Kemono Heroes is a Switch exclusive developed by Mad Gear Games and published by NIS America that seems to have fallen under the radar of many gamers, but a quick look at it shows a lot of promise. Kemono Heroes boasts beautiful pixel art, fast-paced action, multiple playable characters, co-op, and a personality filled take on Japanese myth. This list of features ticks a lot of boxes for me, so I decided to find out if this game lives up to its potential. Kemono Heroes is indeed a solid multiplayer action game, but it is held back by a major flaw that will be a deal breaker for many.
After starting Kemono Heroes and selecting from the easy, normal, and hard difficulties, the first thing you will be greeted with is a character select screen. The four playable characters are Fudemaru, Hanako, Yu, and Miyuki, a fox, squirrel, monkey, and cat, respectively. These four are animal ninjas and come equipped with the skills that videogame ninjas have come to be associated with over the years. All characters can double jump, use a three hit melee combo, rapidly throw knives as projectiles, dash, use a downward thrust, and have screen clearing ninja magic with limited uses. They all have slightly different hitboxes for their melee attacks, as well as a character specific move. Hanako can glide, Yu can climb along certain stage elements, Miyuki can climb walls, and Fudemaru throws a projectile that allows him to transform into his target.
After you select your character the game kicks off immediately in the first stage, with no introductory cutscene or tutorial. It always feels like a refreshing surprise whenever a game does this, and Kemono Heroes is certainly no exception. The core mechanics are simple enough to learn through experimentation, and the plot is a light save-the-world affair simply meant to contextualize the gameplay. There are some brief cutscenes with no text or dialogue, but most of your experience with Kemono Heroes will be pure gameplay. At its core, Kemono Heroes plays like a mix between a platformer and an arcade beat ‘em up. Levels challenge you with both platforming obstacles and a nearly continuous stream of enemies that need to be cut down. Defeating enemies and finding treasure rewards you with coins to upgrade your chosen character. These can be used to upgrade melee and projectile damage, health, and magic uses, and can be used to purchase healing items and extra lives. The levels progress in a linear fashion and are split into worlds containing three levels and one boss fight. Bosses drop ninja tools that expand your move set, such as a grappling hook or bombs.
Controls for both platforming and combat are very responsive, and the game feels very satisfying to play. Attacks are fast and flashy and are accompanied by impactful effects and screen shake. Since your attacks have a long range and none of them slow you down, the game encourages you to keep moving forward at quick pace by platforming and fighting at the same time. I especially enjoy the inclusion of dash jumping, which feels very similar to the Mega Man Zero games and even causes an afterimage effect to trail behind your character. Taking damage only causes minor knockback that is easy to recover from, even in midair, so there were no situations where I felt a lack of control over any of the characters. The only part of the controls that need work is the double jump, it can be difficult to reliably reach maximum jumping height using this move. I would also like to have seen rumble implemented in some way to make the game feel even more satisfying, as the game currently has no rumble at all. Other than those minor gripes, I have no complaints about the controls or game feel.
The simple combat mechanics and high enemy count could have easily created a repetitive experience, but Kemono Heroes avoids this issue using its level design. Most levels feature some sort of unique gimmick to mix things up, such as an enemy attacking you from the background you need to take cover from or updrafts that affect your jump height. The level design itself is solid overall, although some levels like a burning forest stage will occasionally throw cheaply placed obstacles at you. Further adding to the variety in level design is the fact that each new world begins with a level built around using whatever new tool you got from the boss of the previous world. These levels wonderfully showcase the benefits of these new tools while further adding variety to the game. Boss fights are also very well designed, with simple early encounters eventually leading to fights with complex and varied attack patterns to deal with later in the game. The final boss is a particular highlight and offers a legitimately intense test of your combat abilities.
Since some of the first things you will see when you boot up Kemono Heroes are controller configuration and character select screens, it is made clear that this game was designed with multiplayer in mind. My first run through the game was done solo, and although perfectly playable it could sometimes feel like a slog. The sheer number of enemies this game can sometimes throw at you can be a bit much for one person to handle at a reasonable pace, and I would sometimes need to slow down and hack my through. Being able to hog all the loot for myself did not help much, as the game limits how much you can increase your damage output until you make more progress. I would argue the decision to limit character growth in this way was a smart one overall though, I would rather have a mild slog than being able to steamroll early levels with an overpowered character. My second run was a two-player playthrough and felt much more like the intended experience. There were just enough enemies to keep us both occupied without feeling overwhelming.
