Yurukill: The Calumniation Games is a game you won’t see coming.
The best way to describe it would be to imagine the Ace Attorney series, the Zero Escape series and a shmup having a baby, but even then, you’ll probably still be blindsided by it.
Similar to Squid Game where competitions can lead to some rather grave situations, a group of murderers with dubious convictions are taken against their wishes to the amusement park from hell, Yurukill Land, and are forced to team-up with the victims of their crimes and compete, with the promise that the winning team would have their crimes exonerated and wishes granted, while the losers suffer a more unpleasant fate.
Rather than being a bloodbath, this is more a PG-13 campy anime thriller, which, like riding a rollercoaster in the pitch black, aims to surprise you at every possible turn.
Each fabricated stage replicates the pair’s own crime scene, having huge implications for their cases with new evidence coming to light. The ‘prisoners’, who all emphatically profess their innocence, will do anything to learn more about the true culprits, while the victims vehemently wish for said prisoners to admit their guilt. As further motivation for the prisoners to follow the victims’ wishes, the victims, or so-called ‘executioners’, are all given the ability to end the life of the prisoners at any time via a metal tag around their necks.
It’s a story that likes to keep its cards to its chest, but as the plot thickens and the stress heightens for the participants, the characters’ vulnerabilities and tragic backstories reel you in and I found myself invested in most of the characters and their motivations.
As a Japanese-voiced (with English subtitles) visual novel, the player ‘controls’ one-half of each of the 4 murderer/victim pairs in point-and-click puzzle investigations which eventually lead to VR-like vertical shoot ’em up battles.
If that wasn’t enough, after defeating the ship of your partner, you then launch into Phoenix Wright-esque cross-examinations (which are interfaced to your opponent’s logic and emotions) and produce evidence in an attempt to resolve their disputes, all while still manning their ships in the futuristic interface.
Logically, this makes little to no sense both narratively and in general for a standard genre game, but strangely, it actually works. Admittedly, it’s quite hard to imagine Sherlock Holmes challenging a criminal to a VR shoot ’em up game instead of catching them in the act or handing them over to the police, but even with the negligible link between the two, with desperate characters in do-or-die situations (due to the hold the executioners have over the prisoners), the urgency and high tempo of both the soundtrack and the gameplay matches the mood well.
With visual novels and shmups being two of my favourite genres of games – separately, mind you – due to their ability to take their time in telling a story and providing thrilling gameplay respectively, my biggest concern was not actually the combination of the two, but rather the puzzle sections.
I often find puzzles to be unnecessary inclusions that have zero context and add nothing but filler gameplay to the proceedings, but, thankfully – for the most part – the large number of puzzles (that range from code breaking to pattern recognition) is not only varied but all have a legitimate reason for their existence, aiding the story as it progresses.
Interestingly, the biggest disappointment I had was with the shmup gameplay which relies a lot on the high-stakes nature of the story to carry its shallow gameplay. It’s one thing to provide variety with 4 different ships with different evasive characteristics, but it’s slightly underwhelming when your ‘special’ abilities are less impressive than your standard weapon, essentially reducing the gameplay to holding down ‘X’ and using the left analogue stick to move your ship.
The visuals are decent and there is enough a difficulty to tide over the boss battles during the story, but what this means for the overall game is that despite having a separate score attack mode just for this gameplay style, it’s not enjoyable enough as a standalone feature, with its removal from the context of the story highlighting its weaknesses.
Stuttering transitions between scenes, low frame rate cutscenes, and numerous loading screens are also an issue that plagues the game throughout, and although it is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, as most of the gameplay is in a visual novel format, it is another unfortunate footnote for what is otherwise a brave gamble for the developer.
With enough twists and turns to give you motion sickness, Yurukill: The Calumniation Games is a unique anime visual novel that isn’t afraid to try something new, taking you places you’d least expect. While the shmup gameplay doesn’t particularly hold up its end of the bargain as a standalone feature, as the enjoyable sum of multiple parts, this is a visual novel that genre fans should consider.