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Umbraclaw Review: A Stray In Hell

Platform(s): PC (version reviewed), PS4, PS5, Xbox Series, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Genre: 2D action platformer, kitty game

If anyone is wondering if there will be a game that puts you in an animal role using Ukiyo-e black outline-focused artwork, you don’t need to bring up Okami that much anymore. You can refer them to the newly-released 2D platformer Umbraclaw from Inti Creates, a game where you play as an almost-defenseless kitty trying to get out of a literal hellscape.

Little Kitty, Big (Under)City

Imagine playing a 2D search action-esque platformer ala Mega Man but you can only dodge attacks. And if you keep dying, you get better power-ups to help ease the journey or deal with foes directly. That is Umbraclaw’s base gameplay: the makers of action-heavy platformers like the Mega Man Zero series and Azure Gunvolt are taking it down a notch with the combat and focusing more on jumping and evasion. As you can tell from the feature image on this review, you play a black cat named Kuon who recently died due to mysterious circumstances. The cat’s soul ends up in the Underworld, and is dead set on returning to the real world to reunite with its female owner Tsukumo.

New players will probably die early, which is where the power-ups come into play. When Kuon bites it, it comes back to life and gets a new animal power via the Anima system. These skills are your staple Metroidvania-style power-ups like a double-jump, a float/hover, projectile attacks, and an elephant spirit that slows projectiles coming at you and gobble them up like peanuts. The more times you die, the more skills you get. Get killed enough times, and you can even turn into a humanoid super-powered cat-person with slash attacks and a life bar.

These skills can also be powered up using Hope points you accumulate from crystals all over the Underworld, with big ones also revealing more about Kuon and his owner’s past memories. The cat itself isn’t completely powerless; it can climb walls, crawl through tiny spaces, find hidden platforms, and do a neat Shadowpass dash that bypasses all sorts of attacks and pitfalls.

In fact, the only way to kill the bosses in the game -each with their own Mega Man Zero/ZX-style patterns, attacks, personality quirks, and badass designs- is to evade their attacks, accumulate spirit energy from your dodges, and then expend all of it for a lifebar-deleting Fatal Stomp. All of this makes for quite an inverse reward and progression system; the game gets easier the more times you die, though the powerups you get are random. In one stage, you can get the double-jump early on. The next? A gorilla uppercut and an armadillo spirit that slows time down. And that humanoid cat form essentially turns Umbraclaw into the games Inti Creates got their sterling reputation from.

However, these benefits will affect the game’s conclusion as getting powered up means being less of a cat and a more bleak outcome. So there’s a balance you need to strike; how many powerups do you need to get through the level? Are you confident enough to run through a pretty tough stage without a power-up? Are you okay sacrificing whatever Hope points you accumulated in that one stage you went through just to turn back to a powerless kitty?

Paw Patrol

Is this all fun? Yes it is, mostly thanks to the lovely art style that hasn’t been seen in a while and the gorgeous enemy design. The gameplay is linear platforming 2D fun in sometimes big platforming spaces and mazes, with stages having their own gimmicks. These include ice platforms, giant chainsaws chasing you down in hallways, upside-down gravity mechanics, and climbable “northern lights” among others. The bosses get progressively challenging, with even mid-bosses like a giant undead head and a flying wind tornado-shooting…thing acting as appetizers before main course battles with a flying shark, a tiger boss who can go upside down, and a phoenix that fights in three different forms. These bosses would fit right at home in Inti Creates’ past portfolio, only you have a little black cat whose agility is the only thing saving it from certain oblivion.

However, the first few stages of Umbraclaw can be tough if you’re accustomed to past search action games styled like this, as you have little to no offensive options from the get-go. You have to adopt the mindset that you may need to bypass all stages with just being a kitty alone, only killing yourself when you feel like you need a bone thrown at you. Thankfully, your accumulated Hope points (and coloured Magatama collectibles) can net you purchasable power-ups that are permanent, like hitpoints for your kitty and enhanced shadow dash properties, alongside Anima spirit powerups and stage helpers during boss fights. With all this, it is possible to go through Umbraclaw in your default state.

No doubt you’ll end up going through the 4-hour game with an unsatisfactory conclusion, which is why the game allows you to replay it again with all your previous upgrades & skills intact. Besides, this is the only way you can get through the game as the kitty alone with little to no power-ups, thus making the second trip through hell a lot more fun. At the very least, Inti Creates should be commended for mixing things up a bit with all the search action-style platforming games they’ve been doing.

In fact, the only major issues I have are with the user interface and front-end polish. It’s missing subtitles during key story moments, it features some misspellings, and the menu screen can be an eyesore for many, especially when navigating the Anima/Spirit animal powerups screen. When I boot up Umbraclaw on PC, the controls mapped the jump/confirm button as X (I’m using an Xbox Series controller) when it should be the A button. I had to reset the options to default every time I restarted the game.

I also do wish the game gave me a heads-up on how it handles save data; otherwise, I would have cloned my file to attempt different methods at getting endings; there’s no easy way unless you start from the beginning via New Game plus. All these annoyances really do need to be addressed at launch, or at least a few hours after.

Cat Scratch Fever

Umbraclaw is the kind of title made for its fanbase: it’s tough at first but will get its 2D action gaming fans an incentive to work hard for their happy kitty ending. Its charming aesthetics and spot-on controls -even if it’s purposely gimped as you’re playing an ordinary black housecat stuck in Hell- also help make the experience and repeated plays smooth.

As far as platformers go though, Umbraclaw is pretty unique. Give it a go if you feel like you had your fill with overpowered-at-the-end main characters in their 2D platformer games, and opt to rely on skill using a cat and its Shadowpass dash.

 

Final Score: 80/100

Review copy provided by publisher. 

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