Demon Slayer has become an anime behemoth. The recent(ish) film had the rare achievement of pulling in over $500 million in the box office, and that is something other beloved anime films like Your Name and even the classic Spirited Away weren’t able to manage. As noted by one post-mortem analysis of that achievement: “Demon Slayer has been praised for its incredible animation, beautifully composed fight scenes, and intricate stories and characters.” In that context, so much could have gone wrong with this game, and it’s a massive achievement on the part of the developers that very little of that eventuated.
The biggest problem that Demon Slayer -Kimetsu no Yaiba- The Hinokami Chronicles faced can be seen in that very quote above: Demon Slayer is notable for beautifully composed fight scenes, and intricate stories and characters. As a developer, when you put the control over the choreography in the hands of the player, you also hand over the choreography duties, and in doing so, you either design gameplay systems that make the combat intricately beautiful in exchange for a level of complexity that most players will find unwieldy, or you build a simple combat engine, and replace the beautiful choreography with simple, repeatable, attack patterns and inputs. The developers at CyberConnect2 have opted for the latter. Demon Slayer plays nicely, and the combat is, for the most part, tight and enjoyable. But it does lose some of the elegance and spectacle of the anime, and while there was little the developers could do to address that, the game does nonetheless feel a little stuff in comparison to the source material.
It’s a 3D brawler that takes place in arena-style areas. Characters have access to regular and special attacks, as well as a couple of additional tactical options, and the block and dodge button. It becomes possible to approach most combat in a button-mashing way (especially once you’ve worked out enemy attack patterns and know how to effectively whittle down their health), but because it’s so fast-paced, and the personality in each character is reflected through their combat style, Demon Slayer at least has a good energy to it. Boss battles occur over multiple “phases” and while this means you only need to work out a handful of dodge and counter-attacks in each phase, it does closely mirror the behaviour of the bosses in the anime itself, so if you’re playing along you find the whole experience authentic.
What the developers absolutely did nail was the spectacle of colour and energy. All the character’s various attacks match the screen-filling, richly detailed attack specials found in the show. Then, at the end of each battle, you’ll get a little QTE to play, which is the developer’s way of wrestling back control for a short period to make sure that those critical final kill scenes match as closely as possible to the elegance of the show. They’re not the most demanding QTEs, but they were never meant to be. They were always there to give players that all-important link to the beauty of the anime itself. CyberConnect2 has been peddling these arena brawlers for quite some time now, so the basics were there, and while the way it has been tweaked to suit the Demon Slayer license is not the deepest or elegant approach, it’s also highly playable. Critically it’s also going to be totally adequate for fans that remember these combat scenes in the anime and use their imaginations to fill in the blanks in the vision.
The other challenge that CyberConnect2 faced was the issue of characters and storylines. Demon Slayer is an action anime property, but at the same time, between the television series and film people have cried. I can’t say why because it is a genuine spoiler, but the strength of the character writing is undeniable it is truly potent. CyberConnect2 has, traditionally, not been up to this standard with its anime licensed games. Usually, the developer is content in using the narrative bits to summarise key moments in the plot before throwing players into the action. While it is fair on the part of the developers to assume that players of these games are fans and therefore already know the plot of the licensed games that they’re playing, the “SparkNotes” approach to storytelling would have been particularly disappointing with Demon Slayer.
Two things save the developer: Firstly, the Demon Slayer anime itself isn’t so long at this point. There’s just one single season and, with the movie thrown in, one really long episode more. Because they haven’t had to deal with dozens and dozens of episodes, the story scenes can cover more of the narrative. It’s still condensed, but I would even suggest that people that haven’t seen the anime will be able to follow along. Secondly, players get plenty of downtime to explore various locations within the Demon Slayer universe. These areas are generally quite limited and have a dearth of things to do, but you have the opportunity to track down little rewards, memory fragments and things (all of which build on the Demon Slayer world), and they give you moments of peace to drink in the vivid settings of the world. Demon Slayer has quite an impressive aesthetic backing it, and for fans of the anime, being able to see the full scope of the spaces where the battles took place does enhance the overall experience of the property.
Unfortunately, there’s just not much beyond this. Yes, there’s a standard Vs. Battle thing, where you can duke it out with most of the major characters that we’ve seen in the anime (and a spin-off) so far, but the combat system just isn’t that well suited to the multiplayer experience. It’s overly simple and, in a human-vs-human context, nowhere near as well balanced as proper fighting games. It works for single player, but I can see anyone – even the most diehard Demon Slayer fan – dropping their favourite Tekkens, Street Fighters, Soulcaliburs and Dead or Alives for it.
This is going to sound like a backhanded compliment, but it’s not intended as such: Demon Slayer -Kimetsu no Yaiba- The Hinokami Chronicles could have been so much worse. An anime that has become this celebrated was always going to deserve more than a copy/paste paint-by-numbers arena brawler, and the team at CyberConnect2 have done well with what I’m sure were significant limitations. There’s respect there, and an understanding that Demon Slayer is more than a mindless series of fights, even if the gameplay system creaks with age and having been used for far too many other anime tie-ins. Mind you, if nothing else, being able to tear demons a new one with Nezuko has been something I’ve been looking forward to from day one with this anime, and if nothing else, CyberConnect2 delivered that.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb