A first look at PS1 throwback gyaru horror title Kanpeki

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Every so often, I like to have a trawl through the “New Releases” list on Steam — the “All New Releases” tab, not the “Popular New Releases” one — and see what potentially interesting bits and pieces might be flying under the radar this week. A significant proportion of the time, I find little other than low-effort asset flip hentai “puzzle” garbage, but occasionally, something interesting like Kanpeki appears.

Kanpeki’s not actually out on Steam yet, but it does have a demo available on itch.io — so I decided to take a look, as it combines several things that I’m rather fond of: PS1 games (or, at least, PS1-inspired games), horror games and gyarus. And, while it has a few rough edges right now, it’s something that you may well be interested in giving a look, too.

Kanpeki

Kanpeki is the work of Streetlight Studio, a French outfit whose previous work includes bizarre glitched-out shooter Botai. While European in origin, Streetlight clearly has a strong interest in Japanese-style games — and so it is that not only is Kanpeki set in a Japanese school, it’s also very much designed in the mould of Japanese-style survival horror games from the PS1 era.

In Kanpeki, you take on the role of Hoshi, a rather up-herself gyaru who has that rare combination of good looks and strong academic ability — just a pity about her obnoxious personality. Can’t have everything, I guess.

Anyway, at the outset of Kanpeki, Hoshi’s apparent obsession with perfection catches up with her as someone points out that her makeup might possibly be a bit out of whack — so naturally, she has to rush off to the toilets to check it out, particularly as her new mascara is a brand new release that she needs to absolutely nail the look of. In true horror game tradition, once she emerges from the little girls’ room, everything has gone all dark and scary, and this is where the game proper begins.

Kanpeki

What then follows initially appears to be a fairly conventional PS1-style fixed camera angle horror game. You move Hoshi around from room to room, examine objects, read notes and pick up items. Occasionally you’ll be accosted by enemies — in this case seemingly zombie-like students from Hoshi’s school — and have to either avoid them or fend them off with Hoshi’s pocket taser. Once you’ve found it, of course.

The pocket taser is actually quite an interesting mechanic, because it has a very limited number of uses before you have to manually “reload” it by cranking its dynamo. This is accomplished with a timing-based minigame that is absolutely not safe to engage in during combat, so quite often the best approach to a dangerous situation is to avoid it rather than dive headfirst into it — very authentic to the roots of the survival horror genre.

Where Kanpeki’s current demo version falters a bit is in its control options. By default the game makes use of an absolutely baffling mouse and keyboard system where you’re supposed to move the mouse to make Hoshi face a particular direction, then use W and S on the keyboard to walk forward and back. I managed to do nothing other than flail around wildly in this mode, so thankfully there is a “conventional tank controls” option where W, S, A and D can be used to rotate left and right and walk forward and back, with running on the Shift key.

Kanpeki

Regardless of which of the two control options you use, striking with the taser is still assigned to the left mouse button, while examining and using is on E. There does not appear to be any sort of gamepad support right now — at least, no gamepads I tried seemed to work — and the whole system, while not completely unworkable, definitely needs a bit of an overhaul before the game’s final release. Gamepad support should be a given for a game hoping to pay homage to the PS1 era, after all!

Kanpeki gets particularly interesting once you discover some interesting happenings in the school. Like many other survival horror games, you tend to hear about these after the fact via notes and documents, but you also have to deal with the consequences of what happened prior to your arrival. In this case, there was a scuffle between a student and a teacher in the chemistry lab, which has left the place full of toxic gases. Naturally, an inconvenient combination of locked doors and blocked passageways mean that you need to get through there.

Hoshi is at least smart enough to not wander into a gas-filled room breathing freely, so she holds her breath. This introduces a major mechanic in the game: the distorted perception that can result from self-asphyxiation. While attempting to proceed through the gas-filled chemistry lab, you are forced to see how Hoshi’s view of the world changes as she starves herself of oxygen, resulting in her being able to see a door that would otherwise not be clear.

Once you (and Hoshi) have discovered the use of the self-asphyxiation process, you can then perform it at will by holding the “F” key, and in doing so you can discover hidden items and means of traversing the environment.

Kanpeki

If this all sounds like a strange concept, it ties in with the lore of Kanpeki. Like many other Japanese horror games set in schools, much of the current troubles seem to stem from a peculiar trend that the teenagers are obsessed with — in this case, the drug-like high one can achieve from deliberate self-asphyxiation. Unfortunately, depriving oneself of oxygen is, of course, extremely dangerous, and a lot of students have fallen ill or even died while “playing the choking game”, as the situation is euphemistically referred to.

The demo doesn’t go more deeply into exactly why this trend started or what inevitable supernatural presence is the cause of all the strange happenings, but it is clear that it will be a major mechanical element to progressing through the game. The demo concludes with a boss fight that is seemingly impossible until you use the breathing mechanics to spot where your opponent is going to appear well before it happens, allowing you to position yourself in advance for a taser strike, for example — and doubtless there will be more situations like this.

The presentation of the asphyxiation process is very effective, accomplished using simple cycling colours and palette changes. Initially, colour drains from the world and everything turns red, but as the supply of oxygen to Hoshi’s brain gets sparser and sparser, things fade out then turn green and psychedelic. Refuse to breathe for too long and she will, of course, die, so it’s a bit of a balancing act between exploring the oddly compelling visual patterns and ensuring you actually stay safe.

Kanpeki

One nod to modernity in Kanpeki comes in the form of the save system. At various points around the environment are strange otherworldly doorways that appear to lead to a convenience store. Here, Hoshi can heal herself fully and stock herself up with up to three energy drinks, which can be used as consumable healing items. You can also save the game at the cash register. There doesn’t appear to be any restriction on how often you heal, restock and save, so you can seemingly play Kanpeki as cautiously as you like. This is a good thing.

On the whole, Kanpeki is looking immensely promising. There are just a couple of tweaks it would be great to see implemented prior to final release. Firstly, there’s the aforementioned control issues: the simple addition of gamepad controls is all that is needed here. Secondly, there’s the matter of voice acting.

There are two schools of thought here. On the one hand, the English language, American-accented voice acting heard in Kanpeki is authentic to how Japanese PS1 games would have been released to English-speaking audiences back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, so it’s entirely appropriate to hear Americans slightly mispronouncing Japanese names and a gyaru character who sounds like a Valley girl. On the other, this feels like a game that would really benefit from an authentic, good quality Japanese voiceover.

Kanpeki

The story seemingly takes itself seriously, so while the English dub is certainly nostalgic in some ways, it also detracts from the J-horror atmosphere the narrative is trying to create — which Kanpeki otherwise nails in terms of both visual and mechanical design.

Ideally, the option for both would be available — but we have to remember that we’re dealing with a small European indie team here, and doubtless their budget and network of contacts is limited. As such, we might be stuck with those English voices. I hasten to add that they’re not bad as such; they just feel rather incongruous with the setting — though as mentioned above, there’s an argument to be made for this being authentic to the PS1-inspired stylings of the game.

These things aside, I’m excited to keep an eye on Kanpeki and see how it develops. At the time of writing, there doesn’t yet appear to be a confirmed release date — but if you’re interested in what we’ve talked about today and want to show your support, be sure to download the demo for yourself and perhaps leave a comment on its itch.io page.

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Pete Davison
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