Kuon Sows Terror by Making Players Afraid to Run
Kuon brings players into an eerie, surreal world of foul rituals meant to bring back the dead. Maybe reviving corpses is not such a bad thing, given how easy it is to die in this title. While you have some neat offensive abilities thanks to some magical cards, you still can’t take much of a beating. Not that you can just run from trouble, either. Why? Because running actually saps your life and can leave you near-death when a foe gets close. Through some intriguing design decisions with the health, healing, and running systems, the developers made an already-tense game into something terrifying.
This game already has a strange, nightmare-like feel to it. I mean, the focus of the horror is on some creepy magic mulberry trees. Silkworms that make cocoons around the dead to bring them back. An array of exorcists of varying competencies. Magic cards that you burn to summon spiders to fight weird zombie people. That, and everything moves at this slow, languishing pace as you meet an array of discomforting stares from the various creatures and cast members. It’s familiar, yet still a unique horror experience. I’m not surprised that From Software can still draw out some horrifying designs and elements in Elden Ring after playing this earlier title from the company.
So, you’ll control a variety of exorcists throughout Kuon. And like I said, they’re of varying skill levels. Thankfully, you’ll grow stronger throughout the game. However, you still can’t afford to be trading hits with the weird undead (called Tempests) that fill the haunted manor you’re exploring. You have a limited health pool, like most horror games. So, when some weird, decaying thing wraps you up in a bear hug, you can’t endure it for long. That means you’re better off keeping your enemies at bay by fleeing or killing them so fast that they can’t hurt you that much.
Each of these plans comes with a problem. Your starting weapons aren’t all that great. Fighting off shambling corpses with a knife or a fan isn’t very effective. You do get a stronger weapon late in the game, but your tools aren’t ideal. Instead, you may want to use some of your magic or summoning abilities. These can fling fireballs or send your own nasty creatures to fight for you, taking some pressure off. Unfortunately, these abilities are finite. Each time you use a summon or spell, you burn a corresponding card. When there’s none left, it’s just you and your knife. Not an ideal state for fighting a boss. You’re going to want to use your limited spells sparingly to make it through the game.
This means more running to keep a distance from your enemies. But running makes more noise, and the enemies in this game will respond to anything they hear. You can also blunder into objects while running to make even louder sounds, drawing more attention. Even worse, running drains your health in Kuon. Not very quickly, but still enough that it can make a big difference when you’re close to death. If you choose to run at a bad time, you might die when you’d have otherwise lived.
Running also brings a few more woes. If you run into a Tempest, you’ll take more damage from it. Now, while this damage affects your health, it also causes what the game calls Vertigo, which is an effect you see get worse and worse as your health plummets. Running into enemies, getting slammed by magic attacks, and other distressing things cause this Vertigo state. When you’re in that state, the screen swirls and things get fuzzy. It makes it fairly clear you’re going to die soon, which is kind of nice since you health bar isn’t visible all the time. However, you can’t use your magic cards while suffering from Vertigo, so you’re in extreme danger when this hits you. And since running damages your health, therefore worsening Vertigo, the simple act of running can really harm you and limit your offensive abilities.
This mechanic means you really have to consider when you want to run. Running at a bad time could drain your health, leaving you vulnerable to enemies. It can also remove your card abilities, leaving you nearly-defenseless. Running is extremely risky in the game, but when you’re out of options, what else can you do? Knowing running might directly lead to your death creates an interesting feeling whenever you flee. Knowing you may be taking part in your own death in some way was a unique sensation for me, I’ll admit. There’s this sense of hopelessness that hits. I can’t fight or I’ll die. If I run, even if I get away, I might die. It loans the game a feeling of despair.
Thankfully, Kuon lets you remove Vertigo for free by meditating. A single button press will have your character begin their meditation, refilling their health after a few moments. Maybe longer, if Vertigo is severe. The thing is, you stand still while doing this, so it’s not easy to meditate while creates are trying to gnaw your face. You typically need to find a safe spot to do it. Which means you’re going to want to run to find someplace far from your enemies. But will this flight be the thing that kills you?
All of these things work together to force the player into taking in their surroundings at a slow pace. Why? There’s a few reasons. Mainly because, if you can’t run, you can’t rush through places or events. You have to really soak in the environment and listen to what’s around you. You don’t want to rush through a scary area, as you don’t want to waste health on the action OR run into something and take extra damage. You’ll also need to be aware that something is coming, as getting caught by surprise will lead to a panicked fight. One you might have to run from, at that.
So, you walk. Slowly. Quietly. You stare into every dark corner and listen to every errant sound. You watch your enemies rush toward you, trying your best to be calm during the approach. If you panic – if you run – you put yourself in a riskier position.
Kuon balances it all out with its meditation ability. If you can drain your health by running, which you can do easily and often, then they’ve made it so you can heal just as often and easily. You need to be cautious and calm about your choices on when to do it. If you mess up, you’ll easily weaken and kill yourself. Making running into something that could kill you seems pretty unfair, but when you can heal any time, it balances itself out. Doesn’t make things much easier or less scary, but it’s balanced.
So, you have to creep through Kuon. Skulk through its bleak halls (and it excels at giving you unsettling places to walk though). You have to be on the lookout for anything that might come your way. When a Tempest shows up, you need to fight it calmly, even though the game’s story and atmosphere have been doing everything they can to load you with terror. It forces you to embrace your fear and steep yourself in it, all while staying calm anyway. If you can’t, you’ll bring more dangers to you, take away your own weapons, or bring yourself to the cusp of death all on your own.