“No art or learning is to be pursued halfheartedly…and any art worth learning will certainly reward more or less generously the effort made to study it.”
― Murasaki Shikibu,
Beneath the automotive bluster and colorful attraction of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, a little game called Kamiko stepped silently into the Nintendo Switch eShop. Released by publisher CIRCLE Entertainment and developer Skipmore, Kamiko is an indie action-puzzle game in the style of an arcade top-down hack ‘n slash inspired by Shinto theology. If that sounds complicated, rest assured. It’s not.
What you get for an affordable $4.99 is essentially a short exercise in speedrunning with simple action gameplay. Its substance is limited but it is nonetheless enjoyable and manages to capture some of the addictiveness of old arcade games, perfect for Nintendo’s console/handheld hybrid. This game seems to lend itself to short train rides, carpooling, or lunch breaks since there are numerous save points and only four stages, emphasizing the fastest possible completion and beating your previous time.
Kamiko features three playable characters: Yamato, Uzume, and Hinome, referred to as children of the transient world. These are, in other worlds, ordinary human girls, shrine maidens (miko in Japanese). At the shrine where they serve, a deity instructs them that they are to be summoned to the realm of the dead (yomi, the world of darkness).
It seems that the gates connecting the profane transient world to the sacred afterlife have been sealed by demons (it’s hard to make out because the translation is atrocious). The miko shrine maidens are gifted by heaven with ancient relics, the Imperial Regalia, to become “Kamiko”. Equipped with their new weapons and the assurance that they each have special power within themselves, their goal is to cleanse the gates separating the secular world from the afterlife and defeat the demons plaguing the realm.
The varied fighting styles of the three girls helps mix up the action between playthroughs and lengthen the game’s shelf life. Yamato brandishes a huge sword and is thus a close-ranged fighter. Uzume carries a bow and set of arrows to attack from a distance. Hinome melds the style of the two girls before her with a throwable weapon and short-range dagger. It’s easy enough to beat the game in under an hour so with three individual shrine maidens you’ve got close to three hours of play.
As mentioned, there are four stages: the Forest of Awakening, the Sunken Relics, the Scorching Labyrinth, and the Ruins of Yamataikoku. The objective is to cleanse four Japanese gates (Torii) in each stage in order to open up the path to a boss fight. You do this by first locating the gates, which are often blocked by simple puzzles and enemies, and then spending a portion of SP to cleanse them one by one. SP, also used for special attacks, is recharged by defeating enemies in quick succession to rack up combos. Max SP (and max HP) can be gained through the course of game.
This game would definitely have benefited from being a roguelike title. The stages do not change so the puzzles and locations of items like keys and artifacts remain the same in every playthrough. Yeah the goal is to complete the levels you’ve become familiar with faster but when even enemy spawning points don’t change much, you’ll probably soon find new experiences to enjoy rather than running the same gamut over and over and over again.
Kamiko seems to immediately remind people of other games, so let’s get that out of the way. I’ve heard a lot of comparisons made with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I’m not sure who first made this allegation but it seems like a lot of people are bandwagoning on it (thanks, internet).
I think the only similarities between Kamiko and A Link to the Past are the top-down perspective and the use of a sword with one of the three characters. Oh, and forests and bushes, I guess? Everything else is pretty different. Kamiko is far shorter, it places little emphasis on exploration, it has no upgrades, power ups, items, equipment or secret weapons to wield, it has no names for characters beyond its protagonists, it has even less story and dialogue, and it’s inspired by legends and myth from an entirely different part of the world compared to A Link to the Past. Any parallels are purely superficial.
The real comparison to make is with Hyper Light Drifter, another indie game which I highly, highly recommend you play. Kamiko shares its art style, its love of right angles and neon-lined diamond shapes, its coloration, its environments, its gameplay of swords and dashing, its restriction on exposition, even practically its cover art. Even the general tone of austerity and supernaturalism seems to each HLD. If I hadn’t known any better, I would’ve mistaken it for “Hyper Light Drifter 2”.
At this point, Kamiko seems to have two options for its ontology: either it’s “influenced by” Hyper Light Drifter or it’s a direct rip off of it, albeit an efficient and sparse one.
