Developer: Whitethorn Games
Release Date: March 28, 2023 for Nintendo Switch (previously on iOS and Steam)
Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch, handheld and docked
Price: $14.99 USD; Boss Rush was provided a review key by Whitethorn Games
One of the biggest challenges to learning a new language hits when it requires understanding a new writing system. For Western students, the kanji ideograms and kana syllabaries of the Japanese language represent one of the first (and continuous) challenges of fluency. Enter: Kana Quest, a cute game meant to be played in bite-sized sessions that aims to flatten that difficulty curve with a unique but familiar puzzle formula.
As a lifelong, severely casual (and admittedly less-than-motivated) student of Japanese, Kana Quest‘s potential to solidify my grasp of hiragana makes it an excellent study aid. And also an addictive good time! Something you can’t normally say about study sessions.
If you’ve played a tile-swapping puzzle game, you won’t be lost in Kana Quest‘s neighborhood. In fact, the rules are dead simple: Interpret the kana symbols on the screen, then move tiles so that each kana is placed next to another that either shares a first-letter sound or a second-letter sound. The player is to accomplish this in as few moves as possible. Of course, being that Kana Quest is both a study aid and a puzzle game, it includes all kinds of challenges to keep your tiles separated. The game frequently throws curve balls like restricted tiles, mystery kana, rule modifiers, and movement limitations.
One thing should be made clear about Kana Quest: It is a learning supplement. The game does not take any pains to explain the hiragana syllabary aside from a perfunctory text definition before starting. Nor does it teach vocabulary. Most Japanese students, whether in school or self-learning, won’t be bothered by this. However if you were to pick up Kana Quest at the very start of your Japanese journey, the game may seem completely opaque. If you have any common hiragana visual table handy, however, this challenge quickly evaporates. Kana Quest provides an interactive one in its submenu.
From the start, Kana Quest makes learning the sounds of the kana job number one. You may inspect any kana tile on any level to see it enlarged and hear its pronunciation without penalty. From there, you survey the puzzle board and start sussing out which tiles belong next to each other. The game presents this visually in a fun and cute way. Each tile has a lightly animated face. The tiles long to be near their friends. And so, when the player makes an appropriate swap, the newly-united tiles’ expressions light up, and a heart connection forms between them. Awww.
In order to complete a level, all kana tiles must be included in a chain of these heart connections. Since almost all kana syllables are comprised of a beginning consonant and ending vowel, a chain can always be made by partnering any two kana that share one or the other, not unlike the English language parlor game First Letter Last Letter. And that’s where the challenge can multiply in fun and creative ways. Entry-level players will at first simply need to understand each syllable well enough to find their potential matches. As they commit the kana to memory, or as their gamer-tendencies kick in, they will pay more attention to the move counter on the right. Each level of Kana Quest comes with the promise that skilled players can complete the chain in a minimal amount of swaps. Depending on the number of kana tiles in the puzzle, a gold medal can be had for as little as three or four moves.
As you solve levels, the game will modify the goal by adding rules and moves that cost more than a single swap. The first and most prominent is the addition of tiles that have been placed face down, or rather disguised in Groucho glasses. These mystery tiles will always appear in their level with at least one heart connection already formed. It is then up to the player to narrow down which kana it could be based on it’s already-visible partners. It’s a clever bit of game design that forces the player to type out the sound they think the mystery tile contains. Not only does this add a dimension to gameplay, it obeys a core tenet of effective teaching and studying: Variety promotes mastery.
As you master the kana, you should notice that your focus will transition smoothly from struggling just to read the kana, to quickly and efficiently pre-solving the board in your head to get those li’l buddies together.
All of this runs smoothly and provides great moments of both frustration and triumph. The only negative trait I encountered that stemmed from game design was the experience of playing Kana Quest docked. It is clearly meant to be played in handheld mode. What’s more, it is also clear that its optimal format is a smartphone held vertically, leaving the player’s dominant hand free. Something that can only be reasonably recreated on a Switch, even with the system in handheld mode. To Whitethorn’s credit, though, they made the game completely competent in both modes, with the edge given to handheld play. Playing with a controller requires some unintuitive double clicking and cursor movement.
Graphics and Sound
Kana Quest is presented in a clean, hi-bit style, reminiscent of classic puzzlers of the SNES and Sega Genesis era. Chill and kawaii, each group of levels is laid over a tranquil Japanese scene. Some rural, some urban. The soundtrack is limited but pleasant, giving off vibes of both lo-fi hip hop and Japanese enka. There is only one song per group of levels, though, and each song clocks in at only a couple dozen bars long. Since Kana Quest began life on mobile, though, perhaps Whitethorn assumed players would be pumping in their music from elsewhere or playing on mute.
Final Score (3.5 out of 5 stars)
Kana Quest pulls off a difficult trick when it comes to the hard work of studying: It makes it fun and motivates the player to truly memorize the hiragana syllabary. The rewards are better reading fluency and those sweet bumps of dopamine from solving a tried-and-true type of puzzle. As a bonus, players will add a layer of mastery to their understanding of hiragana by learning to see it as a whole system, similar to how alphabetization comes naturally to English readers.
As a supplement to other lessons or rigorous self study, Kana Quest has the potential to really help Japanese students read confidently. Though its better nature lives on smart phones, the Switch port makes competent use of Nintendo’s hardware and brings a great learning tool to perhaps a wider and younger audience. At $15 USD Kana Quest is a great investment for any Japanese language learner who keeps their Switch at hand.
If you give Kana Quest a try, let us know how it helped with your studies in the comments or over at the Boss Rush Discord.
Featured Image: Whitethorn Games
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