In a win for retro RPG fans everywhere, Japanese cult-classic Kowloon High-School Chronicle finally got itself a western release this year to PlayStation 4, 18 years after its Japan-only PS2 release. Impressive is it not only in the length of time it took but also that this title managed to sustain its popularity to justify a release at all.
It might come as surprise then that you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who had heard of this title outside the retro scene – I certainly hadn’t. One potential reason for this soon became apparent though, as a confused title with multiple themes and bland gameplay dull its potential and renders it quite a niche offering.
The story centers around a member of a treasure-hunting group who joins Kamiyoshi Academy undercover in order to delve into the secrets of the mysterious ruins hidden inside the school’s cemetery. As your classmates discover the protagonist’s/your secret they join you on your quest to uncover the bad deeds of the Student Council (why is it always the Student Council that gets up to no good?) who are also linked to the mysterious disappearances of students over the past few months.
With this narrative facilitating meddling kids and Scooby Doo whodunnits it’s about as standard as the visual novel medium comes – and is actually quite good – but the addition of retro first-person grid-based dungeon-exploring and an Indiana Jones theme begins to confuse the issue as they are barely integrated, which gives the game a very tacked-on impression.
None of this is obvious at the beginning though – as you are introduced to everything with as much finesse as a bull in a china shop – and it’s instead the incredibly basic visuals that call back to the original PC dungeon adventure games that make the biggest first impression. For a game that had all its visuals remade from the ground up for this re-release, you’d think they could have at least tried to make the visuals a bit more appetizing rather than choosing stock photos for backgrounds and very monotonous cluttered designs.
I’ve always found it amusing when people go overboard about certain font types and their usage, but Kowloon might just have converted me over to the dark side, with a font that definitely should have been consulted over.
The story progresses day-by-day through character interactions and it is this element out of the entire game that I enjoyed the most, with character relationships that you feel in control of. Sadly, however, no two interactions with the game are particularly well-designed, and even the strong discourse that has a decent number of selectable conversation options is hindered by poorly-translated and barely-explained interfaces.
The conversation choice menu, for example, has four categories each with two degrees of strength that allows you to run the gamut of emotions as you converse and if you build your relationship enough with that particular character they can then become an option to select as one of your dungeon partners.
It’s a nice system that occasionally falls foul of the same issue as LA Noire‘s conversation options as choosing from fixed concepts can lead to some unexpected responses, but overall it works well and is a system that gives the game some replay value. Sadly, translation issues creep in with this feature with a font that is horrific at best and a rough translation of the original text that makes their use quite unclear. Even the name of the game is translated confusingly, as it has nothing to do with the Hong Kong area of Kowloon – with the game is based in a fictional Tokyo – and is simply the direct translation of ‘nine dragons’ from the Japanese title.
Representing the other half of the gameplay, the 3D dungeoning is a mix of classic grid-based retro exploring and combining of items to solve puzzles to progress down into the lower floors of the ruins. When rooms are filled with 2D enemies, you are launched into turn-based battles where you can shoot or slash the enemies with manual targeting controls.
It’s an interesting mix of genre elements, but it’s too shallow and unsatisfying for my tastes as other than the boss battles, spamming the attack button on an adjacent tile pretty much suffices. Also, as the dungeon-crawling gameplay takes place in one overall ruin, you need to return to the same rooms over and over, forcing you to remember where that locked door was and is not too enticing for the modern gamer in me.
I’ll admit that my general distaste for adventure/RPG puzzles also comes to the fore here as you find yourself having to hunt for specific items to combine, failing over and over again as you try endless combinations to get the required one. Unless it is specifically a puzzle game, I’ll never understand why video games feel the need to include them as additional gameplay to something larger as they so rarely fit the context of the game. I guess I can blame Indiana Jones for convincing an entire generation that it’s a good thing.
It gets to the point where you’ll wonder if the game is poking fun at itself with its cheeseball quality, as its mundane jazz soundtrack is far too loud and out of place, stealing tension entirely from scenes its pervading and its remaining features, such as a map that allows you to pick-up random objects, add very little.
There’s even a detective visual novel that can be accessed in the menu – with no explanation why or for what purpose it’s included – and it neatly encapsulates the entire game for me, as a contrasting feature that’s poorly integrated, but by itself is not half-bad.
On one hand, the fact that Kowloon High-School Chronicle has made it out to the west is quite the result, but with nearly every feature either outdated or improved upon in genre games since, this cult classic has not aged gracefully, and might just prove a little too ‘retro’ for those bar the niche audience it’s aimed at.