I like that a story-packed, dialogue-packed game mixes up a bit of arcade gameplay to keep things fresh. As great as the pure visual novels are, it can sometimes be a challenge to stay engaged after 80 hours of tapping on dialogs. Games like Ace Attorney, Zero Escape, and Danganronpa have perfected the formula for more than a decade — each series blending large amounts of dialogue-driven storytelling with small moments of environment exploration or mini courtroom games. Not many Japanese story games have used bullet hell as their connective gameplay texture, though, which is what makes NIS America’s upcoming release Yurukill: The Calumniation Games so intriguing.
A recent online game preview event gave us a sneak peek at all the elements that make up the narrative-driven shmup experience. At first glance, the story looks like it would be an instant hit with any fan of death-driven sci-fi puzzles like the Zero Escape series. Groups of people find themselves in a mysterious amusement park, whether they want to be there or not. The colorful crowd of participants is divided into pairs, with one being called a “prisoner” while his partner is called an “executioner”.
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The dramatic and bleak twist is that the torturers are victims of past crimes committed by their captive partners – but many prisoners, including protagonist Sengoku Shonjo, swear they never committed these crimes. It all boils down to juggling prisoners and torturers as they hunt heads over their agonizing pasts, while also reluctantly working with (or against) each other to survive the amusement park’s deadly attractions.
The story setting is bizarre, brutal and outrageous – just what you’d expect from lead writer Homura Kawamoto, creator of the hilarious drama gambling series Kakegurui. Out of context, however, the scenes we saw don’t clearly paint a picture of how believable or masterful the writing really is.
In one scene, prisoner Fouta Yamada tries to convince his executioner Kagura Kagutsuchi that Fouta and his brother cannot be the ones who killed Kagura’s ancestors. His undeniable proof? The bloodstain on the murder weapon somehow proves that the killer was an oath, but it appears that Futa and his brother shook hands with them. the left Hands earlier in the game, totally proving that they can’t be the killers. Kagura was shaken by the “revelation”, but I couldn’t help but close my eyes and laugh. It remains to be seen whether this exchange was intentionally filled with holes, a thinly veiled red herring, or whether it was indicative of a larger writing problem in Yurukill.
Conversations and the choice of evidence is only half the battle, though. Fouta and Kagura’s conversation has been broken up multiple times by high-octane top-down shooters, designed by developer J. Reeve, of Daruss of Fame. I’m fond of bullet hell games, but few of them really focus on the narrative. The action here feels fast and challenging, and it also includes some really nice visual options – in one case, the boss’s empty health bar shatters and turns into floating pickups for the player to grab. These scenes reflect style and pace, and even include some non-action-oriented moments like driving your ship to answer a surprising test about Vota’s supposed criminal past.
It’s not entirely clear yet how powerful Yurukill’s writing and dialogue are, but the setting and character design alone got me so excited to delve deeper into the rest of the game. Combining that with amazing-looking Hell chips seems like a recipe for success, so we’ll see how that recipe unfolds when the full game releases on July 5th for PS5, PS4, and Switch.
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