Multiplayer is well implemented for the most part, but it has some limitations. The most notable limitation is that it is local only, with no online multiplayer support. This is not surprising since Kemono Heroes was made by a small team. Other limitations are a little more questionable, such as the inability to switch characters mid-campaign. If someone wants to switch characters you will have to start a new game. Considering the upgrades are identical for every character, I cannot think of a good reason why this might be the case. Multiple players are also unable to play as the same character. This is likely the result of an event that happens later in the game’s story I don’t want to spoil, but I don’t think it was worth it.
Aside from those limitations, there is a lot about multiplayer I like. For example, I have seen a lot of multiplayer arcade style games with confusing or poorly implemented shop interfaces. The one in Kemono Heroes uses color coordination to highlight who is buying what and clearly explains how to navigate it. The shop menu can’t be exited until all players press the X button ensuring everyone gets what they want, and there is no time limit. During gameplay, the extra screen space afforded by HD displays is put to good use with a wide playing field that rarely feels too cramped for multiple players. Multiplayer also has an assist mechanic that allows a player who has run out of health to be revived by another player with rapid button presses, and if successful they can jump back into the action without losing a life. This mechanic, along with other forgiving aspects of the game (bottomless pits don’t kill you, forgiving knock back, extra lives revive you on the spot, easy mode) makes Kemono Heroes an ideal game to share with others who might be less experienced with video games.
The aspects of Kemono Heroes I have the most praise for are definitely the graphics and sound. This game is a sweeping showcase of high-resolution pixel art filled with charm and personality. Every character in the game, from playable characters to enemies, all have great designs and detailed sprites with smooth animations. The backgrounds of levels often have multiple scrolling parallax layers and extra details like npcs going about their day. The style of pixel art used here has a very “authentic” feel to it, it genuinely captures what a lot of 16-bit titles probably look to us in our imagination. The music properly sets the mood with fast paced and upbeat tracks that give way to slower and more somber tracks in later stages. The game foregoes chiptune sounds in favor of high-quality instrument samples, and I like the style of music here. The acoustic sounds used in the third world are my personal highlight.
So far Kemono Heroes might seem like a genuine hidden gem in the switch’s library, but my enjoyment was severely affected by the game’s most serious flaws: its length and structure. I’m normally not someone who likes to talk about length in relation to a game’s quality or value, I’ve played some great games that could be completed in one sitting, but Kemono Heroes is a special case. It took me only an hour to reach the final boss, and at this point the game kicks you back to the start and forces you to replay harder versions of all the game’s levels before fighting him for real. This second half of the game felt like padding, and even with its inclusion the game only took me two hours to beat. The game has replay value through multiple playable characters, hard mode, achievements, and multiplayer, but 20$ (Canadian) still seems like a lot for what the game offers.
My main concern with the game’s filler has less to do with the game’s value and more to do with how its contextualized. Recycled content has its place in games, it usually works best as optional content for players who want to get the most out of their game. I’m generally not a fan of making recycled content mandatory to finish a game, especially in this case where the recycled content is half the game. I would have appreciated the inclusion of these harder remixed levels more if they were some sort of optional new game plus type of mode. Even though this would have made the base game only an hour long, I would have come away from that hour of gameplay feeling much more positive. These levels would feel like an extra instead of padding in this case.
As for the remixed levels themselves, they range from clever to questionable. Some levels simply feature stronger enemies, while others provide a twist on the mechanics of a level that forces you to approach it in a completely different way. The worst of these levels try to increase challenge by increasing the game’s speed. I believe the intention here was to make enemy attack patterns faster, but this is done by increasing the speed of everything, including the playable characters. This changes how these characters feel to control, and I believe changing how it feels to control a character in a platformer without warning this late in the game is simply bad design. The game’s speed goes back to normal at the end of these stages, fortunately.
Kemono Heroes is a game I really hate to say does not fully live up to its potential, because it comes really close. What we have here is a charming and beautiful platformer with great action and levels that drops the ball at the halfway point and ends up feeling unsatisfying. Although, it can’t be understated that during the first hour of the game I was ready to call this a genuine hidden gem in the Switch’s library. If you don’t think the filler will bother you much you should consider giving this game a shot, although I would recommend waiting for a sale. If you decide to play with others, make sure they know what they’re in for. I know my second player had no desire to finish this game after we reached the filler.