the latest RPS wit on the topic? Jolly good it is, damned fine, ho-ho!
    They’re always good for a rousing periodical!” It’s just obscure enough that I can’t decide if that’s what they were getting at or not, haha. Being not British also helps, helps the confusion and uncertainty I mean. I don’t know if “the latest wit” is an obscure phrase there or not.

  11. FoolsGold says:

    Ooof. Dungeon Master as the original first person RPG? Even Bard’s Tale is older and it isn’t the first. Google is your friend! :)

    • Caiman says:

      He mentions real-time, which Dungeon Master was the first of. Bards Tale was turn-based combat (well, round-based) and you couldn’t move when you engaged. Dungeon Master was more of an action-oriented version of the genre, essentially creating its own.

      • Darloth says:

        Dungeons of Daggorath, and possibly one of Moraff’s games (I can’t quite remember how realtime it was) would be even earlier, though Dungeon Master is one of the most well known early real-time ones.

  12. goodpoints says:

    The header image had me hoping that this would have some of ukiyo-e aesthetic. How amazing would it be if a game like this was done entirely to look like a sort of pop-up version of Yoshitoshi’s 100 Ghost Stories?

    But wow, this is just so ugly. It’s like all the worst looking enemies and environments of Doom 3, Serious Sam-likes, Daggerfall, and Neverwinter Nights smashed together. Ah well, back to MegaTen and a little bit of Nioh for my yokaibusters fix.