Review: Umbraclaw

Inti Creates' latest action game is feline fine

I have something of a long fascination with the work of Inti Creates, going back to possibly my favourite single series in gaming, Mega Man Zero. I'd hesitate to say they came out of the gate on all cylinders with it - the weapon leveling system in the first two games can do one - but the stage design, fast-paced combat and sheer sense of drama gave me the all-timer Mega Man Zero 3 and the only slightly less amazing Zero 4, which would have been enough by themselves to make me a fan for life.

And a fan I am indeed; Mega Man 9, Azure Striker Gunvolt, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, Blaster Master Zero, Mighty Gunvolt, Gal Guardians and all their associated sequels? I cannot overestimate how important their titles have been to me in the past decade or so. Hey, I don't love everything they put out - Dragon: Marked for Death wasn't bad, but it wasn't for me. And the less I say about Gal Gun the better. Overall, though, it's a hell of a track record - the Gunvolt series in particular got exponentially better with each entry, Gunvolt 3 being an absolutely brilliant action game I'd recommend to anyone. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon and its even better follow-up are certified bangers I've played through multiple times. But here's the kicker: their latest title, Umbraclaw, may be the very best of them all.

At the risk of being rude, I've seen coverage of Umbraclaw elsewhere on the internet and found myself wondering whether or not said outlets even played the game, and if they did they didn't play it enough to really get their claws around it. Taking control of Kuon, a sadly deceased house cat, you've got to use those feline wiles to escape the underworld. Being a cat, however, you're far from invulnerable - while you can climb walls and squeeze into tight spaces, you'll still be defeated in a single hit. Thankfully you've got nine lives, and losing one of them will see Kuon inherit a new power from another animal, such as an elephant allowing them to use their trunk to reflect enemy projectles, or a lion allowing Kuon to enact a deadly slashing attack by calling forth the spirit of that self-style King of the Jungle.

Die too often, though, and Kuon will become something else entirely, at the expense of his (her? I forget, and I don't want to look it up. That's the Gipp Difference) memories, their previous life with their loving and attentive owner. These cutscenes are frequent, but short and genuinely affecting. If you choose to sacrifice that history, Kuon will transform into a frankly badass-looking purr-veyor of pain, dashing, leaping and slashing like something out of - yes - Mega Man Zero.

To get the "best ending", you'll need to retain Kuon's feline form, which has come under criticism elsewhere - a somewhat silly grievance given that if you play towards the endgame you'll be given a fairly clear option by which to achieve this without sacrificing the more dynamic gameplay that Kuon's transformed form offers. Level design throughout is excellent, especially considering every stage manages to remain challenging while offering all manner of secret paths for the feline Kuon to navigate in order to avoid direct combat, while transformed Kuon can instead choose to go hog wild on the enemies and tear them to pieces with consumnate ease.

Boss battles are as great as you'd expect from Inti, with vicious attack patterns and deadly speed. But all of this can be mitigated by exploration, the collection of magatama beads which allow you to purchase innumerable upgrades to make the game less fierce, less initially overwhelming.  But that requires you to actually make use of the systems the game presents you, which is clearly too much to ask from today's audiences. Christ, listen to me, I sound like a dickhead. Oh wait, I am a dickhead. Hooray!

It's a glorious little melting pot of systems that allow you to lean into your own strengths as a gamer providing you are prepared to commit to the adventure, take advantage of the boons that are thrown your way, pay attention and make your character's build work for you. Will you die? Almost certainly; you'll wipe out and get thrown back to the start. But then you'll know what's out there and be able to circumvent it with time, patience, skill and planning. Or you can just turn on the mode that gives you infinite lives and not worry about any of it, I suppose. It's an option!

Anyway, Umbraclaw is something of a masterpiece and to me it represents the apex of what Inti Creates can achieve - there are mechanics here from almost all of their previous games, but this is a much more expansive and interesting piece of work, a game that'll shine if you give it (and yourself) a chance to vibe with it. I had an absolute blast playing it and I'm far from done - there's much more I haven't seen, secrets I haven't dug up, and unique builds I'm itching to get to work on. Umbraclaw is a rough diamond, but it's the "rough" that makes it so memorable, so enjoyable. Also, cats are super cute, right? For god's sake don't ignore this one.