Japanese developer Acquire was on a bit of a tear in the late 90s and early naughties creating some creative and memorable ninja and samurai action games in Tenchu, Shinobido, and Way of the Samurai, but in 2006, they went in a bit of a different direction.
A moral thief with no special attacks, zero explicit violence, and a hint of comedy – all while taking place in the Edo period – their creativity took to the skies in the Japanese-exclusive PS2 title Kamiwaza. Perhaps it was its quirkiness, but it stayed landlocked and painfully ignored until Acquire recently let it spread its wings in a worldwide release under the guise of Kamiwaza: The Way of the Thief.
Chances are you’ve played a stealth game – or two – in your time, but it’s a safe bet that you’ve never played anything quite like this.
Not everyone will be able to escape the fact that ‘it looks like a PS2 game’, as this is essentially the exact same game running on a modern engine with a western translation, with the same shaking character models and inconsistent audio levels remaining unchanged in cutscenes, but you do adapt to it somewhat, largely due to the perfectly acceptable in-game visuals that are as culturally rich as Yakuza: Ishin and Ghost of Tsushima (whose popularity convinced SEGA to give Ishin a western release and likely also influenced Acquire’s decision with Kamiwaza), but also because there are few cinematic scenes in a game that mostly focuses on gameplay.
If you consider what most modern third-person stealth video games have in common, you’d likely think of a chapter-based format or a bespoke linear level design that’s fitted around the story, but with Kamiwaza, you have the early forms of an open-world sandbox where you can choose to be a Robin hood-esque moral-standing thief, a self-serving bastard who steals from everyone, or somewhere in-between.
With your actions measured by these three live status meters, the game actively changes how the world and its characters react to you, and it results in an addictive and immersive experience that’s bundles of fun, despite its admittedly narrow gameplay loop and limited map size.
As Ebizo, a retired thief, you are forced back into your previous profession as your adopted daughter becomes afflicted by a grave illness that requires serious cash to cure, but as he begins on this journey, he and the former members of his ‘Noble Thief’ clan sees him embroiled in something much larger than himself.
Earning money is done by taking on and completing missions, stealing anything not nailed down in your peripheral vision, or robbing anyone in sight, but it’s no walk in the park, as the town of Mikado is an active and interwoven world, with Ebizo’s actions affecting the health of his daughter, the public’s approval of the so-called ‘noble thief’, and also the guards and police’s awareness of him.
While you can choose how you prioritize these three constantly updating elements, you will still need to make sure that they don’t worsen too much if you don’t want to risk starting over from scratch.
Fail to give medicine to your daughter and she might die; a desperately low public rating will have them berating you in cutscenes, and wildly high enemy awareness will have guards see through your disguise and arrest you when you go home (the first and third of which cause game over screens). Individually they are effective, but these systems really start to work their magic when interacting with each other, such as getting encouragement from a loving public as you are being pursued by guards, or them ratting you out to get you captured.
It’s a demanding balancing act that can seem like plugging endless leaks, but as you earn more money and learn the intricacies of the mechanics, you can get on top of the tasks and choose which to focus on, which after the adrenaline rush of being on your toes to keep them all in check, provides clarity in the chaos and is tremendously satisfying.
It’s also an incredibly immersive experience that I never quite wanted to leave, as the UI and the world – with NPCs that follow a day and night cycle – are constantly changing, meaning that your success rate is affected by numerous factors, and with a clear focus on what needs to be done – like a management sim in some regards – I never felt compelled to stop, leading to Kamiwaza being one of the few games that motivated me to play literally all day without getting bored – a rarity for someone that reviews video games.
Your deeds – or misdeeds, perhaps – are focused around a moral code, and with the goal of completing them with ninja-like precision, Kamiwaza‘s gameplay is all about avoiding detection, but there is a comedic twist to the gameplay which has a host of amusing distractions, dodges and even efforts to temporarily knock out the enemy with cartoonish violence – such as kicking your shoulder bag football-style directly at the enemy to knock them over or stealing all their money to make them faint.
One of the most impressive aspects of the game is how effortlessly the combo system works without any explicit violence or impressive kill scenes – Western developers, please take note.
Perfectly timing a dodge just as you enter an enemy’s view avoids their gaze while also opening a short window of opportunity to launch a combo of thefts of either items or money, while also being able to add style points from extra dodges of other enemies in between. This carries risk though as it requires you to dodge immediately after entering an enemy’s view, which if unsuccessful, will cause the guard to attack, call reinforcements and ultimately attempt to capture and imprison you.
Pulling off epic escapes by dodging multiple enemies in a small room to ‘borrow’ the desired item and disappearing without a trace is hard to achieve, even more so if you get greedy and wish to get a combo, but remaining as undetected as a mouse’s fart in church while redistributing the wealthy’s ill-gotten gains is just too much fun.
It’s also implemented in a very simple but effective manner, with essentially only two buttons required, but the variety of your actions depends on your position within the environment you are interacting with, with a great many ways to hide, such as in gutters, shimmying up or hugging walls, being able to dive into a surprisingly large number of buildings or closets via sliding doors or distracting enemies with items such as paintings (which only work certain age ranges depending on its appeal), lulling them to sleep with a music box or surprising them with fireworks.
From the outside looking in, you might think that the only thing this game has to offer is going from A to B and stealing something, but the developer has added an embarrassment of riches to make for a deep experience that differs each time. The list of features and tiny little details that aid this approach goes on and on. Even your disguise, as well as the bag slung over your shoulder to carry your spoils, has stats and different situations in which they need to be used.
Second playthroughs carry over your accrued wealth and items – as well as unlocking cheat codes, remember those? – which means you are able to experience the game in completely different ways as you now have a head start on your tasks and it allows you to have a different experience each time. In addition, there are four story paths and endings depending on your actions and status meters that become locked once the story has progressed to a certain point in the game, so there is a huge amount of replay value here for those wishing to see everything Kamiwaza has to offer.
Fashionably late to the party, Kamiwaza: The Way of the Thief is a beautiful outlier, and timeless classic that serves as a great reminder on how to create addictive action gameplay in an excellently adaptive and immersive world, despite its narrow focus. Granted, it is a barebones re-release, which does a disservice to those experiencing it for the first time, but I cannot recommend this game enough – the period, the stealth gameplay – it’s brilliant quirky fun that cannot be found in modern genre titles and has to be experienced to be believed.