I wavered for a little on whether I’d grade Kamiko in terms of its narrative but I ultimately decided against it. The reason is there’s so little spoken dialogue and there isn’t much story anyway. The shrine maidens receive their weapons and proceed to cleanse the gates, (spoiler: highlight to reveal) then they fight an unnamed final boss which asks them why they believe in god (out of nowhere) and then muses that how their battle may be just another play in the hands of the gods, after which the maidens are worshiped by humans. The attempt at big questions comes out of nowhere. That and the horrific translation which might’ve been remedied simply by emulating the language of a King James Bible, are big knocks against Kamiko’s storytelling.
That said, it’s best attributes in terms of narrative are in its setting. It’s been said that Kamiko includes traditional Shintoist values or that it’s inspired by Shintoism, but I think that these statements do a disservice to the game’s use of Shintoism as a background. They really seem like statements that are passing oversimplifications. Kamiko uses Shintoism like Wisdom Tree games used Christianity: merely as a backdrop without getting into explanations of worth or adherence, generally speaking.
Hawaii has a history of influence by Japanese culture so I’ve been exposed to and studied a lot of this stuff for most of my life, such as with researching the meaning of these Torii gates like the one pictured above in a park named for the last Hawaiian monarch. Most of Kamiko is infused with Shinto words and imagery. The runic design above the game’s title is a giveaway for its religious tonality: the shapes appear to represent figures in front of an altar.
Shinto is the traditional ritualistic religion of Japan. Actually, think of Kamiko essentially as a Shinto ritual in game form. Rituals are by definition repetitive and goal-oriented, so cleansing the multiple Torii as shrine maidens is an act of making the gameplay self-descriptive. The speedruns become ritualistic even as you control the maidens to complete their rituals. And by the way, Torii gates represent a transition from the earthly to the sacred, often seen around Shinto shrines, so the game’s use of them is spot on.
I’ll try as I can to break down the things of significance that I noticed in Kamiko. First of all, the name. We’ve already learned that miko is the Japanese word for shrine maiden or priestess in Shintoism. I suspect that the title is a portmanteau of kami and miko.
Kami is a more familiar word but in case you don’t know it’s a word which roughly means god, spirit, deity, essence, supernatural being, divinity, etc. Similar to the Hebraic elohim, kami is both singular and plural. Shintoism is a polytheistic religion which ascribes divinity to elements and objects of nature, so these are Japan’s indigenous kami. Kami is a looser term than “gods”, however, and it has been used to describe things which are simply out of the ordinary, unexplained phenomena which inspire awe, an aspect of spirituality. A survey of Japanese folktales would drive the idea home. The closest word I can think of in English is the concept of the numinous, which has to do with the feeling surrounding divinity: awe-inspiring, mysterious, frightening. Numinous is the realization of the presence of the divine. In Japanese culture, this occurs in a reflection upon nature.
Therefore, I think the title Kamiko refers to miko becoming kami at the end of the game. That’s the thing that’s special about them mentioned at the beginning. Call it an educated guess.
Also at the start of the game is the reception of the Imperial Regalia by the maidens. The Imperial Regalia of Japan are three ancient and legendary treasures which are seen only by the emperor and priests. There are no photographs of the treasures as they’re carefully kept under wraps. My mind can’t stop wondering what they really look like or whether they really exist.
The treasures are the Blade of Kusanagi, which Yamato receives as her weapon, the Magatama of Yasakani, a jewel that tips the arrows for Uzume, and the Mirror of Yata, which Hinome uses like a boomerang. The three treasures represent the virtues valor (the sword for courage), benevolence (the jewel as a kingly gift), and wisdom (the mirror of honesty to see by).
The names of the three maidens are also significant. Yamato is the ancient name for Japan (“Japan” is a Western name from Dutch). The word Yamato literally means “great harmony” and it’s a word used as the name for a Japanese province and one of the largest battleships ever used in naval warfare during WWII. Considering Japan is an island surrounded by and very much attuned with the sea, it makes sense that the character Yamato bears the element of water.
