After a successful IndieGoGo campaign which raised over $100,000 and a total of about eight years of development, a small team of ex-King of Fighters developers released Yatagarasu: Attack on Cataclysm. The indie fighter is a throwback to old-school 2D fighters with lower-fidelity resolutions and long days of training precise inputs and learning to read the opponent. Even with a relatively small production scope and team, Yatagarasu serves up a solid fighter for both competitive players and the currently inexperienced looking to get more into the scene.
While story isn’t terribly important to most fighters, Yatagarasu has fleshed out fighters with their own motivations and personalities. It’s hard to get a foothold in the plot at first, especially because the menu lists “Arcade Mode” twice, while the second option is actually a more proper story mode that introduces the general plot. But the modes offer either a personalized look at each of the characters, or a more overarching storytelling mode which talks about an upcoming cataclysm threatening Japan and the world.
Those who played Street Fighter III or King of Fighters will feel quickly at home. Interestingly, despite a genre that’s riddled with complexity, Yatagarasu actually holds back on introducing too many systems that we see brimming in some modern fighters, such as Guilty Gear. Light and heavy versions of kicks and punches comprise all attacks in the game, though there’s much more to it than how it sounds. Most characters have a fairly small number of special moves and two super moves, so they’re easy to pick up.
There are 11 fighters who currently comprise the cast (with more to come); but despite this relatively low number, there should be someone for everyone. I gravitated towards Shima and Azure. Shima holds her sword in a sheath for the most part, quick-drawing it for strikes, which she often performs from a special command dash. Azure, a fighter with Arabic roots and a fascination for astronomy, shoots blue projectiles and mostly plays like a zoner. He can effectively keep the opponent at a distance by shooting from the ground and the air with cool-looking waves. It sounds cheap, but a smart player jumps or parries them at the right time to get up close, and Azure doesn’t have great normal attacks.
Otherwise, most archetypes are covered. Sexy ninja Hattori has quick movement options to get up close for damaging throws, but Chadha is the dedicated grappler. My only qualms with the cast is that there are two copy-cat, fairly similar characters; Shima and Hina, and Kou and Crow. Both pairs are nearly identical but re-skinned, and Shima and Hina have identical moves that are performed differently. There’s nuance between them, but it’s too bad that they didn’t get entirely different models. Kou and Crow are the typical shoto characters (think Ken and Ryu), but they blend in a bit.
The lack of a tutorial mode or even a text glossary is jarring in Yatagarasu, especially because most modern fighters create fairly robust learning experiences for new players. Luckily for me, I was able to sit down with a seasoned player who explained all the system mechanics. I was surprised to hear that there’s actually not that many of them. The Yatagarasu developers did a good job of shaving off unnecessary fluff and leaving in essentials from honored fighting games to strike at that desired balance of “easy to pick up yet hard to master.”
The parries seem to take center stage. It’s not just a matter of pressing back right when the opponent strikes; rather, Yatagarasu has two buttons, one for high and one for low parries. If matched correctly to an attack, the defending character has little to no recovery from blocking, allowing an instant counterattack. There’s even an indicator under the health bar to see how many frames too early you parried (so there’s a tiny bit of leeway to this), but since the back direction is already held, they’re not huge risks to take. But more advanced players can try the riskier, more powerful parry, by pressing the parry button and forward, which is an even more rewarding block.
With this parry system, Yatagarasu discourages mashing and encourages learning yomi, the ability to read the opponent. The more one gets into the fighting game, the more it will seem like a mental battle between two people. If you condition your opponent with jumping kicks, they’ll start to parry them and hit you back. But if the next time you jump without an attack, you can land and then throw them, getting an advantage to set up the next mix-up. Throws are practically instant (it’s possible to tech out of them though) so an approaching opponent is incredibly tough to be reacted to – their actions have to predicted.
As for sound, admirable voice and music talent pooled into the game. Each stage has its own soundtrack, mostly comprised of some j-rockish tunes with some violin or piano intonation. It’s easy to find a favorite. Vocals also aren’t that common in stage music in fighting games, so it’s good to see some experimentation in Yatagarasu. All characters are fully voiced, some by famous (Japanese) voice actors who starred in works such as Final Fantasy XIII and Attack on Titan.
An interesting feature is the ability to pick from a variety of “supports” who don’t help out, but offer live commentary on the ongoing match. Any of the characters can do it, though their lines occur fairly infrequently. But there’s also a host of American and Japanese commentators, famous in the fighting game scene, who offer much more robust opinions. My feelings on these were mixed, because some of them are hit or miss, but there’s so many of them, as well as the option to disable them, so it’s not a particular problem. The issue was that their commentary triggers were either too rare or occurred all at once, and it gets a little chaotic since there already is a baseline Japanese “system” commentator.
It’s pretty clear that Yatagarasu aims at a niche within a niche – fighting game fans who yearn for old-school 2D beat ‘em ups – because mostly just seasoned members of the fighting game community will get the jokes to really get into the spirit of the matches. Just like with any game of its genre, it’s best to find an opponent of a similar level to have an enjoyable experience, otherwise a veteran fighter can dizzy you with unpredictable cross-ups and throws. Playing against an opponent well out of my league, I easily saw how much depth the game has.
Yatagarasu has surprisingly well-functioning online play, especially since timings on parries and combos is so demanding. But I still played a good number of matches relatively lag-free. There’s a lot of online options, such as ranked and private matches, spectating, team creation, and Twitter integration. It’s clear that online play is the way to go for a scene to develop. Sadly, I couldn’t figure out how to change the name of my team or integrate my Twitter account, so hopefully these features will work better in the future.
The interface was one of the biggest obstacles I faced in order to to enjoy Yatagarasu. Starting up the game for the first time had the language set to Japanese instead of English, despite me setting it otherwise. Japanese characters don’t display correctly, and occasionally I’ve seen intelligible strings of characters. The menus in general look a bit basic, and the only really troublesome navigation is in training, where if I want the dummy to perform specific action, there are a ton of actions to inefficiently cycle through. My last ire is with the key configuration settings, which don’t let me map a “macro” (map two buttons to one, so a LP+HP for example).
The few shortcomings don’t get much in the way of an ultimately solid fighter, which judiciously honors its progenitors. With a spirited cast and fairly easy-to-grasp mechanics, even the uninitiated can jump into the fray. Quality voice-acting, sound, and art push Yatagarasu, an indie fighter, well into the crowded, wider beat ‘em up gaming scene.
Yatagarasu: Attack on Cataclysm is available now via Steam for Windows.