Kemono Heroes

A game by Mad Gear Games for Switch, originally released in 2020.
Kemono Heroes is a sidescrolling actioner that mixes melee and projectile-based combat, and it features four playable characters and 1P-4P cooperative play. Tsukigami, the Moon God, has opened his eye and sent a wave of energy through the forest, petrifying everyone within. Fortunately, there are four ninja masters – all of whom happen to be fluffy forest creatures – that spring into action to save the people, fighting through enemies and evil spirits, climbing Mt. Fuji, and eventually facing off against the Moon God himself.

The game is heavily steeped in Japanese folklore, and little is explained for Western audiences, so your understanding of the goings-on will be dependent upon your fluency in all things Japanese. Those who are versed in Japanese belief systems and mythologies, or purveyors of manga, anime, or other Japanese works may recognize several elements. Others may not understand what a kasa-obake is, for instance, but will be able to recognize a spirit possessing an umbrella and bringing it to life.

At the start of the game, the player(s) is able to select between one of four characters: a fox named Fudemaru, a squirrel named Hanako, a monkey named Yu, and a cat named Miyuki. Each of these characters shares some basic movement abilities, including a 2x nonvariable jump and a double jump that adds an extra 0.5x. Each can perform a 3-hit melee attack, which is slightly different for each character, and each can toss a continuous spray of kunai in eight directions, allowing them to take down enemies from a distance. Each character begins the game with a single screen-clearing bomb (using ninpo magic) that does damage to all onscreen enemies.

In addition to these basic movesets, each of the ninja masters possesses a single special ability that makes them stand out from the others. Fudemaru has the ability to toss an item that looks like an envelope (this is equipped in the place of kunai), allowing him to take the form of any enemy that the projectile touches. Not only does he take on the enemy’s appearance, but he gains its attacks and abilities as well.

Hanako the squirrel - as it turns out - is a flying squirrel, and is able to glide for long distances, making horizontal scrolling sections considerably easier. Yu is able to hang from ropes and vines, which are occasionally found slung horizontally across the area. And finally, Miyuki is able to climb up certain walls, reaching areas that the others cannot. This gives each character a unique feel and makes them more versatile in certain situations.

Fudemaru has the longest horizontal melee strike, whereas Hanako and Yu have a slightly wider area of effect, and Miyuki’s strike extends in front and behind her. That said, each of these characters’ kunai attacks are very effective, and since they fire continuously without penalty, much of the game can be spent focused on rapid fire attacks from a distance.

Killed enemies, flying lanterns, and treasure chests drop varying denominations of currency as well as the occasional health restorative. There is a lives system in place, but the difficulty of the game is quite low, even on the default difficulty setting (the game offers Easy, Normal, and Hard modes), and most bosses can be destroyed with relative ease. When killed, the player loses no progress and respawns on the spot. Restoratives are frequent enough that players can keep their health meters up, and collecting currency allows players to purchase upgrades between levels. Players can also discover a few 1UPs within the levels (taking the form of logs), which are sometimes hidden behind false walls.

At the end of each level is a shopkeeper who sells upgrades and restoratives, and in multiplayer, the first person to reach the end of the level earns a currency bonus. Players are able to purchase health restoration, permanent health extensions, and 1UPs. In addition, the strength of the player’s sword strikes and kunai may be upgraded individually, up to eight levels, as can the player’s carrying capacity for screen-clearing ninpo magic, although each level caps the upgrades that can be purchased.

Enemies are large and detailed but their movements and abilities are quite simple, making them easy to defeat, even when playing the game in 1P mode. That said, the game occasionally overwhelms the player with large numbers of enemies, which can become chaotic, particularly when playing in multiplayer. The player must be mindful of enemy behaviors in order to avoid their attacks, but the low amount of enemy variety makes it easy to work through most levels relatively unscathed.

Most levels require that the player move from left to right to reach the end, but gameplay is changed up several times over the course of the adventure. For instance, some levels feature platforms over bottomless pits, requiring that players hop between them. However, these pits do not spell instant death, as players who fall into them are drained of a bit of health before they pop up, giving players a moment to find solid ground once more. In multiplayer modes, players must be careful not to scroll each other off the screen, although with the light penalty for failure, players can still remain in the game even if this occurs several times.

In the game’s first stage, the Moon God sends out a wave that turns the nearby villagers to stone, and later in the level, the player must run through the forest while the Moon God continues firing wave after wave of petrification. The player must stand in front of background objects to avoid being hit by the wave, which transforms him into stone for a moment and drains a bit of health, which makes for a fairly intense introduction to the experience.

The third level features an enemy who flies past and sets the forest floor on fire, requiring that players focus more on jumping, which leads into a level that has loads of platforms to hop between, along with enspirited umbrellas and pots to contend with. In this level, the player is able to see spirits flying around that he is unable to interact with or destroy, at least until they possess a physical object. Later in the game, the player passes into the spirit realm and revisits this area, and he is then able to interact with the spirits.

Later areas change things up with vertical levels, requiring continuous ascent, horizontal levels with updrafts that allow players to ride on the currents, and even a shump level. During the shmup sequence, the player rides on a cloud and is able to toss kunai to strike down enemies. Occasionally, more powerful elemental enemies appear, with one controlling wind and the other controlling lightning. These enemies are much more difficult to kill, but they drop tons of currency in return, and they eventually pair up for a boss fight at the end of the level.

Throughout the game, the player not only increases his strength and health, but he also gains access to new abilities. These include a grappling hook that can be fired in eight directions, allowing the player to pull himself quickly to just about any point on the screen, although most levels do not require its use. The player also earns bombs, which are equippable in place of kunai. Bombs are tossed in an arc and are primarily used to destroy certain blocks, although they can be used to destroy enemies as well. Once earned, bombs can also be upgraded in strength, just like the player’s other weapons. Finally, there’s a charged sword attack that sends a large projectile across the screen, but the use of this weapon is entirely optional, particularly given the player’s infinite supply of rapid-fire kunai.

The game is not terribly long, featuring four themed areas with three levels in each, and the player can expect to reach the final boss in about an hour. That said, after facing this boss, the player finds himself returned to the first area where he plays an alternate version of each level (explained as part of the overarching narrative) before facing the true final boss and reaching the end of the game.

Among the changes in this second run are more difficult boss encounters, a few tougher or faster enemy attacks, and the ability to interact with spirits. In addition, the shmup sequence becomes a traditional platforming sequence with the player hopping between clouds instead of flying freely. The player retains all of his upgrades from the first run.

The game may be completed by a skilled player in a single sitting, and much of the game's engagement comes from the fact that it offers 4P simultaneous play. For the most part, levels are entirely linear, and it’s not possible to backtrack to earlier parts of the level, keeping gameplay fairly straightforward. In multiplayer, it’s possible to revive a downed companion by running over to them and repeatedly pressing a button to restore small amounts of health until they spring back to life.

Aesthetically, the game is quite colorful and falls into the 16-bit aesthetic, accompanied by a soundtrack filled with traditional Japanese instruments. There is little in the way of direct narrative, although there are some overt story elements in terms of the player facing the Moon God, the Moon God turning people to stone, and the people’s relationship with the spirit realm.

Kemono Heroes was developed by Mad Gear Games, with development by Juan Jesus Ligero, Miguel Murat, Juanito Medina, and Daniel Pellicer. The studio previously developed A Hole New World.

The game was published by NIS America, which has published a wide variety of games, mostly localizations of Japanese releases, including several titles in the Disgaea, Hyperdimension Neptunia, and Etrian Odyssey series, among many others.