The significance of the name Uzume comes from the Shinto deity Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, a spirit of joy, dawn and springtime (which explains why Uzume wears bright green in the game and represents the element of earth). Uzume is important in the Shinto pantheon since it was she who coaxed the sun out of a cave by dancing.
Hinome is a female name which means sunlight, the rays of the sun. This explains why the third shrine maiden represents the element of fire. Also, the Mirror of Yata which she wields is the same mirror that according to legend was used to help lure Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, out of the cave.
Things which continue to baffle me are the nature of the bosses in the game as well as the game’s specific chronology. The bosses all possess a technological appearance, which may just be to a prevailing Japanese sentiment of negativity toward the industrial world against the appeal of the natural one. Or it could just be they wanted the enemies to look science fictioney so the game could capitalize on Hyper Light Drifter’s success even more.
I did spot the Taoist Taijitu (better known as Yin-Yang) symbol during the second to the last boss fight, which may serve to underscore a belief that evil and good are to be constants kept in balance in the natural world. This is the closest thing in Kamiko that I could think of that represents “Shinto values”, since the Shintoism seems more referential than expositional.
As for the game’s chronology, it’s confusing to see a dilapidated school bus among the ruins in the fourth stage. After beating the game (spoiler: highlight to reveal) agricultural humans (the three maidens?) are seen cultivating the area, so is the game in some kind of dystopian future? Who knows. You knows? Let me knows.
The 8-bit Review
Kamiko features some beautiful pixel art heavy on color-contrast, sharp edges, and impressions of familiar shapes. It’s confusingly a combination of fantasy and sci-fi imagery so the game feels instantly magical and timeless, as if it’s both a fairy tale we’ve told for generations or a future we’ve yet to experience. Subtle effects like rays of piercing light streaming from the top of the screen and leaves gently blowing in the wind accentuate a quiet but living world. Suggestions of typically Japanese aesthetics appear throughout the four varied landscapes, such as characters carved into stone pillars or of course the Torii themselves.
I played the entire game in handheld mode for some reason, except for a moment where I threw it up on the big screen just to see what it looked like. The graphics hold up well in both modes for being as vivid and detailed as they are, but I’ll guess that this game is better suited visually to handheld mode for its geometric shapes and simple gameplay.
The visuals are perhaps the biggest thing that reminds one of Hyper Light Drifter. I mean look at these comparison images and tell me which game they had in mind during development for Kamiko. Looks like the same game.
The music in Kamiko is very soothing, even when upbeat. There’s a kind of accepted sadness to its main theme. It’s reminiscent of traditional Japanese sounds and instruments, though of course these are interpreted here in terms of an old school chiptune sound. Even the sound effects are lifted from ritualistic noises like bells chiming together in real world shrines.
The soundtrack avoids being tinny or what I’d call piercing, a symptom of some chiptune audio, and it’s consistently fairly mellow and enjoyable to listen to, even if it’s not ultimately very memorable. I’m sorry to make yet another comparison with a different game, but the music reminded me a lot of the free 2D platformer flash-based browser game Tower of Heaven by Askiisoft, which went for a classic Game Boy presentation.
The controls are simple and there’s a big emphasis on speed what with dashing between attacks. Playing first as Yamato and then working my way through the same stages with Uzume and Hinome kind of spoiled me. Yamato has a very fluid and smooth fighting style getting as close as possible to enemies or letting them approach her before hacking them to bits by mashing the attack button, but the other two girls take a bit more planning in terms of positioning them in relation to their foes.
Uzume can’t loose her arrows while moving so there’s a lot of dashing to be done to get far enough away to attack safely. Hordes of enemies can prove dangerous and I took hits frequently as Uzume before getting the hang of the change of pace. Hinome is even stranger since she has to remain stationary to throw her mirror-boomerang but she’s free to move after that to attack with her dagger. It’s not enough to downplay having to open with a stationary attack so these two maidens feel somewhat jittery, like stuttering, to play as instead of Yamato.
The four stages aren’t big enough to truly get lost in but they’re just big enough to forget where that teleporter was at or where you were supposed to take this key. Speaking of carrying keys, I thought it was interesting that when you carry a key (or an orb to open a new area) you’re prevented from attacking. If you do press attack, you drop the item and have to go back to its chest to pick it up again. Being struck by an enemy will also cause you to drop the item. This does help to change up the pace of the stages so there’s a little more variety.
