Hanako: Honor & Blade Early Access Review -- Lovely But Lacking

+Mpact Games' online Japanese fighting game is as beautiful as it is flawed.

Hanako: Honor & Blade is an online, class-based fighting game set in 16th Century Feudal Japan. You choose to play as one of two warring clans in 12v12 online multiplayer battles to decide the fate of the nation. All of this serves as a metaphor for the real struggle of life and death, and the fight against illness and disease that we and our loved ones face everyday. 

Developed by +Mpact Games, the concept for Hanako and its themes originate from the loss of team lead Matt Canei's mother. Hanako's design and atmosphere immediately convey the passion that has clearly been poured into this project in an attempt to translate the sentiment of tragedy into art.

For transparency, I'd like to state that I encountered a fair few bugs and glitches while playing the game -- but being that the version I played was a closed alpha build not yet released to early access, this is to be expected. As this game is an early build, take this review with a pinch of salt as +Mpact Games still have a while to go before Hanako's full release.

After loading up the game for the first time, I was unable to progress from the main menu. This wasn’t because of any technical issue with game, but because I found the scenery to be hypnotically beautiful. The tranquil scene depicted a bridge crossing over a calmly flowing stream and in the background a single Japanese cherry blossom, with petals dancing as they fell to the ground. And all of this overlooked by sunset soaked mountains -- I was excited to see more. 

Unfortunately the core gameplay loop is far less satisfying than it is to simply explore and take in the scenic maps in which the game's battles take place.

The history of why the two clans, the Hanako and Yamai, are at war is told in a one page comic strip that, while wonderfully illustrated, doesn't have the emotional impact that Hanako's lore should have given the personal connection the team has with the themes they explore. There's a much deeper dive into the story on the Hanako website, but the separation undermines the game's attempt to portray such an extensive metaphor.

Although Hanako was influenced and designed based on the loss of a loved one, there's little in the game that actually explores the connection of disease and war. If there wasn't a paragraph in the 'Our Story' page that directly references this connection, it unfortunately wouldn't be apparent to the average player.

Each match begins with you selecting which clan to fight for -- the Hanako or the invading Yamai. After choosing who to side with, you decide which of the three classes you'll play as. The classes are the same for both factions, with Hanako warriors fighting in red whilst the Yamai are a green pallete swapped version. The classes essentially boil down to strong and slow (Naginatashi), all-rounder (Kenshi), and speedy support (Ninja). The Ite archer class was unavailable to play during my session, but it will be released sometime after the game launches into early access. 

After choosing to start as a Kenshi fighting for Hanako, I expected to be instructed on what the game type was or if I had an objective of some kind -- but all that was offered was some text at the top of the screen that read "Current Objective: The Temple" followed by a countdown timer. Having no idea what to do, (which became a common theme throughout my limited time with Hanako) I ended up just following a couple of my fellow reds to a small area filled with battling players. I jumped into the fray and was immediately killed.

This is where the game's biggest flaw became apparent -- the chaotic combat. The spaces in which players are meant to contest are just too confined for the amount of players +Mpact Games wants to accommodate. In the matches I played there were 11 players, broken into teams of 6 and 5, and +Mpact Games have said that Hanako is designed for 12v12 matches. This seems completely crazy to me, as most of my time playing was spent among a crowd, mindlessly swinging swords and having no idea what was going on.

The fact that the character models are just pallete swaps of each other only adds to the confusion. Once the chaos takes over, it's very difficult to differentiate between friend and foe. I saw my teammates wildly swinging blades at each other on multiple occasions and I caught myself doing the same almost as often as I was fighting the enemy team, which becomes incredibly frustrating.

Outside of the crowded combat situations, I did have a couple of fun 1 on 1 duels where I was able to appreciate what Hanako was trying to accomplish. I was killed in all but one of those encounters -- but in each one I was able block my opponent's attacks and counter with my own. The important thing is that I never felt that the deaths were cheap and undeserved like they were when participating in group combat, where it became all too common to not know who killed me or how.

This also gave me an opportunity to try out the special abilities exclusive to the Kenshi class in a fair fight. Abilities in Hanako work similarly to an MMO.Once used, they go on cooldown for a limited time before becoming available again. The trailer does a good job of showcasing these abilities as powerful and generally badass -- but perhaps does too good of a job. In reality the Kenshi's abilities felt underpowered and not very special, as they're just more sword attacks.

The Ninja's abilities, on the other hand, felt different and interesting enough for it to become my favorite class -- the highlight being the ability to jump back and throw a handful of kunai at your opponent. +Mpact has planned for a skill tree to be available at some point during the game's time in Early Access. This will allow players to earn XP from matches and swap between different abilities. Aside from earning XP and leveling a skill tree, there doesn't seem to be much more to Hanako -- and there's no real reason why I'd choose to play this game over anything else.

Ultimately, Hanako's mesmerizing art style and atmosphere aren't enough to compensate for its overcrowded and hectic gameplay. And whilst +Mpact has attempted to convey the metaphoric battling of illness, it falls flat when the only obvious evidence of such a message is that they insist it is in there. The average gamer with no prior knowledge of the background of the game wouldn't get to experience the emotional symbolism that +Mpact games has hidden in this online hack'n'slasher.

Hanako: Honor & Blade launches on Steam Early Access on October 9.

[Note: +Mpact Games provided a code for Hanako: Honor & Blade for the purpose of this review.]

Published Oct. 3rd 2017

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