You’ll know if GetsuFumaDen is for you about 15 minutes in, when you’re stabbing a giant skeleton in the heart hanging loosely from its chest, triggering an inky explosion that briefly obscures the entire screen. If you’re like me, you won’t be completely clear on what you just did to so effectively whip that skeleton’s ass, but you’ll know you sure as shit want to do it again.
I’ve killed that skeleton half a dozen times now, but even so I’ve just barely started making progress in GetsuFumaDen. It’s a roguelite, similar to games like Hades and Rogue Legacy, where you’ll gradually unlock and improve your weapons and abilities in between runs. GetsuFumaDen doesn’t have any of Hades’ fantastic storytelling to keep you playing (at least not at launch in Early Access), but one thing they do have in common is striking artwork.
GetsuFumaDen is frequently stunning. Like Capcom classic Okami it pulls heavily from Japanese ukiyo-e art, adding heavy black outlines to the 3D graphics to make it look hand-drawn.
The visual effects that pop out of katana combos or a charged up gauntlet smash make each hit especially satisfying, though they occasionally make it hard to actually see what the enemies you’re pounding on are doing. I’ve taken one or two frustrating hits that way (they’re still so cool, though). But it also took me a couple hours to start absorbing how I should be approaching enemies—GetsuFumaDen has some very basic tutorials that don’t do a very good job of naturally teaching you that you can parry enemy attacks with a perfectly timed hit of your own, stunning them and opening them up to a combo.
Taking advantage of that parry is as important as dodging, and so is activating your ‘demonic’ form by comboing enemies repeatedly without taking damage. I expect within a few days of release, skilled players will be tearing through entire levels without letting their powered-up demon form expire.
Moment-to-moment, GetsuFumaDen isn’t brutally difficult. Enemies in the first couple stages telegraph their attacks well, your dodge has a generous invulnerability window, and the game quickly loads you up with primary and secondary weapons to pick from. The secondaries are mostly ranged weapons like bows and bombs and kunai that help soften up enemies before you get in close. Actually making progress with this game’s roguelite upgrade systems, though, feels punishing.
One of the things that made Hades so beloved last year was its generosity. Every death meant you were bringing back some kind of material to upgrade your character or your attributes. Just using particular weapons or gear let them grow stronger. You could upgrade your home and flesh out multiple relationships between runs. GetsuFumaDen looks to have a complex upgrade system, with unlockable buffs on dozens of weapons, but heavy resource costs to use them.
In this game, when you die, you lose virtually everything you’re carrying, sending you back home empty handed. In about two hours of play, I didn’t collect enough resources to do a single weapon upgrade or advance my character’s stats or ‘secret arts’ at all.
It’s a frustrating choice for a roguelite. I want to keep playing, stretching to reach the next stage and the next boss, but if I do that every time I’ll never earn the resources I need to power up. Die, and you only get to keep a paltry one of each resource you accrue. You can only retreat back home and keep your resources after beating the boss at the end of a stage, which I guess means GetsuFumaDen wants you to grind the first level over and over again, or expects you to be able to breeze through multiple stages before you weigh the risk of dying. It only took me two tries to beat the second boss, but I’m not crazy about the choice between repeating those beginning stages ad nauseum or making no progress.
I don’t mind games carrying heavy risk, but the penalty here really turns what should be an exciting cycle of new unlocks into the kind of drip you’d only be satisfied with if you were lost in a vast cave and relying on three droplets of water from a stalactite per day to stay alive.
I expect Konami will make some big changes to how you accrue resources shortly after GetsuFumaDen’s launch, and I’m looking forward to seeing it evolve. It’s out in Early Access on Thursday, with a full release planned for 2022. The basic combat here already feels (and looks) really good, and I have a feeling I could really get invested in upgrading each weapon and finding the pairings that fit me best. I had a revelation in one run, using the quick-hitting fan to rapidly enter demon form, then switching to a heavy club to dish out some big hits. And tell me this isn’t the best umbrella ever put in a videogame.
GetsuFumaDen is a pleasant surprise in a crowded genre. There are so many games out there, like Dead Cells, that do this basic thing very well, but GetsuFumaDen’s art style and weapon system grabbed me from the jump. It’s a bizarrely deep cut—this is actually a remake of a game from 1987—but hey, it works.
And there’s also something joyous in seeing the Konami logo again. Since the release of Metal Gear Solid 5, Konami largely switched focus to making pachinko and gambling games. It was never true that Konami quit making traditional videogames altogether, but outside PES and Yu-Gi-Oh and its arcade rhythm games, it really has been a quiet few years. I don’t know if we’ll ever see another Metal Gear-sized game from Konami again, but if the company makes more games as promising as GetsuFumaDen, that’s just fine with me.