Review copy provided by publisher via Curator Connect
Japanese folklore is loaded with strange and fascinating creatures. From demons who can be defeated with beans to flying-head vampires, they run the gamut from hilarious to horrifying. Yōdanji hopes to fall somewhere in the middle, stuffing a bunch of bizarre spirits known as yokai into a traditional roguelike structure of exploration and death. It’s an inspired idea that could get a lot of mileage out of its unique characters, if it had any sort of depth or balance to match.
There’s unfortunately no story to hook on here (probably their first mistake), just an assortment of folklore critters and a dungeon to send them into. Yōdanji has 20+ yokai to play as but they must be unlocked by finding scrolls in the Yokai Hunt mode, essentially a finite, collection based version of the game’s Endless mode. Each floor of the dungeon has items to find and enemy yokai to battle, hopefully granting you enough power to overcome the greater challenges on lower floors. You’ll have to rely on your chosen yokai’s skills to see you through, and leveling them up will be key to victory.
Your skills are essential, in fact, because there’s barely any other depth to the combat. Levels in Yōdanji are mostly featureless except for obstacles like boulders or trees, and none of the characters are designed to take advantage of them. Most yokai are melee fighters, and while there are plenty of status effects they’re the common can’t move/can’t act/take damage ones that provide no tactical complexity. That leaves your skills to do the big damage and grant what few new combat options there are, but I can tell you after an hour of playing the base classes that you’re going to find an ideal 1-2 punch of skills and just use that forever and ever. Oh, and you don’t level up normally, but instead track down a will-o-wisp enemy on every floor that gives you a skill point for killing it. That means combat is meaningless except to gate off access to places you need to go.
The other kicker here is that combat hardly lasts long enough for any kind of tactics anyway. Your health is usually going to be measured in single digits and regular attacks can do up to 4 damage, so most fights are resolved in a scant two turns. This also means effects like paralysis and merely being outnumbered can easily be the kiss of death in a single turn, and indeed all my deaths in the last half-dozen attempts have been in one of those manners. Yōdanji may bill itself as a coffee-break roguelike but you can’t afford to flub a single move here, which may be more stress than you prefer over your French roast.
Items play an important role here, but their design still lends itself more to irritation than interest. Powders can heal you or provide powerful effects, and charms held in your inventory take the place of equipment by imparting key boosts like defense or attack bonuses. But your inventory is limited to five items, and you also need food items to keep from starving to death as you explore. Most of your journey is going to be spent juggling items and guessing whether healing or buffs will be more important in the near future, and often being wrong. Worse still is that the three scrolls you need in Yokai Hunt mode to unlock a new character also take up space, so the further in you get the less valuable inventory space you have to work with.
I’ve tried over a dozen times to unlock even a single character in Yokai Hunt with no luck, and even on the easier difficulty I can’t get more than one scroll before death claims me. I’d be more inclined to keep trying if there were any variety to the combat, or any interesting levels to explore, or any story to follow, or any interesting use of the source material at all. There are so many cool things you could do with Japanese creatures of myth, but here they’ve been boiled down to 8-bit sprites you mash against each other until they die or you get bored and give up. And considering how little there is to appreciate here, it’s probably going to be the latter.