2020/07/18: katana-kami

playing: katana kami: a way of the samurai story (2020, dev: acquire corp, pub: spike chunsoft)

also thinking about: nethack, dungeon crawl stone soup, elona, jedi knight/jedi academy, 'roguelike'

listening: probably steely dan - aja or fleetwood mac - tusk

the skeleton in question.

I've been playing KATANA KAMI: A Way of the Samurai Story. It's a sort of spinoff of Acquire corp.'s main WotS series, as far as I understand it? I'm not familiar with those games at all, so I can't really speak comparatively to that aspect of it. It's also got a lot of roguelike design elements, which it plays with in interesting ways. I'm fairly early into the game (10 hours apparently? It feels early, anyway) but the game's been making enough cogs turn in my head that I figured I could start writing about it now.

When I say 'roguelike' I specifically mean these things. I apologise. I'm a 29 year old lithuanian who spent a lot of his early teen years writing "free game download" into various search engines and so I eventually stumbled onto NetHack et al. As a result, this is one of those cases where I'm a stickler for what I think is 'proper' genre labeling.

pictured: Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup 0.24.0

After a couple runs through the dungeon, new elements get introduced into its structure, like shortcut portals (the game calls them both 'portals' and 'hidden holes', the latter being a much funnier name) to vary it up. Here I am encountering, for the first time, a Hidden Village - an intermediate floor full of peaceful monsters, some of them with shops to boot. I love monster villages, and I'm almost capped out on money, so I excitedly run in to explore. The game lets you sheathe your sword to appear less threatening, which I do. I don't notice a skeleton in my way (though, to be fair, he is a skeleton, and the grass here is really tall and scraggly) and do 5 damage to him as I barrel through him at full sprint. None of the other townsfolk seem to care, so I move on to a shop. I notice the skeleton slowly following me - is he going to chew me out for being rude? Maybe draw his sword and attack me? Nope. He kicks me in the ass, making me fall to the ground, and laughs at me. He then continues doing this for the rest of my stay in the Hidden Village.

I briefly consider prostrating myself (the game has a button permanently dedicated to dogeza on R2) to apologise to mr. skeleton, but your character performs the act so fiercely he hits anything in the path of his head for 30 damage, so it's a risky call. I think the prostration mechanic is used more in the 'overworld' part of this game, but I mostly use it to open treasure chests and kill snakes when I want to conserve sword durability.

There's a sort of Reccetear-like metagame where you help a smith repay a debt by helping him out with crafting and selling swords. At least that's how I understand it - I pissed all three of the factions in the game within the first couple of days by sending them explosives (I thought they would use them for their own warfare, but in reality I was mailbombing my market), so I'm actually not too familiar with this mechanic yet. I'm now trying to look for gift items in the dungeon so I can make amends - sake bottles seemingly aren't doing the trick.

i'm glad you think so.

The way these little item effects and mechanics interact with one another to create unexpected results reminds me of roguelikes more than random maps or permadeath would - these two elements have been transplanted and mixed and re-mixed in the rogue-lite genre so effectively that they don't really feel like 'the point' anymore. You don't really die in KATANA KAMI, and if you do, there's a corpse run mechanic that gives you another chance at getting all your stuff back. Sure, dying sucks, and it really breaks your momentum for a bit, but it's recoverable if you play smart. At the time of writing, I have just fucked this up in the worst way possible, and am more or less starting from scratch on all my equipment. Whoops! At least I know getting back up to speed won't take long.

Pretty much immediately after making a little comic about how much I was enjoying Chocobo's Mystery Dungeon last year, I ate shit in a late-game dungeon, losing all my really good equipment. I haven't come back to that game yet because getting caught back up in that game feels like a chore... Maybe some day.

It's kind of hard looking up information about this game - it's not very popular right now, and the only guide I've found was a loose FAQ written by a friend of mine. Looking up NetHack information on the internet 15 years ago was probably the first time I ran into the concept of a "spoiler", in this context an explanation of hidden or obtuse game knowledge. NetHack is kind of rife with these 'gotcha' moments, and to make any significant progress in your game you'll have to memorise a lot of things, like that eating a cockatrice (or touching it with bare hands) will kill you instantly, or the proper way to identify wands, since just using them willy-nilly will most likely kill you instantly, or how to set up an area where monsters won't attack you (and then later, which monsters don't care about that mechanic)...

