Review: Umihara Kawase

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It’s hard to review games you suck at. For starters, you have to be honest about why you suck at it, whether it be flaws in the game or flaws in yourself. Here I can tell you it’s a little bit of the former and a lot of the latter, because Umihara Kawase is a game that is not shy about its challenge. From the moment you first cast your line and try to swing from or scale an obstacle, you’ll be wrangling tricky physics and perilous drops every step of the way. Even the most basic crossings will make you sweat, and once you see how many levels and paths through them there are, you’ll be wondering what kind of superhuman could even hope to ascend them.

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Umihara Kawase is a young girl and sushi chef, out on a momentous journey to… collect fish to cook, maybe? Her trip takes her to some rather odd collections of floating platforms and doors, populated by giant fish and crustaceans she can stuff into her backpack. She’s wisely brought along a fishing rod for this expedition, which allows her to catch things to stuff into her backpack and also grapple along the many platforms in her way. Depending on how handy she is with her rod, she’ll find many paths through this fever-dream land and face larger and larger sea life that stands in her way. Only by mastering the use of her fishing rod will she have any hope of making it through to the end.

It’s important to note that Umihara Kawase was originally a Super Nintendo game, because it’s going to feel like one of those free Japanese games you downloaded from some untranslated site in the 00’s because your friend heard from a friend on the internet it was good. Everything about this feels impossibly niche, from the tiny resolution to the lack of options to the inscrutable mechanics. There’s a lot that’s never explained here, like why you can reel enemies in and stuff them in your backpack (I will never get over this), or why enemies spawn constantly out of nowhere, or why you have such a tight time limit to get where you’re going. This also isn’t a linear game, with multiple exits out of most levels and virtually no logic to the numbering of levels at all.

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Some folks will no doubt be captivated by all this weirdness, but for everyone else, the gameplay provides the real appeal here. Your little chef can run and jump but her real method of conveyance is her fishing rod, which can be cast in all eight directions and hooks onto any surface or enemy. Once attached it acts like an elastic grapple, swinging and bouncing Umihara hither and thither. Swinging across gaps is the obvious utility here but the springiness of the line can launch her onto all sorts of platforms. You can hook onto conveyors to get carried around, latch onto the undersides of platforms to swing around, and dodge enemies by hooking the floor and leaping away. And of course, you can do away with foes by reeling them in to be consigned to the abyss of your backpack.

Hooking a platform and swinging to safety is a real thrill, and chaining swings together to traverse large portions of the level or skip areas entirely is immensely gratifying. The challenge is gaining a command of your rod that actually allows for that. In my brief time with the game I managed a handful of breathtaking acts, and spent all the other time eating shit. Levels are not designed to be clear or forgiving (and neither are the aggressive enemy spawns) so you have to be ready to experiment and confident in your skills. I am clearly not, since I couldn’t even get past the first boss which had perfectly clear mechanics I couldn’t execute.

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If you want to enjoy Umihara Kawase, you have to be ready to get good at it. This isn’t a game you pick up for a few minutes at a time and play, this is a game where you practice routes and maneuvers until you can execute them on command. The speedrunner crowd can surely have a field day with this, while the rest of us mortals have to consider how much effort getting through these 50 or so levels is. For my part I love the mechanics and the satisfaction of nailing swings, but I’d rather not contend with the eternally-respawning fish and nonsensical level progression. This is a clever, gratifying game that not many people will be able to hang with, and I’d like to imagine I’ll be one of those people someday.

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