Review by Hikuusen
Reviewed: 02/27/20 | Updated: 03/17/20
Stranded ski saps seek suspect, sidestep stabbings.
A kamaitachi is a "sickle weasel," a musteline creature of Japanese folklore with knives on its feet, and despite their top billing, they aren't really involved with the events of Kamaitachi no Yoru (Night of the Kamaitachi). Though one character mentions old legends in conjunction with mysterious events, the name more likely references the sharp, biting winds that envelop the creatures - winds that have beset the Spur ski lodge in conjunction with the storm of the century raging outside. The threat from blades, however, comes entirely from within...as an unknown assailant hunts the trapped lodgers one by one. College loser Toru has come to this remote and woe-wracked hideaway with his classmate-come-crush Mari, who's never been into him but happened (?) to pop a suspiciously-timed surprise ski invitation on the worst possible weekend. It was on one similarly-miserable snowbound winter day in Maine that I decided to tackle Toru's biggest assignment ever: save himself, and maybe a few others, from an early grave.
Kamaitachi is an early effort of Chunsoft, developer of a number of landmark visual novels and mystery games; in the West, they're probably best known for Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. Considered a classic of the genre, Kamaitachi has received special editions on the PlayStation and GBA, TV and audio drama spinoffs, and even a published compilation of reader-written scenarios submitted to an official fanfic contest, dubbed Your Own Night of the Kamaitachi. Recently, the game was remade for the Vita to questionable effect in that Identikit loli style that became so popular in horror after Corpse Party; it also (finally) received an English-language release on iOS, but with a bizarre '90s-style comedic whitewash - with the setting transposed from Japan to British Columbia and characters renamed after hockey players and everyone shutting up and eating their Timbits. For this review, however, we're going to the source: the original, untranslated Super Famicom release.
The game is presented in a distinctive photorealistic style: text unfolds over digitized photos of the current setting, typically a room of the lodge, accompanied by music suited to the scene. Presumably due to format limitations, the characters are represented by translucent blue silhouettes. Unlike 999, there are no puzzle sequences; the game is pure choose-your-own-adventure, where some options determine merely the impression you're making on your would-be girlfriend, and others, whether you will survive...or, sometimes, whom you will kill.
Though it contains a number of horrific moments, Kamaitachi's more a tale of mystery & suspense: And Then There Were None in the snows of Japan. The idea of a visual novel on the Super Famicom might sound limited, but Chunsoft knew how to use the platform, and I did find the cumulative effect of the presentation genuinely atmospheric and effective. Those character silhouettes, for example, end up working in the game's favor: they illustrate the cast's activities and leverage body language to bring them to life, but their featurelessness adds an appropriate touch of opacity and menace to our lineup of suspects. As in fellow 16-bit fear pioneer Clock Tower, the use of digitized photography adds a touch of class & realism to the setting that enhances the chilling ambience. The sound effects are well-deployed to punctuate events and heighten stress - and those howling winds add a true sense of isolation. And the music is key: it offers several flavors of "distinctly creepy" (bolstered by terrific instrumentation) that are all the more tense & eerie for being underplayed - Unsolved Mysteries by way of J-horror. Wikipedia claims the music has been occasionally used on news programs in Japan in segments covering real-life crimes, and while I can't find proof of this, reader, I want to believe.
Those familiar with the And Then There Were None formula may figure out a few things before the characters. This leads to a central challenge of the game, though: while you may be a smart, trope-savvy sleuth, your character is just a dopey college student. I learned this when the game, at a late juncture, asked Toru if he had solved the case. I responded for him in the affirmative, expecting to be taken to a screen where I could select a suspect and play Poirot. No prompt appeared, though; instead, my boy proudly stood up and took the initiative to accuse completely the wrong person, which led to the group letting their guard down at a crucial juncture following the sequestering of the not-culprit. It's not enough for you to understand what happened; you have to figure out how to lead your character (and his fellow lodgers) to your brilliant conclusion.
Chunsoft games are known for their stunning twists, and the first ending I received did genuinely shock me. The early effort of Kamaitachi is more down-to-earth than the global conspiracies and Saw-like setpieces of Chunsoft's more recent titles, but that works in its favor - the characters and their reactions are more relatable, and the horror comes not from sadism or gore, but from ordinary people doing things out of shock, fear, or panic that they would never want to do. Some of the game's most potent moments are found in a well-intentioned person making a mistake in a crisis situation and dealing with the consequences. The tale's choices and wording are very good at presenting that desperate, cornered mindset, particularly in the endgame.
Some might miss the clockwork tightness of famed Chunsoft scribe Kotaro Uchikoshi's scripts, where a labyrinth of little details that before seemed utterly inexplicable falls into place to form a unified, bombshell-filled narrative. (Uchikoshi joined Chunsoft in 2007, way after Kamaitachi.) Kamaitachi's core mystery is smart, the sure predecessor to Uchikoshi's work, and there are indeed a number of seemingly-innocent elements that prove crucial to unraveling the case. There are, however, several questions left unanswered, and one aspect of the mystery doesn't seem to make sense (the location of those glass shards). I also must complain about the second bad ending I received: it pretty much outright tells you the identity of the killer, which the player may not have earned by that point (the ending is triggered by a single choice, involving searching a room, that the game signals you to take). The game's structure does, however, showcase features that would become hallmarks of the visual novel genre: the use of "bad" timelines to provide substantial clues to the mystery, and the addition of new events and dialogue options in subsequent playthroughs.
I got three endings (two bad, one joke) before I hit a version of the best, true ending - no racy Pink Bookmark scenario, no encounters with the spy or ghost storylines that are apparently added to later runthroughs. I figured the cast had had enough for one night - and, truth be told, I had had enough of the game by the time I hit the true ending. There is a lot of text through which to forward. (The game offers the opportunity to restart from any chapter, but you're gonna wanna do at least another full playthrough to explore more of all the branching paths.) This means that this review is, perhaps, incomplete - but it was my experience with the game, and it was a fairly successful and satisfying one. Kamaitachi no Yoru is more for a certain audience than 999: a pure visual novel, with no puzzle interludes and a visual style that, while effective, might seem subdued compared to its successors. But if you are in that certain audience, dear reader, KnY might well provide you a couple nights of creeps, chills, and satisfying discoveries. Oh, and yelling at your dunderheaded character.
Product Release: Kamaitachi no Yoru (JP, 11/25/94)
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