Flow is a hard thing to describe in games. There's a strong mechanical component to it, but there's also an art, a moment where everything comes together and you go, "Yeah, this feels right." Dead Cells had that from the first moment I played it. I took the controller in my hand and every jump and slash felt right. You can gain a lot of goodwill from me if your play is tight.
At PAX West, I had the chance to play Kunai. It's another indie Metroidvania, but where it excels is in the feel. Kunai is being developed by TurtleBlaze, but more importantly it's being published by Arcade Crew, a publisher that surprised me earlier this year with the Contra homage Blazing Chrome. Blazing Chrome understood why Contra worked, and Kunai showcases a similar understanding of side-scrolling action.
Kunai places you in control of Tabby, a weird robot with a tablet for a face. Some oppressive force in the far future has destroyed any resistance to its reign and the last hope is a very happy robot found in a capsule. Tabby's joy is apparent on his iPad face; he's thrilled about just being alive, only switching to a more serious mug when you attack. He's a cute hero in a world that feels like an upgraded version of the Game Boy Color color palette.
The demo I played at PAX West seems like the opening moments of Kunai, slowly acclimating you to the early weapons. The sword gives you an understanding of how TurtleBlaze is building Kunai, with simple weapons offering multiple effects. The sword is your first weapon, allowing you to attack enemies, but it also gives you other choices. A mid-air slash gives you a little upward bounce, and you can slash enemy bullets out of the air, giving you some defensive capability. Hell, it can even steal a little life energy from enemies.
The next weapon you pick up is the eponymous kunai, a thrown blade with a rope attached. This is your primary way of getting around the game's map. Movement in Kunai isn't exactly like fellow grappling-indie title Flinthook, where you're pulled directly towards your anchor point. Instead, you can draw in the kunai to scale vertical shafts, and for the most part, the weapon is all about swinging. You start with one kunai just to get a feel for swinging around, and then a few minutes later you get a second one.
Once you have both kunai, it clicks. Swinging feels like the 16-bit 2D version of Spider-Man that I always wanted. You can be running, leap into the air, slash downward to get a short pop, use your kunai-swung momentum to carry you forward, and then toss the second kunai backwards to latch onto a ledge that would normally be out of your range. It's fast, it's fluid, and it's a movement and combat system that ties together a number of options right at your fingertips. (You can even just hold in place but throwing both kunai in opposite directions. That is very Spider-Man of you, Tabby.)
By time the demo was drawing to a close, I was vibing with Kunai's movement. Like my early moments with Dead Cells, it's the kind of game that feels so good that I can see myself becoming subsumed for hours in moving from room to room. The controls are snappy, and the animations only add to the zippiness of Tabby. Kunai nails its movement.
My only real concern is the longevity of Kunai. Trailers have only shown one more weapon to round out Tabby's capabilities: a gun for long-range attacks and the ability to hover over gaps. I hope it's just a misleading trailer and that Kunai eventually offers more variety over the course of its campaign, because the experience would suffer if it didn't change it up in the long-run. Whether that through intriguing platforming challenges, boss encounters, or more items and abilities—the demo didn't offer any indication whether TurtleBlaze is ready to deliver in these spots. Dead Cells offered new environments, a wide variety of weapons, and some difficult boss encounters to carry players through to the end. Kunai has to be ready to step up there as well.
I'm looking forward to seeing if Kunai can keep the flow going. The foundation here is already very strong and the fundamentals are taken care of. I just need to see if there's some potatoes with all this delicious meat. Kunai is coming to PC and Nintendo Switch, but currently lacks a firm release window.