Variety is something this game could’ve used a little more of. There are indeed three playable characters but with zero power-ups or upgrades and only two kinds of attacks each, there’s little gameplay variety between them. Yamato may have a whirlwind attack and Uzume has her homing volleys while Hinome spirals her mirror around herself but these special attacks are the only unique attacks in the whole game. Further, you can make it through the game without using these special attacks, not even once, so that makes a lot of the extra SP you accumulate worthless to an extent.
I could wish there were a lot more secrets but with the game beings as streamlined and as rid of fluff and filler as it is, there’s not really any reason to have more secrets to spend time seeking out. Spending extra time isn’t a point of the game anyways, plus with the game being as short and as easy as it is, extra health or SP would be superfluous in excess, weapon upgrades would be meaningless in their brevity, and introducing a concept like currency or points would only slow the game down.
Maybe the simplest solution could have been taking a roguelike approach. I get the arcade framing and that’s all fine and dandy but if you think about that long enough then you start to wonder why this game doesn’t allow two players. Seems like it would be perfect for it, even if it would’ve made the game a thousand times easier. Maybe they could’ve upped the amount of enemies in the game or something. Or something.
Kamiko is fun and fast to play but it’s over before you know it, without significant replay value. It almost feels like a mobile phone game.
With only two attacks and two buttons needed for attacking and interacting, this is a game which could’ve been on the NES. The only thing that knocks down its Accessibility even slightly is the fact that some of its hidden areas are a little too hidden. First playthrough I got stuck pretty fast because there’s a hidden path under the forest canopy that’s tough to spot. I did feel a little cheated by that, like it was harder than it needed to be to figure out what to do.
There are numerous save points, one at each of the four gates in each stage, and there are rubies aplenty to recover your health hiding in bushes or jars à la Zelda. I felt the game was harder than it needed to be because of the wonky Joy-Con d-pad for the Switch. The joystick didn’t feel much better, either. Maybe a pro controller? But then, this seems more like a handheld game than anything else. Anyway something felt off about its handling to me. Still, it was easy enough to overcome. The gameplay is simplistic and enemies can be dispatched in great numbers very quickly. The boss fights are interesting enough that I wished they’d last longer. Three strikes to the weak spot and most of the bosses are goners. But it is after all a game with ease in mind, a game which one can beat in under an hour.
Hack ‘n slash gameplay is addicting in and of itself, so throw in a few hidden treasure chests and a flavor of competing for the best time (strangely without online leaderboards?) and you have a game that you can speedrun through and be encouraged to do so again and again. I already had besting my own time in mind when I started on Uzume’s playthrough. Hinome’s run was a little more of a chore but I jotted that down as due to her fighting style even as I tried to get my best time ever.
Will I keep playing and get another triplet of rounds in only to try to beat my times again? Yeah, no. I doubt it. I would like to come back to this game (especially with two player) as a glorified time-killer but for now, the backlog calls louder than does Kamiko. My only regret is I played as all three characters and beat the game three times but I still didn’t unlock the ???? below Options on the title screen. (spoiler: highlight to reveal) I read it was just a BGM sampler so… eh.
See above comments likening it to HLD and Zelda. It may actually be impossible to play this game without thinking of others. Is it a trend among indie titles that there’s a lot of cloning going on depending on what’s popular? Please don’t let AAA-level homogeneity creep into indie gaming.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Kamiko is a short and enjoyable game with great visuals and fast-paced gameplay. It seems built especially for handheld mode with speedrunner fans in mind. All that I’ve written above needs to be taken together in consideration with its very, very cheap price on the eShop right now. You’re not buying a whole lot of game but you are getting a hold of a cool, old-fashioned arcade experience you can take with you whenever you want and play casually. Let me put it this way: you may have taken longer to read this article than it would’ve taken you to beat the game this article is about.
If you don’t want to play Kamiko, then go and play Hyper Light Drifter. Right now.
Aggregated Score: 6.5