NetHack is kind of an extreme example of it, but to me, all roguelikes have this sort of information retention and management gameplay under the hood. Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, for example, gives you a very precise stat block for any enemy you can see, which lets you know how much damage they can do per turn. Thus, it is at least somewhat possible to deal with a lot of things you see on your first time without resorting to out-of-game help. The game is plenty challenging without hiding things up its sleeve. Elona, on the other hand, lets you play as a Pianist, a class which starts with a grand piano in your inventory. Sometimes the piano is made out of a material that makes the piano so heavy it will crush you to death instantly. Sometimes the piano is made out of raw meat.

To me, the strongest element of roguelike-likeness that KATANA KAMI has lies in its trap items. There's the usual range you'd expect - the explosives I mentioned before that just do damage, as well as a handful for various status effects like poison, paralysis or blindness. You trigger traps by running over them (of course), but if you spot one before it's too late, you can walk up to it carefully and pick it up from the ground. Now it becomes a projectile you can use as a combat tool. Out of all of these, my favourite is the sea cucumber, a trap that makes you slip, dropping some of your inventory on the ground as you fall to the ground (one funny thing is that the item description lists this as a positive rather than a negative effect). It's pure slapstick. If the items you drop happen to be other traps and you're not careful, you will trigger them trying to pick them back up. I know this because at some point I was running around with 7 sea cucumbers in my inventory and I didn't notice number 8 right under my feet. The thing I didn't know about the sea cucumber, until my friend told me that throwing one at an an enemy will make it drop its inventory too - namely materials and other items it wouldn't be guaranteed to drop on getting killed. Items like sword recipes, or a plastic model magazine that levels you up when you use it.

DCSS is apparently getting rid of its hunger mechanic soon! This sounded strange to me, since I've always thought of eating as a vital mechanic. I probably got this impression from NetHack.

In the latter, a good 2/3 of the things you can eat will either hurt or outright kill you instantly, whereas in DCSS it's a fairly risk-free process, so it makes sense they'd remove it.

I can't say I'm a fan of the way NetHack does it, though it did force teen Titas to memorise what a cockatrice is and what it does, so I can't be too critical of it.


At some point in the middle of writing this blog post, I dip back in to play the game for an hour. As I mentioned earlier, I just fucked up bad and have no good equipment to go back into the dungeon. On top of that, the debt collector is here, and he just dropped a bomb on me - my next payment is going to have to be 31250 coins, over ten times more than what I previously had to pay, and I only have 8 days to get it. Fugg. Even when I was doing great, I'd still tap out at around 8000 coins in that amount of time. I could ostensibly make more money through the smithy, but due to my previous accidental mail bomb campaign, all but one of the clans is boycotting me, and I don't have any ham or anything else I could give as an apology. Shidd. Well, I send the clans some gifts anyway (Sake, I guess? It's not like my situation could get worse), and head back into the dungeon to do the little baby run that I can do with my leftover swords.

It's a really piddly 5 floor run. My previous failures have humbled me, and I recognise that my current sword, although pretty cool, is too weak to think about trying the floor 10 boss. KATANA KAMI has a surprisingly deep and enjoyable combat system, with different styles having different movelists that unlock as you use the swords more. There's even a perfect parry-counterattack system, though I participate in it mostly on accident, as the only game that has successfully taught me to time parries so far is Sekiro. Being forced to use one for the first time, I find out that the ninja sword style works well with my particular mashy approach to combat (this game has dash cancelling, also, and the faster your sword attacks, the better). I manage to get a small handful of decent items and head back to base, bracing myself for a tough in-game week.

