Coinciding with the 2020 election, Kitsune Games rose to moderate popularity when the tiny studio released Super Bernie World—a Super Mario World clone endorsing Bernie Sanders—for absolutely no cost. The success of their hilarious and easy-to-play breakthrough title laid a clear foundation for its DLC, Kitsune Zero, which attempts to make improvements upon their classic platforming formula. Notable differences in Kitsune Zero include an overarching story complete with voice acting, a larger variety of levels, and brand new obstacles and enemies. For better and worse, Kitsune Games embraces all of their new ideas while building upon their old ones.
Kitsune Zero’s storyline is brief and feels like it has the potential for some serious character development and world-building. The story centers on Yumi, a young adventurer that fights an evil ogre overlord as she tries to save her boyfriend. There are brief moments where characterization and themes have sudden budding moments of depth, but the game never takes itself seriously enough to expand these ideas into something more intriguing. For example, there are only a couple of moments where Yumi expresses self-awareness about how most adventures center on men fighting for a princess’s safety; in this story, the gender roles have swapped. In response, the next character will say something completely unrelated to keep the narrative moving. Each line of dialogue effectively dismisses any potential humor or clever idea that came before it, making the story basic and forgettable.
The characters in Kitsune Zero, including the narrator, are brought to life by voice acting that borders on being offensive. Overall, the story plays out like a children’s fairy tale, and it would have felt much more organic to keep the characters’ voices realistic or somber, as though reading a book to an infant. Instead, each character becomes a caricature of Japanese culture through comical and overly-enthusiastic voice acting. If the intention was to emulate anime, Kitsune Zero has missed the mark. At one point, after discussing vengeance and battling, Yumi abruptly becomes condescending to her enemy in an obnoxious baby voice. Characters constantly contradict the tone of the dialogue and scene in this way.
Even with all these areas for improvement, the primary concern with Kitsune Zero is that it is far too derivative of Super Bernie World. In fact, the primary twelve levels are completely identical in the two games; they’re essentially the same experience with different skins and themes. Unfortunately, it isn’t until the first twelve levels are complete that players can experience something fresh, and these first dozen levels come with the same baggage and problematic controls as Super Bernie World, which is still free on Steam.
Because of its problematic controls, players will often doubt themselves and the integrity of the level design. For a platforming game to be effective, the developer should build trust with the player through solid, responsive controls and level design that is initially forgiving but increasingly difficult to master. Kitsune Games has provided neither of these experiences with this title. Every jump the player makes has to be with absolute certainty; otherwise, the character will hit their head and come to an abrupt halt mid-air. After each time the character lands, it’s important to wait a second before making the next jump. Otherwise, the button input may not register. The level design too often forces players to make blind jumps that result in death. In the middle of world four, there is a sudden difficulty spike. After a couple of intense levels, the game provides brand new bonus levels, but there is no longer a story associated with the progression. As distracting and weird as the story was, it still provided motivation to make progress.
New enemies, such as sword-throwing samurai based on Super Mario’s hammer brothers, make an appearance. Enemies are clearly derived from Mario but are mostly unfun. Sword throwing is predictable, whereas the hammer brothers offered much more challenge; Goombas and Koopa Troopas will hoist Mario higher after jumping on them, whereas every enemy in Kitsune simply plummets after being bounced upon. Perhaps the biggest issue of all is the unpredictable hitboxes in Kitsune’s adventure. Jumping on top of a character even a pixel off will result in death, ultimately creating a frustrating experience.
Where Kitsune Zero shines is its art direction and character design. Characters are modeled after figures in Japanese folklore. Yumi is obviously based on a kitsune, a type of fox that possesses paranormal abilities. The enemies are modeled after various offenders in Japanese folklore, such as Oni, a kind of ogre or troll. The faithfulness to folklore and presentation of the characters is quite charming and may even be enough to keep some players engaged for multiple playthroughs. Backgrounds are vibrant and dynamic, much like some of the best games of the SNES era. Color palettes for each world complement each other well and help players feel like they’re genuinely playing through distinct parts of these characters’ universe. Clouds complete with facial expressions that are dependent on the tone of the story will move around and behind obstacles in the foreground. Altogether, the game’s visuals are worth appreciating, but they’re not enough to make the entire experience worthwhile.
Kitsune Zero is hitting the market just before its sequel, Kitsune Tails. The DLC is a blatant attempt at marketing its characters prior to a larger release and mostly fails in the process. Despite the thoughtless dialogue, frustrating controls, and lack of originality, the developers have at least put consideration into their art direction. PC gamers itching for a platformer might take an interest in Kitsune Zero, but until its publisher provides some polish, most people would be better off waiting for Kitsune Games’ next release.
Kitsune Zero releases September 12 on PC.
Kitsune Zero is hitting the market just before its sequel, Kitsune Tails. The DLC is a blatant attempt at marketing its characters prior to a larger release and mostly fails in the process. Despite the thoughtless dialogue, frustrating controls, and lack of originality, the developers have at least put consideration into their art direction.