I was a little apprehensive when firing up Kana Quest that, as someone who has had 18 months of Japanese lessons, I’d find it too easy or not be able to assess the game as a learning tool. Having been on hiatus from learning for a few months, it felt like the perfect way to give myself a little tune up before I dive back in later in the year. Turns out I needn’t have worried, as Kana Quest as a game is trickier than learning kana.
The object of the game is to maneuver tiles so that they all link with their respective adjacent tiles, forming a fully connected trail to complete the level. Tiles will link as long as they share one of the two letters that make up a kana’s syllabic sound. It takes a little while to get your head around the way links are created, because you’re not just sticking with sets of kana i.e. ka ki ku ke ko. The kana for sa can link with a number of other tiles, like na and ka, as well as se and su.
Level completion is punctuated by a medal system that awards gold, silver and bronze based on the number of moves it takes you to create the full link, and the game can shift drastically from chilled out to rage-inducing based on one’s proclivity to go for gold or not. With games like this, it’s abundantly clear that if you’re not aiming for gold, you’re not doing it right, and it’s easy to get bogged down with obsession for the top prize.
Every move of a tile will use up your allowance in the quest for a gold medal. The number of moves that you should take to complete a puzzle are always displayed at the top of the screen in a gold circle, and are depleted with every move so you can track your progress in real time. It will eventually downgrade to a silver or bronze circle if you go over the optimum allowance of moves, but there are buttons on hand to undo one move or all moves if you’re striving for perfection. I used those buttons a lot.
As with most puzzle games, Kana Quest’s main formula doesn’t change, but adds in new twists every time you clear a world. There are 13 Worlds and 300 levels in total, which will take a not-insignificant amount of time to complete. Each world seems to introduce a new type of ‘special’ tile to further complicate proceedings. Some of the earlier ones include stone tiles that cannot be moved, one-way tiles that have to move in a set direction, ice tiles that slide until they hit an edge or another ‘special’ tile, and the biggest challenge in the game – mystery tiles.
Mystery tiles are a clever, and sometimes frustrating, way to get the player to actually think more about kana as opposed to randomly sliding tiles around. These tiles are presented as question marks that need to be revealed by the player typing in the kana. Until they are revealed, mystery tiles cannot be moved, so the key tactic is to move regular tiles adjacent to the mystery ones. If a tile links with a mystery one, you can start to gain an idea of what is hidden; if a line forms next to a ka tile but not a na or a sa tile, then you know it has to be another tile in the ka ki ku ke ko set, and so on.
Kana Quest is aesthetically pretty basic, with some pleasant-yet-static background pixel art and a relaxing (if a little too repetitive) chiptune soundtrack – both of which change for every new world you unlock. It feels like its true home should be on mobile rather than PC. I could see myself dipping in a lot more on the go over eschewing my gaming library to play an 8bit puzzler on my 4K TV. As such, I hope the developers gain enough traction from the PC version to allow them to port it to mobile, because it could really shine in that format.
A verdict on Kana Quest really depends what you want out of it. It is a much stronger puzzle game than it is a learning tool. Fundamentally, it should help you learn kana, but you may end up getting too frustrated with the puzzles to focus on the Japanese. As your methods inevitably devolve into trial and error, you can end up just hopelessly shuffling tiles on the longer levels, at which point all rational thought and, in turn, potential learning is out the window. A game aiming to make learning fun toes a very thin line on making sure that it is actually fun, and a puzzle game’s fun metric can only truly be measured against the patience of the player. If you’re someone who wants a fun little game to learn kana at your own pace, maybe buy some goofy flash cards. If you’re prepared to bang your head against a really challenging, well-devised, puzzle game while trying to learn an entire new alphabet, be prepared for fun to be more of an implication than a reality.