A cute, educational puzzler that wholeheartedly embraces a pixel-art aesthetic
Learning Japanese is not, it must be said, the easiest thing in the world for a native English speaker. Getting to grips with up to three new character sets – Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji – can be a big part of that difficulty so tools to help are always welcome. And if they’re fun? Bonus.
Kana Quest from Not Dead Design isn’t the first Steam game to try and teach Japanese syllable structure. Hiragana Battle, for example, takes a very JRPG approach that echoes early Pokemon, with grammatical advances defeating your foes. Kana Quest goes a different way, with a dominoes-style core mechanic and a pixel-art look.
A Distinctive Design
Right from the start, you’re thrust into a distinctively Japanese style of graphics, with strong colours and a vaguely anime aesthetic. That design is carried into the loading tips and tutorials, with the grammar feeling like it’s been expertly translated from the Japanese. It’s a deliberate design choice that sets the tone for the game.
The basic premise of the game is as follows: work your way through levels on a series of worlds by completing increasingly complicated puzzles. Each win gets you a medal in traditional gold, silver or bronze, depending upon how many moves you took. You can return to a completed level and need a certain number of golds to progress to the next world.
The gameplay is very similar to dominoes. You’re presented with a mixture of blank and engraved tiles and have to connect the engraved ones via a common factor. Tiles with a hiragana character can be flipped on a double-tap to reveal their English counterpart with both visual and audio cues. You match the tiles based on the first or second letter of each syllable; for example, “ka” matches with “ki” or “na”. Correct matches produce streams of love hearts and once every labelled tile is connected, you win. It’s presented as the tiles making friends with each other, which is a cute touch.
This mechanic remains constant, though later worlds introduce character modifiers, stone tiles (“they cannot move but they need friends too”) and other complications to keep the game challenging. You move tiles by sliding them so they swap places with their neighbours, an interface which really screams of the touchscreen origins of this game.
As a pure puzzler, Kana Quest is a challenge with a highly distinctive look – down to the tiles having little animated expressions, carefully placed to not interfere with the characters. As the game progresses, the backdrops change as well, with each world having its own colour scheme and music. Things get positively post-apocalyptic later on, a real contrast to the cherry blossoms and mountains of the early game. The switch to urban and cyberpunk-influenced art is a refreshing change of pace and stops it all getting TOO sweet.
Let’s Get Educational!
As a puzzle game, it’s fine, but Kana Quest’s raison d’etre is to be an educational tool, so how does it stack up?
There’s a lot to like, but let me get one of my few peeves out of the way: the characters on the tiles could be more substantial. They are a little weedy and the contrast could be higher – this makes them tricky to recognise, which is of primary importance. This is especially bad on the Hiragana characters, while not as noticeable on the simpler Katakana. This lack of definition had me flipping the tiles for their English versions more than I’d like.
With that out of the way, there’s a generally well thought-out educational structure here. The pronunciation when flipping the tiles is nice and clear, and the difficulty curve on the game ramps well as it introduces the more complicated concepts.
One thing I absolutely love is that, although the focus is on Hiragana characters, you can swap to Katakana at any time. You can do this from the main menu, and one of the options takes you to a well laid-out character to syllable grid, where you can swap back and forth between the two alphabets. This extends the gameplay by effectively doubling the amount to learn. It doesn’t force you to work your way through the entirety of Hiragana before swapping, which is very appealing and keeps things fresh.
I’ve been playing the PC version of Kana Quest with mouse control and while it works ok, I think it’s true strength will lie in its ease of use on touchscreens. I regret not being able to check it on a tablet, as I suspect the graphics tile sliding will be more intuitive and the graphics a little tighter on the smaller screen. It’s not really fair to expect them to be as sharp on a 24” monitor as on an 8” tablet.
Overall, get this on your Windows tablet and you’ll be in for a great experience that will teach you a lot about Japanese characters and syllable structure. Even if you’ve no interest in learning the language the gameplay is engaging enough to hold you, and the alternate character set and medal system provide a lot of replay value.
Kana Quest is developed and published by Not Dead Design, and is available now on Steam.