Review: Ninja Usagimaru: The Mysterious Karakuri Castle

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Posted October 17, 2016 by Spencer Birch in Video Games

Developed by: Arc System Works

Published by: Aksys

Release Date: September 29, 2016

Available on: Nintendo 3DS

 

I am not good at puzzle games. Believe me, I have tried! The saddest part of it is that I love puzzle games a lot, and will fruitlessly throw myself headlong into them, dropping dozens and dozens of hours into games that would take a more proficient, puzzle minded person only a few. It’s a terrible fate that I have been dealt, but it is not one that I let slow me down. Despite how absolutely terrible I am at puzzle-centric games I still enjoy playing them, so when I got the chance to review Ninja Usagimaru: The Mysterious Karakuri Castle I was pretty excited.

The Mysterious Karakuri Castle is actually the second game in the Ninja Usagimaru series developed by Arc System works, a developer more well known for games such as Guilty Gear, Blazblue, and Persona 4 Arena. Much like it’s predecessor you play as Usagimaru, a wandering samurai (and possibly part rabbit) tasked with saving defenseless villagers from evil spirits. The whole game is adorable, with each character represented in a chibi-style and complete with fun, yet sometimes poorly translated, dialogue. The Mysterious Karakuri Castle features 8 worlds with ten levels each, and forces you to clear a world entirely before moving on. This is probably to the player’s benefit though, for as you progress through each world the difficulty level spikes rapidly. I wouldn’t say that this game is unfairly challenging though, and it does give you some neat power up items that can be used to better your time in previous levels, as well as help you along as you continue along.

Look at this cute rabbit. Look at it!

Look at this cute rabbit. Look at it!

Ninja Usagimaru is more or less a block puzzle game, the goal of which is to navigate through the level to reach a distressed villager and guide them to the safety of a magical stone placed somewhere within that stage. Of course there are obstacles and enemies, though I very rarely failed a level due to a death. The real challenge comes in how you plan to first get to the villager, then lead them safely to the endpoint. This isn’t a game designed to be beaten through brute force; it really wants you to take time at the start of each stage examining all of the possible routes and block placements before making your move. Essentially Usagimaru has the ability to move certain colored blocks, and by placing these blocks in specific spots you can change enemy behavior or the way you move around the level. Some blocks can be pulled or grabbed by your grappling hook from afar, and some can be destroyed by your shurikan. This is your starting load out and will be the most used pieces of gear throughout the game.

When I first started up the game I was struck by how absolutely terribly Usagimaru controls. The jumping is floaty and tough to control, and Usagimaru can barely reach a single block’s height. I clearly didn’t understand exactly what I was getting myself into. It wasn’t until the end of the tutorial that it dawned on me how well thought out this really was. Each level is very carefully crafted to bring into play the movement mechanics of Usagimaru, and meld them into the layout of the stage. The real challenge starts here. Right in the first stage to be exact! Arc System Works has made each step you take in game matter tremendously, and it really makes you think critically about how you can use your character’s limited mobility and move set to accomplish your goal.

The "Kidnapper"?

The “Kidnapper”?

At this point I have talked a lot about the game without saying very much at all. I am sure you are wondering what exactly you do to rescue your villager and bring them to safety! Well…It is a bit complicated to answer that. Essentially you have a world made up of blocks. There are white blocks which Usagmiaru can push or pull, then there are white patterned blocks that can only be moved when you grapple them from a distance. There are also white blocks with symbols on them! These can be used with different items you receive later on in game, in addition to being movable normally. You may also notice some blocks with cracks in them, these can be broken using your shurikan to gain access to space beyond. Each stage has at least two enemies, and usually more than that. The villager is always being held captive by a blue oni suspending them above the ground by a rope. You cannot cut the rope though, you have to find a red oni with a spring for a neck, drop a block to depress the spring and the villager will be lowered to the ground. But wait! If you move that block before retrieving the villager then the blue oni will grab them back up and you have to retry. Confused yet? Don’t worry, this is the essence of the gameplay loop: Place a block on the red spring-oni and then get the villager.  There are, of course, a finite amount of movable blocks in each stage, and some can only be moved once before becoming stuck, forcing you to restart if you didn’t plan out your attack carefully enough. The good news in all of this though is that each stage is quite small, and once you figure out the trick can be completed in under 30 seconds easily.

Luckily for me you are given subtle hints in each level that shouldn't be ignored.

Luckily for me you are given subtle hints in each level that shouldn’t be ignored.

Arc System Works clearly knew the frustration of getting to the end of a difficult puzzle and messing up at the last moment, so they implemented a very welcome Pinwheel System. You can press Y at any time to place a pinwheel on the ground. This is basically a single use save state. You can use the L button any time after placing the pinwheel to instantly revert the stage to the state it was in when you placed it. This system was very well utilized by me, and I doubt greatly that I could have finished the game without it. For all of the good things this game does, it does have some low points though. The music was a bit of a disappointment to me, recycling the same traditional Japanese Shamisen song for each stage. It’s pleasant don’t get me wrong, but repetitive. I eventually turned down the volume on my 3DS in favor of digging through my backlog of great podcasts.

Ninja Usagimaru: The Mysterious Karakuri Castle is a really fun little puzzle game for 3DS. Though it doesn’t stand out when put up next to other puzzlers on the platform like Picross or BoxBoy, it certainly has it’s own place. And for only $5.99 on the eShop it offers a lot of game for your money!


About the Author

Spencer Birch

I dislike long walks on the beach actually, sand gets everywhere and the sun makes it hard to see my screen. Follow me on twitter at http://twitter.com/spencermbirch