The Shmupiest Place on Earth
A few days ago, our own Noelle Warner shared a piece that rejoiced in her newfound obsession with video game genre mash-ups. While experimenting with genre combinations has long been a celebrated tradition of this industry, there is something about the mashups we’ve seen in recent years that sets them apart from those that emerged in the infancy and adolescence of this medium. Neon White is easily the current poster child for the practice, but past titles like Crypt of the NecroDancer, Battle Chef Brigade, and Yoku’s Island Express show what’s possible when you really think outside the box.
Yurukill: The Calumniation Games is yet another wild combination of two genres, taking age-old shoot ‘em up gameplay and pairing it with the currently popular escape room narrative adventures. It’s a unique mashup for sure, but are these two tastes too different to taste great together?
Yurukill: The Calumniation Games (Nintendo Switch [reviewed], PC, PS4, PS5)
Developer: IzanagiGames, Inc., G.Rev
Publisher: NIS America
Released: July 5, 2022 (Console), July 8, 2022 (PC)
MSRP: $39.99 (Digital), $49.99 (Physical)
Dark and deadly games of survival have been a particular favorite of mine since I first escaped a flooding cabin room on the Gigantic back in 2010. There is just something about the escape room genre that always hooks me in, something that Yurukill: The Calumniation Games immediately taps into with its sinister setup. Five teams of strangers, each made up of at least one Prisoner and one Executioner, have been brought to the hauntingly extravagant theme park Yurukill Land to play a little game. The Prisoners are people who’ve been found guilty of a heinous crime, while the Executioners are those who have some sort of connection to those misdeeds. Each Prisoner swears they’re innocent, and across the game’s several chapters, you’ll have to find the necessary evidence hidden throughout a series of escape rooms to prove that to their Executioner.
These escape rooms make up the various attractions teams will encounter during their visit to Yurukill Land. They’re designed to dig into the characters’ past and do so in a pretty predictable manner. Guiding the teams along the way is Binko, a kitsune-mask-wearing weirdo who seems like she could use an assistant. The goal for each of these teams is to be the last one standing, which will give the Prisoners a chance at freedom while the winning Executioner will get one of their wishes granted. Prisoners stuck on a losing team are sent back to the pokey, provided they actually survive their visit to the island. Not only can a Prisoner die trying to make it through their attraction, but each Executioner has access to a button that can instantly kill their convict companion.
The main protagonists of Yurukill are the Mass Murderers, made of up Prisoner Sengoku Shunju and Executioner Rina Azima. While you will temporarily take control of the four other teams (Crafty Killers, Death Dealing Duo, Sly Stalkers, and Peeping Toms, the intermission jesters of the game), there is an overarching storyline about Sengoku’s case that drives the narrative forward. Sengoku swears he’s innocent, but unlike the others making the same claim, he has a note allegedly written by another Prisoner that says they’re the real culprit behind his assumed crime.
But figuring out who that is will have to wait until Sengoku can prove to Rina that she shouldn’t kill him, which is a two-part process. The first part is with the escape rooms they’ll explore. Each room or set of rooms is presented as a simple point-and-click image with just a few objects you’ll be able to interact with. To make it past the central door that blocks you from proceeding through the attractions, you’ll have to solve a series of puzzles that reward you with pertinent evidence or clues to other puzzles in the attractions.
Alexis Rose would do well in these rooms
Unlike some of its contemporaries, the escape rooms of Yurukill rarely present any sort of challenge. I was able to solve most puzzles in a matter of seconds, and those with ridiculously obtuse solutions could be figured out using one or two of the hints the game makes available. Equally as easy are the Maji-kill Time segments. You’ll face these just a few times throughout the game and they’re supposed to be high-pressure interrogations between Prisoner and Executioner where one wrong answer triggers that dreaded Game Over screen. In reality, they’re more a nuisance meant to pad out these escape rooms that are already pretty padded with character dialogue.
While I’d argue there are a few too many unnecessary discussions explaining how you figured out the solution to the puzzle you just solved, the dialogue between team members is easily a highlight of these escape room portions. These characters are well-written outside of Binko and her “bin-this” and “bin-that” schtick. I just wish the conversations between these characters, and the story as a whole, went a bit deeper into some of the dark themes they only lightly touch on.
The best games of the genre have no problem exploring ominous and somber subjects with almost unbearable attention paid to the most gruesome of details. Such an approach is meant to unsettle the player and further immerse them into the experience. While some of the themes explored throughout Yurukill are disquieting, the writers play it far too safe with the world they’ve created, wrapping up most of the storylines with a nice little bow.
The lack of anything sinister to get under your nerves undercuts the overall impact of the narrative, but at least players who do invest themselves in the story and character dialogue are rewarded for their efforts. If you can avoid just skimming through the story to get the “good parts,” you’ll be armed with pertinent information that’ll come in handy when you complete the escape rooms of each attraction and reach the Yurukill Judgement portion of the fun.
