Kowloon High-School Chronicle is a mad grab-bag of a game. Half Tomb Raider and half Japanese high school simulator lovingly joined together with all of the precision and grace of Jeremy Clarkson with a chainsaw and prit-stick.
You play as Kuro Habaki, a member of a treasure hunting society bent on recovering lost artefacts from an ancient advanced civilization (think proto-space suits and that skull from the Indiana Jones film we don’t talk about). By day you’ll be talking your way through high school drama, avoiding the pitfalls of being the new kid in class and building relationships with your classmates. By night you’ll be working for your society, exploring the ruins below the school with the classmates you can convince to come along, hunting for treasure, solving puzzles and fighting the creatures who protect it.
The tomb raiding sections are honestly superb, it feels like a cross between James Bond and Indiana Jones. It’s a fairly standard dungeon crawler, where you navigate through a linear series of chambers to get to your objective. To pass through a room you’ll need to solve a puzzle written on a giant stone tablet. These are relatively simple but written a little cryptically, so you feel smart when you solve the puzzle but don’t have an awful lot of difficulty in doing so – like you’re bowling with the barriers up but the barriers are invisible and the bowling ball is made of knowledge. The puzzles are along the lines of ‘When the row of nether gods face south from the sunrise, an island to the heaven surfaces’ – meaning you need to face a set of Anubis statues away from an image of the sun to raise a platform to allow you to cross some water.
Intermixed with the puzzle-solving is some tasty RPG turn-based combat. After all, these tombs aren’t undefended. Creatures have made the labyrinthine chambers their home and the ancient civilisations left mechanisms to defend their treasures. You have a series of starter weapons that you aim manually like a first-person shooter: a knife, a gun and grenades, all managed stamina bar that determines how much you can use each of them within a turn. The enemy has a similar system on their turn. Then it’s a simple matter of killing the enemy before they kill you – easy. Or, when the enemy happens to be a nightmare scorpion (regular readers may know I have a significant phobia), it’s time to dock the Switch and play through squinted eyes from another room – less easy.
The other part of the game is less superb. And, much like Sakura Wars, another Japanese game I reviewed for this site which is a mix of RPG action with relationship building and talking, the balance of those two sections is skewed significantly towards the talking, meaning that the fun tomb raiding and RPG fighting in Kowloon High-School Chronicle is the minor part of the game, and you have to sit through a lot of high school nonsense to get to it. I accept this is a strange criticism for a game that promises to be a high school simulator in its title, but I was excited to have my expectations subverted in the opening tomb raiding section, only for the game to whip the rug out from under me and revert rapidly to type.
Through this section you’ll be chatting with other high-school students, mostly women as it’s one of those games where you build ‘relationships’ with the characters with which you interact. The main way of influencing the game in these sections is through dialogue options where you choose one of nine different emotions you wish to convey in your response. I find this system quite awkward for two reasons, firstly the word for the emotion is written in a cryptic and difficult to read font, meaning the first few choices I made I had no idea what I was doing or what the symbols were showing, and secondly because the emotion word doesn’t give a lot of information about what you’re going to say, meaning you’re mostly working with guesswork. It’s much like the dialogue choices in Fallout 4 that drew a lot of criticism. I didn’t see much reason to not choose ‘Joy’ every time and maintain a positive and friendly attitude with everyone.
On top of that, there are a few quality of life issues. The movement controls are different from every other game you’ve played: left and right turn you 90 degrees, back turns you 180 degrees and forward moves you forward – so you have to spin to the direction you want to go and then go forward. It’s not inherently awful but takes some getting used to.
The other thing is the HANT system, which is basically the Pip-Boy from Fallout. It announces useful information about combat: when your turn is over, what you have selected, that sort of thing. Except it’s in Japanese by default, with no subtitles when the rest of the game is in English. So a random Japanese lady is yelling at you when you’re already in a high-pressure combat situation. At least until you go and change it to English in the menus. The HANT also launches a little tutorial piece of text whenever you find something new in the game, for example, the first time you have to jump. This takes control away from you and takes a least 10 seconds to navigate itself through the menu to give you the tutorial. This gets frustrating after a few times, especially as you can’t skip it and it’s giving you unnecessary and obvious information. It’s like the game desperately doesn’t want you to experiment or work anything out for yourself.
Kowloon High-School Chronicle lost me with its title, won me with its opening action sequence and lost me again with its high school simulating. If you like a high school sim, Kowloon High-School Chronicle might be the perfect game for you, with the simulation broken up with some brilliant RPG puzzle and combat sections, all driven by a genuinely interesting premise. However, if, like me, you’re not a fan of the genre, Kowloon High-School Chronicle is unlikely to win you over and may feel disappointing when there are some generally fun nuggets of gameplay buried in with all the rest.