Achievement unlocked!
Great Business

I return to a completely changed overworld. There's gold confetti flying everywhere, and tons of people running in and out of the smithy. Weren't these guys boycotting me? I check the newspaper to figure out what's going on. Turns out, while I was busy adventuring, all the clan heads got drunk on the sake I sent them, and two of them decided to declare war against the third. I squeeze past the growing line of customers and check the smithy's account books. Yesterday's messages along the lines of "you're ugly, you're disgusting, i'm going to kill you" are replaced with "give me 200 swords". And this is on top of all the people lining up to buy swords in person!

Until now, the day phase of the game has been a sort of expanded menu. I go to repair and upgrade my sword, check the newspaper, maybe talk to one or two NPCs, and go to sleep. The real meat of the game happens at night. Now I'm watching dozens of NPCs shuffle in and out of the smithy, bumping into each other the exact same excited way that I did into the skeleton a couple hours ago. A couple of them seemingly get mad at each other, but it doesn't turn into a brawl. I suppose the smithy is a neutral ground, since all three factions are using it for their hardware. The funniest ones are the guys running the stalls outside the smithy, since they don't slow down as they approach their destination. One of them runs right through a two-person-thick queue, bowling all the guys into one another, making a sound like a cornered ragdoll in Half-Life 2.

As I'm looking at these guys run to and fro, I'm reminded of playing DCSS and getting swarmed by enemies. Backing up into a corridor so I only get attacked by two killer bees at once instead of twenty. Seeing something to this tune in the combat log:

-The eleven-headed hydra attacks! (x11)

...and thinking that my next character shouldn't even bother with bladed weapons. I'm associating these with the bustle of the smithy on probably a purely aesthetic basis, but the neurons in my brain are still making these handshakes, so it's real.

I'll probably come back for a second pass of writing about KATANA KAMI: A Way of the Samurai Story once I've spent more time with it. I'm told, spoiler warning, that there are more dungeons after the first one, and I have no idea what happens in those. I don't know what happens once this business boom effect ends (three more days of up-and-to-the-right, boys!). I'm curious how I'll feel about the game once I've spent more time with it. But for now, the parts of my brain that enjoy roguelikes and the parts of my brain that enjoy running around in a dungeon picking up swords are having a fun time together, and I wanted to write it down. In part I am hoping this'll convince more people to try the game out so I can find better conversations about it on the internet (currently there's a "critical bummer" amount of people complaining about the fact that it isn't a proper WotS sequel). For now, I leave you with this excerpt of a steam review - the highlighted part being what convinced me to pick this game up:

"There is some attempt at roguelike elements but again it's kind of pointless because you're not going to even care about the dungeon, the combat, or your loot. Even worse if you use the life insurance to get back the items you lost any traps you can't fit in your inventory will fall on the ground auto-trigger and just kill you <...>"


Okay, one more gameplay diary entry. This one's really funny, promise:

I just found a set of demon horn accessories that would give me +1400 HP, which is huge - every time you go back into the dungeon you start at 300ish. There's a negative effect, though - you also get -2 defense. I'm not yet sure what the number range on defense is yet, so it seems like more than a worthwhile trade-off. I put it on. Suddenly, instead of 700/700 HP, I have 700/2100. All my stamina gets drained into HP and now I'm sitting at roughly 1100/2100 and 0/700. No worries - I go into my inventory to look for some stamina food (it doesn't regenerate on its own). Oops! I only have one daikon. That won't be enough! Oh well, I'm close to the exit, I can probably just go back to the surface. Before I get to test if my attack animations are any different (you slowly lose stamina as you attack, as you might expect), I hear a distant sound and see a pop-up in the lower right.

Tutorial "Death God is Coming" has been added.

Apparently this game has a loose equivalent of classic roguelike hunger/starvation mechanics, something like the ghost in Spelunky, and it's running right at me. Even my 2100 hitpoints are no match for it, and I die. This is also where I discover that to get your items back, you have to make it all the way back to the floor you died on, and fight a doppelgänger wearing all your equipment. In my hubris, I didn't have any good swords saved back at base, so I have to chip away at this guy doing 15-20 a hit. Yes he is wearing the devil horns. Yes I slip on a sea cucumber picking his/mine items up after the prolonged duel.