This is where the shmup gameplay comes into effect. Yurukill Judgement takes that classic bullet-hell excitement and mixes it with evidence presentation. The Judgements are divided up into several portions, including High-Speed Quizzes that test your basic knowledge of your team, Prejudice Synapses where you’ll present the correct evidence to argue your side of the matter, and Mind Mazes where you’ll sum up everything you’ve likely figured out long before you stepped foot in your jet fighter cockpit.
Shoot ’em up, bang, bang
The quizzes and the mazes make up only a fraction of the Yurukill Judgements. Most of your time here will be spent surviving the bullet-hell gameplay that pits Prisoner against Executioner. Taking control of the Prisoner’s ship, you’ll make your way through three vertically scrolling shoot ‘em up levels, each capped off with a boss battle against your Executioner. Once you do enough damage to the Executioner’s ship, you’ll be able to access the Prejudice Synapse and Mind Maze, both of which put a pause on the bullet hell action so you can present your case. If you make a mistake in either of these segments, you’ll lose three lives. But that’s unlikely to happen. Just like with the escape room puzzles and Maji-kill Time, presenting evidence is pretty straightforward.
If there is one thing this game likes to do, it’s reiterate every single fact you’ve learned throughout your investigation, all but guaranteeing that information is drilled into your head long before you reach the Yurukill Judgements.
Most of the lives I lost playing through Yurukill were stripped from me during some truly insane bullet hell segments. Before you start the game, you can choose between three different difficulties to best suit your capabilities. I went normal, which presented enough of a challenge for me in those later stages that had bullets firing from all directions. There is an easy mode if you just want to enjoy the story and a hard mode for more seasoned shmup players.
As for the actual shoot ‘em up gameplay, it’s pretty good if largely repetitive. Because each Yurukill Judgement is broken up in the same way with the same small number of enemies, they do tend to blend together. Thankfully there is some variety in the ships. Each Prisoner has a unique ship that utilizes the auxiliary guns you pick up in distinct ways. On the Switch controller, you shoot by holding down the A or B button, and which button you choose dictates the action of these external guns. For instance, with Sengoku’s ship, pressing B will bring all your guns in tight for concentrated shooting. If you press the A button, your auxiliary guns will spread out, allowing you to cover more area.
While there isn’t much reason to return to the game’s narrative once you’ve completed it, you can access the bullet hell stages you’ve unlocked at any time should you want to engage in a little high-score chasing. There are online leaderboards to rank your skills against the rest of the world and when going through Score Attack Mode, you’ll have access to all the Prisoner ships, allowing you to pick the one that works best for you. For me, it was Hanaka’s pretty pink ship and its auxiliary guns that follow wherever it goes.
If you’re wondering how smoothly these shoot ‘em up sections run on Switch, expect to hit a few bumps. The frame rate will slow to a crawl when you drop a bomb or take damage, but outside of those moments, it keeps steady whether playing in handheld mode or docked to your television. You might also experience random slowdown during the narrative portions. Loading screens aren’t too bad, but trying to access the text history always makes it feel like the game is about to crash.
Speaking of crashes, I ran into an absolutely nasty visual bug during my very first Mind Maze that caused the screen to rapidly flash bright white lights for about two minutes before crashing the game. Not only was this particularly harsh with the Mind Maze segments already looking like Atari’s Star Wars on acid when everything works correctly, but the game doesn’t autosave in the shmup sections and it won’t allow you to manually save either.
Shockingly, this crazy experiment actually works
Trying to sell a game that’s half escape room, half bullet hell might sound like the basis for a joke article rejected by Hard Drive, but that’s exactly what IzanagiGames and G.Rev are attempting to do here. And I really have to applaud the effort for the final product to wind up as interesting as it is. The only problem is Yurukill never quite justifies why it’s mashed up shoot ‘em up action with escape room puzzles. Because this isn’t some sort of natural combination of genres, like Puzzle Quest and its mix of match-3 puzzle gameplay and role-playing mechanics. Despite the overarching task of proving your innocence that’s spread between the two gameplay halves, the escape room segments and the shmup segments are very much independent of one another and there is nothing that binds them outside of the idea that’s just how things work around here.
And yet, you really can’t separate them because Yurukill: The Calumniation Games is greater than the sum of its parts. The bullet hell sections are fun and challenging if a bit drab in design and variety while the escape room sections have good character interactions but are far too simple and tame for what you might expect in a game about an amusement park where people can be murdered with the push of a button. Tear them apart and you get two substandard games that likely wouldn’t be worth anybody’s time. Keep them together, however, and you’ve got a one-of-a-kind experience that’s worth checking out.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]