Some of the first games I remember playing that I spent hours and hours on were old-school dungeon-crawlers. I’m talking Wizardry on our old Apple ii computer, that kind of old-school. I had a lot of fun though, exploring those dungeons and taking on monsters in a first-person view. It’s been great that there are some of these games still getting put out. Haunted Dungeons: Hyakki Castle is a title that’s new on the Switch, that was originally on PC, but it feels much better on the hybrid handheld system. The game does have a number of issues, but was a nice challenge and felt almost like coming home.
The story is interesting enough, to at least set the tone for the castle-crawling adventure. The setting is 17th century Japan, and you have assembled a party of assorted samurai, ninja and even Nekomata (cat-people basically) who can wield magic. You are tasked with entering Hyakki Castle to take on an evil sorcerer who is up to all sorts of nefarious business.
That’s basically about it though, as you won’t be seeing too much more to the story as you progress. The story wraps up neatly at the end, but when you’re playing a hardcore dungeon-crawler, the story is basically there to provide the setting for the environment. Ultimately, it works well enough for that. The castle is a fairly dreary place early on, but later you get to some interesting levels, and all the yokai that you fight are really intriguing in design.
The gameplay in Haunted Dungeons: Hyakki Castle is fairly straightforward. You move around the castle in what is basically a set of tiles. You can move basic directions and rotate your screen, but that’s about it. When you start you have basic attacks at your disposal, mapped to just the X button. As your characters level up you can get new abilities and weapons to use, which also map to the other face buttons.
Fighting monsters is a lot of getting a hit in, maybe swapping to your next character to hit, and then dodging attacks. Sometimes it can be a little simple, but more often than not you will be faced with a new yokai, and need to find out what it is weak against and which characters will be most effective. The other option is one of the more interesting gameplay designs in Hyakki Castle, and that is splitting your party in two.
You see, sometimes you will be fighting a yokai that is fairly tough up front, or is doing too good a job blocking your attacks. You can then split your party, leaving two members facing the yokai who get a massive defensive stat boost, and the other two can go behind. You can then start hitting the yokai from behind with your team members who are likely to do more damage anyways and will get a boost for attacking from behind. In theory, this works OK. The problem is, even with the defensive boost to your party members who are left behind, they can still potentially take a ton of damage.
Playing on Normal, Hyakki Castle is no joke, and you can get a full party wipe in a few hits if you aren’t paying attention. So, leaving some party members open while you can attack from behind is good in theory, but sometimes it just isn’t worth it. There are other puzzles, however, where you need to split the party up and it was OK when it happened. I just didn’t split the party up much when fighting yokai if I didn’t have to.
As far as the graphics go, well, they are serviceable, at least for the castle interior. The lower levels of Hyakki Castle are pretty drab, though things do look a bit nicer as you progress further into the game. The yokai themselves have some pretty decent character designs going on and those, combined with your characters and the setting, really made me dig into my Japanese art history textbooks and revisit some of the great art of these Japanese myths. The sound effects are decent enough, and the music has some great traditional Japanese folk-style songs when it does play, but sadly that’s not as often as I would have liked.
The biggest takeaway though is that Hyakki Castle really has a wonderful atmosphere and tone of the game. While at times the game can be clunky as most dungeon-crawlers can be, it has a great setting and monsters to fight, with some interesting character classes and races to choose from. Hyakki Castle may not be for everyone but for those that are fans of the genre, it is worth checking out. Especially if you want to explore a great, traditional Japanese setting full of mythic yokai and daring warriors.
A Nintendo Switch review copy of Haunted Dungeons: Hyakki Castle was provided by Happinet for the purpose of this review.