I love when a story-driven, dialogue-heavy game mixes in just a bit of arcade gameplay to keep things fresh. As incredible as pure visual novels can be, it’s sometimes a challenge to stay engaged after 80 hours of tapping through dialogue boxes. Games like Ace Attorney, Zero Escape and Danganronpa perfected the formula well over a decade ago – each series mixes heavy amounts of dialogue-driven storytelling with small moments of environment exploration or court-room minigames. Not many Japanese story games have used bullet hells as their connective gameplay tissue, though, which is what makes upcoming NIS America release Yurukill: The Calumniation Games so intriguing.
A recent online preview event for the game gave us a brisk look at all the elements that make up this narrative-driven shmup experience. At first glance, the story seems like it’ll be an instant hit with any fans of death-game driven sci-fi mysteries like the Zero Escape series. Groups of people find themselves in a mysterious amusement park, whether they want to be there or not. The colourful crowd of participants is split into pairs, with one person being labeled a Prisoner while their partner is labeled the Executioner.
The deliciously grim and dramatic twist is that the Executioners are victims of past crimes committed by their Prisoner partners – but many of the prisoners, including protagonist Sengoku Shunju, swear they never committed these crimes. It all boils down to a juggling act of Prisoners and Executioners butting heads over their traumatic pasts, while also reluctantly working with (or against) each other to survive the amusement park’s deadly attractions.
The story setup is weird, wild, and outrageous – just what you’d expect from head writer Homura Kawamoto, the creator of the ridiculous dramatic gambling series Kakegurui. Out of context, though, the cutscenes we saw don’t clearly paint a picture of how believable or well-crafted the writing might be.
In one scene, Prisoner Futa Yamada attempts to convince his Executioner Kagura Kagutsuchi that Futa and his brother couldn’t have been the ones to murder Kagura’s grandparents. His undeniable proof? The blood-splatters on the murder weapon somehow prove that the killer was right-handed, but apparently Futa and his brother shook hands with their left hands earlier in the game, which totally proves they couldn’t be the murderers. Kagura is left shaken by the “revelation”, but I could only roll my eyes and laugh. It remains to be seen if this exchange was purposefully filled with holes, a thinly veiled red herring, or if it’s an indicator of a larger problem with the writing in Yurukill.
Conversations and evidence selection is only half of the battle, though. Futa and Kagura’s conversation is broken up multiple times by high-octane top-down arcade shooter segments, crafted by developer G.Rev, of Darious fame. I’m a sucker for bullet hell games, but very few of them place any real emphasis on narrative. The action here seems brisk and challenging, and even includes some really impressive visual choices – in once instance, a boss’s emptied health bar shatters and turns into floating pick-ups for the player to grab. These scenes ooze style and speed, and even include some non-action oriented moments like piloting your ship to answer a pop quiz on the history of Futa’s supposed criminal past.
It isn’t quite clear yet how solid the writing and dialogue in Yurukill is, but the setting and character designs alone already have me way too excited to dig into the rest of the game. Combining that with astoundingly polished looking bullet hell segments feels like a recipe for success, so we’ll see just how that recipe turns out when the full game releases on July 5th for PS5, PS4 and Switch.