Scarce Steep Scare Secured: PlayStation 2’s Kuon

There has always been this sect of games, specifically older retro titles, that you hear so much about. But barely anyone I know has played them. This was a big thing during the PlayStation 2 era, and when emulation became more prevalent later in the years, it became less of an issue because if you wanted a game, it was a few clicks away. So now that I am a little older, I am fascinated with these more difficult, rare, and obscure horror games that have seen more attention during the internet age, and it’s become my goal to find these games and try them out…finally.

The game I got around to this week was Kuon. A survival horror game developed by now famous From Software. Developers of the Dark Souls and Armored Core series. During the Gamecube and PlayStation 2 era, From Software started development on Kuon, a survival horror game set in the Heian period in Japanese history, which these days is noted for having some of the best classical Japanese arts. 

Throughout the game, players would control three different characters. Utsuki, Sakuya, and Abe no Seimei, each of them being able to tap into some form of mystical power and being referred to as ohmyõdõ or exorcists. You will use these powers to battle otherworldly creatures as you work to figure out the mystery behind the monster outbreak at Fujiwara Manor in Kyoto, Japan.

When it was originally released in 2004, outside of Japan, Kuon never really garnered much coverage. It could be between the limited coverage or the at the time lackluster reviews from the few outlets that did cover it, which led to fewer printings of the actual game, specifically in North America. It is considered to be a quite rare title in the PlayStation 2 library, with used copies going for between 200-300$.  

Many of what the reviewers from back then found irksome or disjointed holds true today. While Kuon does a great job of setting itself apart in the form of its art design and focus on a specific era in Japanese culture and history, its controls and combat not only didn’t age very well but even compared to some other games from 2004 felt like it might have been rough especially when you think of what else came out that year like Metal Gear Solid 3, Second Sight or Psi-ops.

While I do enjoy the world-building in Kuon, especially how the environmental storytelling really adds to it, like in Resident Evil and Silent Hills, leftover notes from people who at one point existed in this world. It is the gameplay that really bogs the whole experience down. The combat is just very unpolished. There is a real lack of responsiveness when trying to fight enemies. Even when there is a singular enemy on screen, it can be difficult if they are quick. It doesn’t help that even with the promise of these cool exorcism abilities, which granted there are quite a few really cool spells, with how slowly everything is paced and how stiff the characters feel while casting, we never feel like an all-powerful exorcist. Which, granted, could be the point. But the flip side of that is our characters all have this innate stillness to them when walking around that even the general movement feels rough at times.

Then there is, of course, the soundtrack. Today, FromSoftware is known for its incredibly emotional and gut-wrenching scores. They embody the game and command the scenes leading to this infallible mixture between music and storytelling that is present in so few other games. In Kuon, unfortunately, there is just this one guttural moan with some wind effects for the entire game outside of boss fights which do have some good soundtracks, but nothing compared to the ones present in FromSoftware games today.

The Horror is Kuon is awesome, and to me, it is easily the biggest takeaway. The way they allow the environment to really set up some truly disturbing scenes and let us sit with it. Or how slowly walking through a scene only to realize there was someone… Or someTHING on the roof watching us the whole time has a way of sinking in and getting under your skin. This is where the movement and its stamina and health mixture system does help to set up these moments. Because in Kuon, your health and stamina are interconnected. So if you find yourself running around, you’ll get winded, and it’ll attract enemies in the area to you. But, because your health is also connected to it, you will be facing these enemies with a lot more risk. It’s just unfortunate that the slow trodding through cleared areas tends to slow the pace down so much.

It’s hard to say if it’s worth the trip through Kuon, given its difficulty to find and outdated game design. If you have the means to go through it, then go ahead. Just know that unlike some other choice PlayStation 2 horror games, it hasn’t aged the greatest in its combat. Environmental storytelling is still top-notch, so if you are in it more for the story, then I would say go for it. It would be nice if there was an easier legal way to play, and with the amount of goodwill FromSoftware holds with its fans, it would be awesome to see them rerelease this game.

In a world of rare horror games, Kuon is one of the better-known ones, alongside Haunting Ground and Rule of Rose. I have already expressed my feelings for Rule of Rose before, but my next goal is to finally sit down and see what all the fuss is over Haunting Ground

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