Sometimes a game’s concept sounds too good to be true: a combination of a developer, a setting and a story that sounds absolutely perfect together, so much so that you know deep down that something must not be quite right with it. Akaneiro was that for me. A combination of the wonderful developers at Spicy Horse (creators of Alice: Madness Returns), the story of Little Red Riding Hood and a setting of feudal Japanese. It sounded fantastic. Throw in the fact it’s free to play and that the actual gameplay is an Action RPG akin to something like Diablo or Torchlight and it just keeps sounding better and better. But then it falls flat due to some outdated and simply bad design choices.
Let’s get it out of the way first, the main issue Akaneiro has is how it handles its free to play model. Free to play games are far from uncommon these days and over the last few years developers have struggled to find a happy medium between progressing in game and needing to pay. Akaneiro’s choices feel very outdated in this respect. There are several areas in the game with a small handful of missions in each one and a level cap associated with each area. To start with you can reach level 4, but once you hit that cap you need to unlock the next area to raise up to 8 and so on. These areas are unlocked using a currency called Karma.
You collect Karma from killing enemies and destroying containers and opening chests as you would expect from a game of this style, and that’s all fine. However, Karma is also used for buying new weapons/armour (although like Diablo or Torchlight you’ll find most of this via loot dropped by enemies), pets that upgrade your stats, items to give you temporary buffs and most bizarrely your skills are all bought via Karma rather than gained through leveling up. The result of this strange design is a whole lot of grinding. Every time you decide to unlock a new skill you’re forced to grind more to unlock the next area of the game and vice versa. If you are struggling with an area and need a buff, that’s more Karma gone. It’s an odd balancing act that I feel does not work very well at all, forcing the player to grind a lot to gain enough Karma to progress either their character or the story or spend money to buy a bunch of Karma.
What makes this archaic model so hard to stomach is that the core gameplay itself just isn’t that great. There’s some strange collision issues with the combat that makes it never feel quite as solid as you’d like. The skills you can upgrade are generic powers that you’ve seen in every other one of these types of games (Surprise, there’s an Area of Effect attack where you blast all the enemies nearby away from you!) and then there’s the enemy AI.
The enemy AI has a strange habit of getting confused when you hit them and not knowing whether to continue attacking you or run away, causing it to turn around, take a couple of steps back then stop and turn to attack you again. There are other AI bugs too, but this is the most common, and one of the most annoying.
There are some incredibly promising parts of Akaneiro however, and it even makes some interesting additions to the genre. The biggest one I saw was the AI controlled co-op, which is handled in a similar manner to Dragon’s Dogma, where the game pulls an AI controlled version of a player’s character and makes them into your co-op buddy. While true online co-op has been promised in the future for the game, this is definitely a good replacement for now, especially if you are the kind of person who prefers to play alone. There also seems to be no limitations on summoning a co-op buddy (it’s one of the few things not being charged for with Karma) so you’ll want to be summoning one before every mission.
Attempts have been made in the design to make the grinding feel less repetitive, but the overall lack of content in each area makes these ultimately fall flat. The methods used are smart however; every mission has a threat level which goes up over time after you’ve finished the mission (based on real time, not gameplay time.) As the threat level raises more and stronger enemies will show up in that mission when you play it and the more experience you’ll get from finishing the mission. If the threat level is lower however, you’ll gain less experience but be rewarded with better chances of finding good loot. It’s a smart concept that would work better if each area had more missions. Right now you’re still going to be grinding four or so missions to unlock the next four which just isn’t fun. And of course if you can use Karma to raise or lower the threat level at a whim.
What’s really confusing about Akaneiro is why exactly it’s marketed as being based on the Red Riding Hood story but with a feudal Japanese twist. As far as I can tell there is absolutely no relation to the story at all (except there being a lot of wolves as enemies.) In fact, there’s not much in the way of a story in the game at all beyond “Kill those bad guys over there.” In many ways this is one of the most disappointing parts of Akaneiro, considering how well Spicy Horse have handled twisting stories such as Alice in Wonderland in the past. The Japanese setting works well on the other hand. While there are very few Red Riding Hood story hooks the story definitely leans into the Japanese mythology a lot more prominently. The art style too is based on a Japanese watercolour style and ends up looking absolutely gorgeous and reminiscent of games such as Okami.
One of the benefits of the free to play model Spicy Horse are using is that they can incrementally improve the game over time. The developers have already promised more areas to unlock with higher level caps and online multiplayer and a crafting system are coming and some core aspects of the game have already changed throughout development showing that they aren’t afraid of changing things up to improve the game. If the combat was polished up to be better and perhaps skills made to be unlockable through experience instead of being bought, Akaneiro’s grind may actually be sustainable. So in the future, Akaneiro: Demon Hunters may be a great free to play dungeon crawling ARPG. For now, it’s simply an average one.
6 karma-fueled skills out of 10