Thursday, November 11, 2021

Learn Japanese to Survive! Kanji Combat

I was completely unaware, until recently, that there existed RPGs that served also as educational tools for the different character sets of the Japanese language: hiragana, katakana, and kanji, although I just so happened to discover them on Steam, and thus purchased the trilogy whose games instructed one in each, which surprisingly eluded coverage from even RPG-centric websites. I definitely didn’t regret my purchase, given my continued quest to make sense of Japanese, and I also got some practice writing the characters of each language set. The third and final game in the trilogy, Learn Japanese to Survive! Kanji Combat of course focuses on the language’s kanji derived from Chinese, and those in particular with little exposure to the tongue will definitely get something out of it.

Kanji Combat occurs chronologically after Hiragana Battle and Katakana War, with references to the game’s predecessors sprinkled occasionally throughout the dialogue, and focuses on a student who travels to Japan to experience the country’s culture and language, with several companions acquired along the way also seeking instruction in the enigmatic tongue. Early on, the cities of Japan disappear, with the party needing to visit an alternate dimension in order to restore them to the real world. The story does have some derivative elements, such as a similarity to Actraiser with the village-building portion, there are misspellings in the text, oddities such as sidequest duck characters all named Duck, and there’s a bit of a deficit of vocabular kanji combinations, although the affection events gained from repeated use of characters in combat, not to mention the developed main ending, somewhat compensate for the narrative foibles.

Throughout the game, Hana regularly teaches the party new kanji, including their stroke order, meaning, and on’yomi/kun’yomi readings. Remembering these is critical to success in battle against the kanji-based antagonists, where the player has to guess the correct kanji readings or kanji that represent adversarial meaning to damage foes individually; incorrect answers result in some characters to the character who gets the reading or meaning incorrect. Characters also obtain magic spells that can perform useful things such as increasing one party member or everyone’s stats, or kill a random individual/multiple kanji enemies, the latter I found particularly useful against mobs of foes.

As in turn-based RPGs such as Final Fantasy X, characters take their turns depending upon agility and execute their commands immediately after input, although a gauge showing turn order like in Katakana War showing player and enemy turn order is oddly missing. Furthermore, even though overall party size can go well beyond the maximum combat participants of four, there is the inability to swap characters out during battle, which would have been handy given that many allies have skills mostly specific to them, and a more organized listing of attacks written in kun’yomi would have spared constantly having to peruse the characters’ lists. Despite these issues, fights generally flow decently, and combat is both fun and educational.

Another factor in the game mechanics is that the player can use kanji orbs gained from exterminating enemies to rebuild and upgrade the hub town, similar to the gameplay of Actraiser. Facilities include a library where the player can access vocabulary lessons unlocked when they have learned certain kanji, shops to purchase items, weapons, armor, and accessories, a fountain to exchange kanji orbs for others of different types, a treehouse where the player can fight supplemental enemies, and a shrine where characters can pay to get temporary boosts in combat. Characters can also unlock affection events the more players use them in battle, with additional stat increases unlocked at the first, third, and fifth levels. Generally, the gameplay engine comes together nicely.

Control has some positive aspects, such as the standard ability to see stat increases or decreases with the purchase of new equipment, item descriptions, an equip-best option for each character’s weapon, armor, and accessory, skippable cutscene dialogue, clear direction on where to travel next even for the sidequests, and a save-anywhere feature, among other things. There are issues, however, such as the inability to skip cutscenes as a whole, some points of no return, particularly when kanji monsters invade the hub town, no opportunity to equip weapons, armor, and accessories when purchasing them, the lack of maps for dungeons, and that the player has to view playing time on the save menu, although things could have certainly been worse.

The strongest aspect of Kanji Combat is its soundtrack, largely rivaling those of JRPGs, with just about every track being solid. There is voice acting as well, although the quality is somewhat inconsistent, and there is a weird dinging sound when transitioning between areas, but the music largely compensates for the other weaknesses of sound.

The visuals are superficially decent, strongest in battle with well-designed kanji monsters whose font is definitely interpretable, and the well-proportioned character sprites, although attacks, as in prior games in the trilogy, is still telekinetic on part of both sides, and the field graphics still use chibi character sprites that don’t show emotion. Cutscenes also contain narration by anime-style character portraits that look decent for the most part, although there are some instances, particularly during critical story scenes, where the style of scenes sometimes mars the narrative experience. In the end, the graphics aren’t great, but certainly could have been worse.

Finally, the game is short like its predecessors, taking somewhere from sixteen to twenty-four hours to complete, with little in the way of lasting appeal since the player can accomplish everything there is to do within the game in one playthrough.

Overall, Kanji Combat is a competent educational RPG that hits some of the right notes with regards to its solid strategic educational gameplay mechanics, the clear story direction, the great soundtrack, and the nice art direction. However, it does stumble with regards to a few areas of its control, the somewhat-derivative plot, the lack of polish at times for the visuals, and general absence of lasting appeal. However, those who enjoyed the game’s precursors seeking to sharpen their skills with the kanji character system of Japanese will definitely get good value, and as a student of the language, I very much found it to be a decent refresher.

The Good:
+Nice educational mechanics.
+Clear direction on how to advance.
+Great soundtrack.
+Solid art direction.

The Bad:
-Control could have been better.
-Some derivative story elements.
-Visuals could have used more polish.
-Little lasting appeal.

The Bottom Line:
A competent educational RPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Steam
Game Mechanics: 8.0/10
Controls: 6.0/10
Story: 6.0/10
Music/Sound: 8.5/10
Graphics: 6.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 5.0/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 16-24 Hours

Overall: 6.5/10

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