The story in Haunted Dungeons: Hyakki Castle, goes something like this. In 17th century Japan, having united the nation, Tokugawa Ieyasu formed the Tokugawa Shogunate, and so an era of war was soon laid to rest. However, Kigata Doman, a brilliant sorcerer, suddenly appeared and revived forbidden spells, plotting to overthrow the Shogunate. With the council elders assassinated and the Shogun himself at risk, the madman was only stopped by a desperate counterattack by the Shogun’s own sorcerer.
Doman, now in captivity, was then exiled to a remote island, where he would remain for the next 10 years. One day, word reached the Shogunate that a mysterious castle had suddenly appeared on Hyakki Island. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, that Doman was once again up to no good and was attempting a rebellion, Shogun Iemune then called upon a secret group of agents, specializing in the supernatural, ordering them to go and defeat Doman once and for all.
However, on their way to the island, their boat would get caught up in a violent storm and run aground, after which everyone but the samurai would get captured and sent to the castle dungeon. The samurai quickly came to his comrades’ aid, knowing that only together would they stand a chance against the danger ahead, and ultimately defeat Doman. This is where your story begins.
It is a fairly simple story, told with old Japanese illustrations accompanied by Japanese voice over, to make the presentation of ancient Japanese folklore feel more authentic, which I greatly appreciate. Not only that, when you move on to a new section of the castle after a boss fight, a new snippet of the story will be told in the same fashion.
I don’t ask for much in the games I play. Unless the game sells itself as highly story driven like a J-RPG, all I ask is a cohesive little explanation for why I am doing what I am doing, and on that note, I think the game delivers.
I also like, that although the story quickly takes a nosedive into fictional territory, it opens up with a bit about Tokugawa Ieyasu, who actually was a real historical figure who did unite Japan and found the Shogunate in the 17th century.
At the same time though, it threw me for a bit of a loop when the story then quickly abandoned its historical roots, as my little brain now had to adjust to the fact that we were talking fiction.
Haunted Dungeons: Hyakki Castle is a traditional dungeon crawler, with all its bells and whistles. You control 4 characters at the same time, that you choose at the beginning from a variety of classic Japanese classes and races, which you can instantly shift between with the L and R buttons. You then move on a grid based field, one step at time in first person, navigating through the castles many corridors and rooms. Starting in the damp cold caverns under the castle, and then steadily making your way up.
Throughout your mission, you will come across a variety of tricky traps, puzzles to solve, and yokai to defeat, ranging nicely in variety from basic undead samurai and big crab monsters, to fire spewing sentient lanterns, snake ladies, and big green heads on firewheels… yeah, you heard that right.
This is where the split-party-system comes into play. At any time on your journey, by hitting the ZL button, you can split your group of four into two teams, which also puts your game in split-screen mode. Only one team can be active at a time though, while the other becomes a hardened rock with increased defence, that you can use as a decoy for enemies, sneaking up behind them to deal maximum damage. You can then end the battle quickly, by constantly having the team active that the enemy is turning its back to. You will also often have to use this mechanic to solve light puzzles, by having both teams stand on a floor switch to open a door. What team is active and inactive is clearly defined, with the active team having a clear view of the action, while the inactive team has a blue seal plastered over the gameplay.
Wanna regroup? Simply have both teams stand on the same spot, and hit ZL again, to go out of split-screen mode. Keep in mind that all 4 group members must be present in order to activate save points. These are sprinkled across each map, never too far inbetween, which I appreciated, and it is here you also revive fallen comrades.
Speaking of combat and controls in general, you attack with the X button, adding different attacks to each of the other face buttons as you unlock them with experience points on your skill tree, and then freely set them akin to how you assign buttons in a Zelda game. ZR lets you interact with things like levers and chests. ZL splits and reunites your team like I mentioned before, along with shifting between them when they are not standing on the same tile. The left analogue stick moves your party facing forward, while the right lets you turn. And finally, the – button brings up the save, load, and settings menu, while the + button pulls up your inventory.
When you attack an enemy, that attack will have to recharge, but instead of waiting it is recommended that you switch around between your teammates, so that one can attack while the others recharge. If you fight an enemy in a closed corridor with no way of getting behind them, you have to either lure them to an open space, or step out of the way when they attack. Don’t worry though, most of the yokai’s attacks are very telegraphed – still, don’t get careless!
At first I thought I was on a time limit, as the game told me my characters had a hunger meter, and I thought letting it run out would automatically kill them of starvation, but I later learned that letting it decrease would merely fatigue your warriors and lower their attack and defence stats. So while it isn’t a time limit per say, it is still something you want to avoid running out of. Thankfully, if you play well and safe, you are almost always going to have healing items and food on you that you get from chests and fallen enemies. It is also from chests that you acquire new weapons.
The puzzles never get too obscure or complex, the lever you just pulled often just opens the door you are standing in front of or closes a trap door just around the corner, but I still found myself very much enjoying the level layout. It constantly left me curious as to what awaited around the next corner, and how you have to solve puzzles and outsmart enemies in order to acquire keys needed for progression.
* Some screenshots are in Japanese, but the game is in English with a few errors
Aside from the main theme, Dan no Ura, an original song by biwa player Sae Ishida, the game features no music at all, that is aside from boss encounters, instead relying solely on ambient sound effects which I think works well. I can only imagine what the experience would have been like with some traditional Japanese instruments in the background, but I am generally okay with this decision.
Visuals & Performance
The game looks a little rough around the edges in certain aspects, but enemies, of which there are a nice variety that are gradually introduced, look nice and detailed. Where the game truly shines visually in my opinion is its aesthetics. Like I mentioned earlier, you start in the dungeon of the castle, but then slowly ascend its floors. The higher you get, the more noble the castle looks, which was a visual distinction I really liked as it kept the game’s presentation fresh, and whether you are in the basement or on the ground floor, the game’s architecture oozes Japanese edo culture, which is pure eye candy for me, and was the reason, along with it being a dungeon crawler featuring yokai, that I wanted to review this game. The game is full of detail, and you really feel like you are in an old Japanese castle.
In short, this game is visually very Japanese, and I loved that.
Truth be told though, I haven’t played many traditonal dungeon crawlers, but from what I can see, most of them practice a more western medieval setting, so seeing one that goes into Japanese culture instead is a nice change. Haunted Dungeons: Hyakki Castle is the first one I have seen to dip its toes deep into Japanese folklore, so if you like the genre to begin with and are a sucker for Japanese culture like me, then I can definitely recommend it for the price.
It runs generally smoothly too, only a few times did I catch the game stuttering, but it is by no means a frequent problem. If I should come with a couple nitpicks though, the loading time, especially upon loading from the title screen, is horrible for such a simple game, and then even when it has loaded you experience some light pop-ups. Secondly, although only visible in very long corridors, the draw distance makes the game feel a bit cheap, when you move forward and see this black block in the distance follow your movement while it reveals more of the level as you follow it. It kind of breaks the illusion.
The game holds your hand alot in the beginning and the puzzles are fairly easy throughout, though it cleverly finds ways to take obstacles you have seen before and arrange them in new ways, making sure the game never comes off as repetitive. You will constantly be curious to see what lies around the next corner, and you quickly get used to the split-screen mechanic, so I would even say this could qualify as a good starting point if you are looking to get into the genre.
Beatable in about 8 hours, at £10.29 , $12.90 the asking price I think is reasonable for what you get. A love letter to fans of yokai folklore.
Fun strategic gameplay
The Hunger Meter, I hate being put on a time limit
Soundtrack could have been a bit more fleshed out
The 2nd boss