Developer and publisher Acquire is known for many things. Still, to the modern gamer, they are known for their contribution to the Octopath Traveler series. Shortly before that, they were a quirky little Otaku IP, which involved getting stripped in Akihabara. Gamers who have been around for a while will remember Tenchu, a stealth ninja action game. Then shortly after, they created a quasi-open-world action RPG called Way of the Samurai. Finally, where most of Acquire’s catalog has been released internationally, one game slipped under the radar, a 2006 PlayStation 2 title called Kamiwaza which is now available worldwide in its remastered edition as Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief.
Where Tenchu, with its emphasis on stealth action platforming and focused level design, and Way of the Samurai, with its focus on interacting with a dynamic world through light RPG elements, were completely different experiences, Kamiwaza in a way tried to combine the two distinct gameplay approaches into something completely original.
On paper, this sounds like a great idea. For the most part, it almost works, as the best of two unique IPs are brought together to create a new game style. Still, in mixing so many unique elements, the game struggles to be consistent or cohesive in its design and execution. This would have been a quirky novelty back in 2006, but in 2022 the experience feels unpolished and disjointed even in its serviceable remastered guise.
The game presents an interesting premise set during the Edo period, as you play as aspiring thief Ebizo. But, of course, he was no ordinary thief, as he was an apprentice in a guild that operated with some measure of ethics. Sure, they stole a lot of stuff, but never at the cost or harm of innocent lives. Sadly, what would have been a routine theft turns into a brutal massacre, which results in Ebizo not only leaving the guild and swearing off thievery but also finding himself adopting a lone survivor of the robbery as his daughter.
As we fast forward a few years, Ebizo is struggling to make ends meet, and the child he rescued, Suzuna, is all grown up but suffers from a significant illness. Unfortunately, medication isn’t affordable, so reluctantly, Ebizo finds himself returning to his old life while facing ghosts and skeletons from his past. There is almost a Robin Hood quality to our anti-hero, as he reluctantly steals from others for the greater good, but as much of a criminal society views him to be, he still functions with a moral code. More than just trying to afford medicine for Suzuna, our conflicted bandit also donates some of his loot to the local community.
The story and premise are perhaps one of the most vital elements, and it’s a setting easy to lose yourself into. What helps the quasi-open world design is how alive it feels, as events trigger organically when you explore the map. As a thief, your job is to remain in the shadows, as the last thing you want is to be recognized on the streets. Initially, no one knows who you are, but as you progress through the game, and depending on how clumsy you are, even the most harmless civilian will prove to be a threat.
Although it’s intriguing to see the game world unfold, the pacing and structure can feel often feel vague and confusing. Certainly, you have a helpful map and journal to help you stay on course, but the process of keeping up with numerous objectives can be challenging, given the unstructured game design.
In addition, missions have time limits, and not only do you have to keep an eye on the police, but you need to supply medicine to Suzuna at least once a day, and this medicine does not come cheap. This means you will need to spend a lot of time grinding for loot and money, and while the game’s day and night cycle can be enjoyable, it just makes the timing of missions and events all the more confusing.
As a character in a steal action game, Ebizo has the essential function of sneaking around, and yet sneaking around isn’t even the core emphasis of the gameplay system. Rather than silently sneaking completely unseen, the game encourages a riskier yet stylish approach. Here’s all about dashing around, and this almost works as a parry system where a brief window of time allows Ebizo to flash through someone’s vision. These maneuvers earn style points, which can be used to learn new skills.
Of course, as a thief, it’s not just about working on your disguise and moves but also carrying a trusty sack around. After all, the loot isn’t just going to enter any old inventory magically. Instead, each stolen item increases the weight and size of the sack. If it gets too big, then others will know you’re up to no good, and yet the sack can also be used as a weapon, as Ebizo can kick it around like a soccer ball.
The play mechanics are far too numerous even to list and explain here; for the most part, the game explains them reasonably well. The problem is that these intricate gameplay systems don’t apply as intuitively to the game design as they should. The biggest issue working against Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief is the complete absence of a deliberate and carefully thought-out level design. And so, most of the gameplay gimmicks feel out of place as you navigate various areas of the game world.
Perhaps the game’s many ideas could have been better scaffolded had the game featured a more straightforward level-to-level progression. Still, it takes place in a sandbox which, although fascinating to explore, often results in game progression feeling grindy and repetitive.
The basic mechanics aren’t always smooth and intuitive either, as even the basic action of stealing loot can be a cumbersome process. You will likely find yourself hacking away at an object for a good minute or two before you’re able to place it in your sack. Of course, things get better as you gain new skills, but it’s long before the game feels more responsive.
Even by 2006 standards, this is a clunky and cumbersome experience. The camera is uncooperative, the gameplay flow feels choppy, and the game ultimately resorts to fetch quests, as most missions involve stealing an essential loot item to bring back. In addition, although there are many exciting areas, including a prison to break out of occasionally, there isn’t any real semblance of a thoughtfully laid out level structure.
If you are willing to look past these faults and get used to all the quirks, this game rewards your time invested, as frustrating and cumbersome as it is. There are branching story paths with multiple endings, so there’s plenty of replay value. For most, however, it may be a huge ask to trudge through all the monotony of the gameplay grind.
Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief feels like a product of its era. While seeing it try so many ideas is admirable, it ultimately falls flat in execution as the experience feels disjointed and messy. Although it presents a game world that feels alive and immersive, the primary gameplay loop lacks polish and practical implementation.
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