Hyakki Castle has cat people in it. You could, if you wanted to, create an entire party of cat ninjas and samurai who will go forth and clear out an entire castle of traitors to the 17th century shogunate of Japan. This should be enough, but if it isn’t, the game is a great throwback to a form of RPG gameplay that extends all the way back to the era of Wizardry and Ultima. If that makes you excited, then Hyakki Castle is for you. If it doesn’t, then you’ve got a steep hill to climb.
Early tabletop roleplaying games were light on story and heavy on their dungeons. Running a very early game of Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s was more about creating a fine-tuned tomb or wizard’s burrow that your players could storm in exchange for experience and loot. There would be monsters, and those monsters existed to stand in front of your players. Walking around and fighting are, all told, fairly simple things for a computer to model, so when the early 1980s rolled around, quite a few of these digital dungeon crawlers appeared. Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord released in 1981 for the Apple II, and hacking and slashing your way through a first-person death trap was the order of the day. People played it, and they enjoyed it.
Fast forward to 2017, and it’s hard to see roleplaying games that don’t have some kind of debt to Wizardry and its tabletop predecessors. What changed, though, was the narrative layer. Stories became more robust and complicated; the range of what players could do, what classes they could stock their party with, and how they could interact with their world became wider. The Might and Magic franchise carried these ideals the furthest, but as the first-person genre tended toward shooting and drifted away from plodding real-time tactical combat, the kind of game that Hyakki Castle is just floated away.
We can understand Castle as a return to form, then, in a genre that has been sadly neglected. Like the Legend of Grimrock games, Hyakki Castle is an attempt to both update the first-person dungeon crawler and a statement about preserving a particular kind of gameplay. It dwells in the past, but in a new way.
What that means, though, is that Hyakki Castle is a game about exploring a dungeon, killing monsters, gathering loot, and avoiding or disarming traps. Nothing has changed about this kind of gameplay in 40 years. It is slow, tactical, and not very exciting. Crucially, I don’t mean that as a criticism; this is a predictable and comfortable game that tends not to break with expectations, and that can be a blessing for many. It promises a particular experience, and it delivers that exact thing, no more and no less.
Where it does break with tradition is in the “two party” system that allows you to split your characters into two groups that you can control independently of one another. This affords certain tactical decisions, like flanking, and it also allows the designers of Castle to create puzzles with more complications and moving parts than other games in the genre have tended to.
It is also important to note that Hyakki Castle isn’t just for hardcore players. It would be very easy (and might even make economic sense) for a “throwback” game like this one to assume and demand some extreme familiarity with optimal strategies for these games. I can imagine a world where a game in this genre plays up its “old school” nature and demands that players put up or shut up. Despite being an idle fan of the style of game, I wouldn’t say I have any expertise in them, and Hyakki Castle did not punish me for this. In-world tutorials gently guided me toward understanding how the game worked, and I was able to be onboard and playing with a fair amount of skill within a few minutes.
My one substantial critique is that the game does very little to familiarize the player with its interface. I had no idea where my health bars were for the first half hour of play, and while I knew that I was going up in level, I had no idea what that meant. The health bars, by the way, are the small red splotches beside your character portraits.
If you’re in for some meditative classic gaming, Hyakki Castle is for you. It’s a game that knows exactly what it is, and it has no interest in punishing you or making you feel like you don’t get it. It’s a friendly, old-style game that wants you to succeed, and that seems to be less and less present now. It also has cat people in it.
Hyakki Castle was developed by Asakusa Studio and published by Happinet. It is available for PC.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.