March 12, 2020
Not Dead Design
Not Dead Design
Kana Quest is a puzzle game for PC that aims to assist the player in learning to read Japanese. Learning to read and write the language is an incredibly hard task at the best of times, so it’s a pretty lofty goal. Its two most frequently used alphabets, Hiragana and Katakana, each have 46 basic characters to memorise, to say nothing of the thousands of different kanji characters. The idea behind the game is to create a fun and engaging way to learn it all, instead of staring at a textbook. The game can be played with both Hiragana and Katakana, and can be instantaneously switched between the two.
It’s made by a local Melbourne developer, Theodor Kipen, who calls Kana Quest a mashup of dominoes and a match-3 game. Certainly, the adorable Kana blocks look the part of a domino game. But I find that description to be selling it short, and doesn’t quite advertise just how complex the puzzles can get in Kana Quest. The game quickly turns into a devilishly difficult logical conundrum that, especially in the more advanced levels, will have your brain tied up in all sorts of logical knots.
In Kana Quest, you match blocks containing Japanese characters (called Kana) all in a row, making sure that each block matches its neighbour using either its consonant or its vowel sound. For example, the “Ka” Kana will match with any other block containing either the “K” sound (like “Ko“) or the “A” sound (like “Sa“). To complete each level, you’ll need to create a complete chain of matches (or “friends”) using each Kana. There are more than 300 levels across multiple worlds, which each introducing a new puzzle mechanic plus more Kana to memorise. All the while, your ears are treated to an amazingly chill lo-fi chiptune style soundtrack.
The beginning levels start you off with simple swapping mechanics, which at first can seem a bit too simplistic. If you’re in it for the game and not for learning, the fun might start to wear away a bit too quickly. But I recommend sticking with it – the slow pace is there to help you memorise those Kana at a reasonable speed. Each new world you unlock will reward you with more complex mechanics: Mystery Kana, Ice Kana, Ghost Kana, and even more. Each one changes the way you interact with your Kana blocks, making for some real brain-teasers. The Kana are drip-fed to you at an easy-going pace, and in an easy to understand order. For example, the first world only contains Kana with the consonants K and N, so you can remember each one more easily. If you need more practice, you can replay a stage at any time, and a table of both alphabets can be viewed from the menu. There’s even a guide on how to write each character with the correct strokes. Some real thought has gone into this.
A trip to Japan in your pocket with Kana Quest
A lot of work has gone into making the game a joy to look at – and listen to! The backdrop of each world is an iconic Japanese-themed setting, from bustling urban centres to the more rural countryside, to the more anime-like fantasy. And it’s all accompanied by Jazz-inspired lo-fi music that is apparently pretty popular in Japan right now. And, of course, those Kawaii faces decorating each Kana. It really adds a lot, taking this already cute game concept and making it better.
Particular acknowledgement should go to the game’s soundtrack, which is an absolute joy. This is a joint effort by two composers: Leina Burton and Julian Sanchez (aka ZorsySan), whose work you may have also heard in the Steven Universe Movie. As a nice touch, the tracks add more or less instruments depending on how many Kana you have in a chain. There’s nothing that completes a puzzle experience like this more than a sweet visual and audio style!
In an interview with us during PAX last year, Theodor spoke at length about his frustration with current educational ‘games’ that are little more than glorified pop quizzes. His goal with Kana Quest was to create a game that didn’t feel like homework to its players. And in that, I feel he’s succeeded. The game certainly doesn’t feel like I’m being forced to memorise all these characters, but rather it feels like a natural side effect of learning the game. Kana Quest relies on your retention skills to remember each character.
This brings me to the main point. How much you get out of Kana Quest will depend on your learning style. If you learn by repetition and by visual cues, I think Kana Quest may be an incredibly useful learning tool. I’m not like that, though. Visual cues hinder me more than they help, as my brain becomes confused about what exactly I’m supposed to be remembering. If you asked me how to write the Kana for “Sa” I would be more likely to reply with “the one with the sunglasses” rather the actual hiragana symbol さ.
“Kana Quest may be
an incredibly useful
If you’re like me, you learn practically by using the characters in words and sentences. While I would never have expected the game to go that far, it seems strange that the game doesn’t at least have you spell out actual Japanese words. Kana Quest has you creating random strings of syllables, which seems like a missed opportunity. As it is, I don’t feel like I got as much as I could have out of the game.
Even though I wouldn’t say I memorised any of the Kana, I at least felt myself absorbing and grasping the basics of learning the language, which is exactly what the game is all about. I feel like if I played this for long enough to beat its 300+ levels, I would start to get somewhere…. maybe.
Puzzle games like these are great to play whenever you have a free few minutes. To that end, I can imagine the mobile version of this game (currently planned to release later in the year) to be the superior platform. As fun as the puzzles are, I’d prefer to take them on the go rather than sit at my computer for a dedicated play session. There were even a few graphical blips that I don’t think would have cropped up on a phone. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable time, and even if I didn’t get as much out of it as I hoped, I feel way more justified in playing this than a simple time waster like Candy Crush.
More than anything, Kana Quest gives me hope for the future of educational video games. It’s fun, it’s creative, and yeah, it’s technically homework, but it didn’t feel like it was. I think if I were a kid, I would love Japanese class if it included a couple of sessions with this game.
- Fun, satisfying challenges with good progression
- An overall great educational tool
- Is the soundtrack for sale yet!?
- Missed some learning opportunities
Please don’t expect Kana Quest to be able to teach you Japanese on its own: that’s not what it’s for. If you’re serious about learning Japanese though, including this in your learning curriculum stands to be very rewarding. Whether you want to learn Japanese or not, I would recommend Kana Quest. Just make sure you play with earphones for a taste of those chilled out jams.