Edelweiss is one of those developers that seemed to have a singular focus: shmups. They started off with Ether Vapor, as well as a “Remastered” version that was surprisingly good considering how it was overlooked. Following it up was Astebreed, another story-heavy shooter that played with perspective even more, keeping the screen filled with ordinance when not telling a science fiction parable that was better written than Ether Vapor’s attempt. How does the Japanese developer follow these two up? With a sidescrolling beat ’em up steeped in Japanese folklore called Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin. That’s not a bad thing.
Playing the E3 demo of Sakuna does bring to mind Vanillaware’s Muramasa: The Demon Blade. Both draw inspiration from Japanese legends using an art style that combines modern anime trappings with an aesthetic drawn from historical paintings and woodcarvings. They are also both sidescrollers that rely on stylish combos and platforming to dominate the monsters that infest the land. They both play entirely differently, though, once the controller is in hand. Muramasa seemed to encourage button mashing to string together combos with ridiculously high numbers. Sakuna expects the player to learn and master the controls to succeed.
When starting off with the short floor demo, the heroine can use the basic weak, strong, and special attacks that are to be expected in a game of this type. Stringing them together wasn’t a simple matter, though. After laboriously defeating a couple of minor enemies of sword swipe at a time, a booth attendant let me in on the secret: a grappling hook-like scarf. Using this, I was able to grab the enemies, slam them into the ground and bounce them into the air for a juggle, pull myself close for some close up pugilism, toss them into stalagmites, and more. Pretty soon, I was zipping across the screen, finding some hidden areas, and just having a grand time with the system.
The way the controls work is absolutely the best thing about how Sakuna works. Again, drawing upon Muramasa as a comparison point because I like the game so much, the combo system was incredibly simple. The two heroes of that title required little effort to control by design. In contrast, Sakuna requires more skill. We’re not talking Dark Souls levels of precision, and the inputs are all immediate and logical, but it expects the player to understand what move they are making next and why. Failure to not engage in care will see the player flung past their target and into some spikes. This difference is fantastic. Beating the tar out of the monsters, including an inspired giant frog/tree hybrid that served as the demo’s boss, meant using the options provided to their fullest, which makes the player feel more badass than they really are.
This isn’t even bringing into account the other features that the game will showcase, including a full length fantasy story, crafting and farming, with the fruits of the farming labor going towards character improvement. Unfortunately, these elements weren’t shown during the floor demo. That’s okay, though. With the combat system that Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin has shown off in the demo, I am eager to jump in and experience much, much more. There just doesn’t seem to be any way tossing screaming beasts into a pit can get old.