Year: 2004
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Agetec
Developer: From Software
Genre: Horror
Review Date: 5/9/07
Rating: ***

A superb gaming experience, but sadly spoiled by a couple of major design flaws. "Kuon" takes place in feudal Japan and is full of rich Japanese folklore and gorgeous art direction. It features two female protagonists, Utsuki and Sakuya, and each plays a significant role in the exploration of a manor that is overrun with ghosts, demons, and "gaki" (flesh eating undead creatures). Utsuki and her sister Kureha go to the manor at their father's urging, and Kureha soon wanders off and gets lost. It's up to Utsuki to find her, which slowly reveals the sad tale of these two doomed souls. Sakuya is a young exorcist in training who visits the manor on her master's orders (who also happens to be Utsuki's father). She and some other students start investigating the horrific events at the manor with varying degrees of failure. Utsuki and Sakuya cross paths a couple of times in a strained attempt to maintain continuity, and after both of their stories are finished, a third character becomes available to play. Seimei, the grand seer, shows up to defeat the evil sorcerer who brought misery to the manor and bring the story to its bloody conclusion.

I was originally quite intrigued by this game when it first came out, but then shied away from it due to universally poor reviews. One has to keep in mind the mindset and expectations of professional game reviewers, which almost never match those of the people who actually play games for fun. Game reviewers like difficult and challenging games that last a long time, and they tend to play through them as quickly as possible, so whenever a reviewer complains that a game is too short and too easy, that's a good clue that it's probably just right for me. I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that the "easy" setting on the game is actually easy, and allowed me to play through the game with complete immersion. One trend in the game industry that I simply do not understand is that game cheats like "infinite health", "infinite ammo", or "super easy mode" get unlocked after you finish the game on its standard or hard difficulty setting. These cheats are completely useless after you finish the game, since the only reason to have them is so you can finish the game. It just makes no sense. But enough on that topic.

Graphically, the presentation in "Kuon" is excellent, blending creepy atmospheric lighting with gorgeous Japanese architecture. And blood. LOTS of blood. Splattered here there and everywhere, often the best clue as to where to go next is to just follow the trail of blood. The characters are attractive and animate well, but the various enemies fall a little short. Unfortunately, the biggest problem with the character animation is that their mouths don't move when they talk, which makes them look like creepy mannequins and breaks player immersion. The story is fascinating and full of Japanese mysticism, and some chilling revelations appear towards the end of Utsuki's tale. Like many Japanese narratives, it's vague and requires you to think and put the pieces together yourself. The sound design is good, and minimal use of music adds to the desolation and despair of the manor. Thankfully, the game features both the original Japanese dialog and an English dub, so you can choose which voices you want to hear. Naturally, the Japanese voice acting adds a much richer flavor to the proceedings. The game controls are excellent and apart from a couple of glitches, the camera gives you an excellent view of the action. The pacing can be challenging for impatient players, and players who run through the game are punished, as running attracts gaki. Combat also feels a little sluggish, and the protagonists are physically weak. Oddly, the frail Utsuki is much better at physical combat than the more athletic Sakuya, but maybe that's because Sakuya is only armed with a ceremonial fan. I was initially put off by the game's limited saves mechanism, until I realized that the save tokens are quite plentiful (unlike the supremely punishing "Resident Evil" games). And speaking of saves, "Kuon" features quite possibly the coolest save metaphor I've ever seen, in the form of a ceremonial cleansing ritual. Whenever you reach a save point, you can cleanse your spirit by placing a ritual vessel of impurities in a stream of water to get carried away. Very awesome.

And before I forget, once again the American packaging of the game is ultra lame compared to the beautiful artwork that graces the Japanese version. It's no wonder the game fared poorly in the States with such crappy box art. I'll just never understand marketing people...

Finally, for all of the awesome things about this game, the two biggest flaws relate to game continuity. First of all, much like "Resident Evil 2," the adventures of the two characters are too similar and they both have to solve the same puzzles and fight the same bosses, which makes no sense. Thankfully, Sakuya's story radically diverges in the second half which provides a bunch of new and unique material, but also introduces the second fatal flaw which is that the two storylines can't be reconciled - unless Utsuki had some major memory lapses. However, since Utsuki's story is much more surreal and mystical, it's conceivable that she's not even in the second half of her own story, which led me to several hours of sleepless speculation. Still, at face value, the two storylines simply don't line up with each other, which makes me angry and distressed.

Overall, if you enjoy Japanese horror and can forgive the glaring continuity issues, "Kuon" can be a delightfully satisfying experience.