Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief review

As we enter October we’re reminded that we’re swiftly approaching what is typically the most crowded period of the year for major new video game releases. It’s no coincidence that some publishers are eager to see their games released during this calm before the storm.

Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief, a game set in Edo-era Japan where you play as a skilled thief, is one such game that has managed to emerge from the shadow of bigger, more hyped games.

It also emerges from the shadow of a long-lost Japan-only release. As with developer Acquire’s remaster of Akiba’s Trip last year, this reissue of Kamiwaza marks the first time the game has been released overseas.

As you’d expect from the creators of Tenchu, Shinobido, and Way of the Samurai, Kamiwaza is an inventive stealth game with a unique flavour like no other, even fifteen years after its release.

The game puts you in the shoes of Ebizo, a fresh recruit to a band of noble thieves whom – your mentor assures you – only steal from the rich and never kill. Things quickly turn south on his first mission when he witnesses his companions turning rogue, making a bloodbath out of the mansion you infiltrated. With precious little time to act, Ebizo snatches a lone survivor – a young child named Suzuna – and makes a run for it, swearing to never steal again.

A decade later, Suzuna falls gravely ill to an unknown disease. With a recent revolt against the government sending Edo period Japan into an era of unchecked profiteering, the price of medicine has reached eye-searingly high prices. This pushes Ebizo, now an honest carpenter, to take up thievery once again in pursuit of saving his adoptive daughter.

Developer Acquire uses this as a preface to set the stage for an open-ended game with multiple endings. Kamiwaza operates on a real-time clock, Suzuna’s condition deteriorates by the day. Meanwhile, you can take on all sorts of jobs and requests at the Thieves’ Bathhouse (a dodgy guild) in hope of funding that all-important medicine. Your work pulls you in all sorts of directions, and you’re reminded that your reputation with the local populace is at stake depending on whether you choose to help or donate for the better of the people, or simply steal for personal gain.

With these overarching choices influencing which of the game’s four endings you eventually arrive at, it’s a good thing the game itself is rich in mechanical depth, offering hundreds of different ways to approach every scenario that you face across multiple playthroughs.

This is a game that carries systems upon systems to get your head around – too many to explain in a single review! But the simple act of thievery is, crucially, made simple. It all runs off a single action button – mash this and you’ll gradually pickpocket people, pick locks, or swipe goods from the shelves.

Stealing, of course, is an act that carries significant risk – it takes several button mashes before you can steal most items, with the most valuable having you suspiciously whittling away at them bit by bit, causing more and more of a fuss around you. Stolen items are stuffed inside Ebizo’s furoshiki, a large Japanese cloth that handily forms a makeshift bag.

That’s the simple part covered, as exposing yourself to danger is where things get interesting. If Ebizo is spotted, the screen will momentarily flash red, going into a state of slow motion. React fast enough within this short window and he’ll perform a stylish cartwheel, remaining undetected, his suspect in a daze. Every item nabbed during this short period earns you Style points, continue to avoid detection while stealing even more objects and you earn a combo multiplier, all the while the risk of being caught slowly mounts up…

These style points in turn can be traded for even more means of avoiding detection, from the hilarious (flattening yourself and rolling across stair steps) to the cunning (hoisting yourself up by the ceiling between two adjacent walls). The range of abilities is wide, and best summed up by the game’s attract mode video.

The desired outcome, then, is to enter the marked locale – be it a shrine, bathhouse, marketplace, castle, or a docked ship – and fill your bag to bursting point with as many high value goods from it as possible, before legging it back to the People’s box or the Exchange box to either donate or cash in your loot.

As you can imagine the above is all easier said than done, and that’s precisely what makes Kamiwaza so satisfying to play. Pulling off these moves successfully and stylishly isn’t a given, it requires slow improvement to the point of mastery. Add on top of this the numerous factors to consider that can potentially scupper your chances of returning with all your loot intact. Familiarising yourself with them and learning to adapt is a huge part of the appeal.

Take the furoshiki on Ebizo’s back. Most missions require you to hunt down just a single item, but the temptation is always there to nab a hundred other trinkets on top while you’re there. You’ll soon realise, however, that there’s a lot of worthless stuff lining the shelves of that storehouse you took a detour to visit, and before you know it you’ve pilfered up a heavy sack of worthless goods, slowing you down tremendously in the process. But there are ways to work around this – you can drop your sack with the press of a button, and kick it like a football, distracting those nearby.

It’s a similar story with the warning system. Wanted signs slowly evolve to more accurately reflect Ebizo’s likeness each time you’re spotted by a local. But make an effort to steal these signs without being spotted and you can slowly reverse the process. Even being captured by the town guards can yield interesting results – the more valuable your loot, the further into the local prison complex you’re thrown into. One of the most powerful tools in the game can only be uncovered by reaching the deepest confines of the prison, yet it’s possible to go through the entire game being none the wiser.

Despite all these choices in gameplay, you’ll find that Kamiwaza does eventually settle into a predictable rhythm. Requests tend to come in a few flavours with limited variation between them, where the spawn location of the marked treasure might change or be unknown. Your ability to steal objects also becomes more powerful over time, requiring fewer jabs of that action button, in turn making you less vulnerable.

Money, too, is carried over between each run of the game. Shrewd players can use this knowledge to trivialise the challenge of fully restoring Suzuna’s health and unlocking the game’s true ending.

Yet in spite of all this Kamiwaza remains an immensely entertaining game to pick up and play. It hails from that period where the term “open world” translated to seemingly endless opportunities to try new things in an enclosed sandbox, rather than a smorgasbord of content peppered about an enormous but shallow world.

The designers clearly understand this, since your carried-over stealing ability and items open the door for higher-level play within familiar backdrops. Not only can you now reasonably attempt the game’s most egregious challenges (one particular mission involves stealing from a highly skilled imposter Ebizo), but you’ll finally be able to start chaining together huge Style combos to earn special licenses, something simply not possible when it took ages before to steal each item.

Repeated playthroughs, then, offer new opportunities for play that reflect Ebizo’s transition from novice to master thief.

As you’ve probably gathered already, Acquire has tried to keep this remaster looking and sounding as faithful to the PS2 original as possible. While the game’s soundtrack – a score that mixes many different styles to create something both unique and atmospheric – remains untouched, the visuals are hit-and-miss.

Kamiwaza was never the most beautiful looking of PS2 games, with its stiff animation and boxy environments, but this new version, now on Unreal Engine, is noticeably darker, crushing the detail out of some environments. There are some odd omissions, too, such as Ebizo’s trademark PS2 hair losing its soft appearance, or the lens flare effect from the sun being replaced with a less impressive-looking alternative. Buildings and characters now cast dynamic shadows, though, and the water has seen a noticeable upgrade, balancing out some of those discrepancies.

Importantly, however, the game feels identical to play to the PS2 original, right down to the inertia of the game’s camera control. This does have the knock-on effect where the game is still capped at the same 30 frames per second on both Switch and PC – the two platforms we tested – but it’s still more than perfectly playable since the many intrusive framerate hiccups of the original game have been eliminated.

Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief features both a rich historical Japanese setting and esoteric open-world stealth gameplay that continues to intrigue in an age where we there are predefined expectations for how games should look, feel, and play. While it’s certainly lacking polish compared to modern stealth games, it makes up for that with unbridled enthusiasm to offer the player a unique and extensive toolset that’s as fun as it is challenging to master.

Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief is out 11th Oct on PC, PS4 and Switch. PC and Switch versions tested.