‘Kuon’ 20th Anniversary: Looking Back on FromSoft’s Forgotten Survival Horror Game

Demon’s Souls. Dark Souls. Bloodborne. Elden Ring. These games made FromSoftware into a household name, but they have been making games since the mid 90s in a wide variety of genres. The King’s Field and Armored Core series were some of their other most popular series, with the later series getting a new entry last year, but one of their smaller titles has always been their most intriguing to me.

Kuon, released in Japan on April 1, 2004, was an attempt at a classic fixed-camera style survival horror game that was popular during the PS2 era, and the game has mostly been lost to time. While not entirely successful, especially when compared to modern standards, it’s definitely interesting to look back on it.

Kuon is set in Japan during the Heian period, centering around the strange events at the Fujiwara Manor in Kyoto. There are three different phases of the game with different playable characters, only two are available at the beginning with the third acting as a finale for the game, all revolving around an onmyōji, translated as exorcist in the English dialogue, named Doman who has gone missing in the manor. The various phases of the game all weave together to form a unique mythology involving silkworms, resurrection rituals, and an ominous Mulberry tree that sits on the estate. Most of the information about the history of the manor and what’s happening is communicated in notes and environmental storytelling, something that FromSoft would continue in their Souls games. The setting and lore do a lot to set the game apart from its contemporaries, immediately giving it an identity of its own.

The game cleverly reskins a lot of the staples of the survival horror genre into items appropriate to the setting, which helps ease you into the world. Instead of guns and ammo to keep track of, you have a set of spells that can be cast by using cards that are picked up around the environment. These are limited-use and have varying degrees of effectiveness, so you’ll have to carefully manage them in the same way you’d keep count of handgun bullets and shotgun shells in Resident Evil. In keeping with the silkworm imagery that the game uses, locked doors are held shut by silk seals that are dispelled by a corresponding cloth, making it feel more thematic than ‘blue key unlocks blue door’ tropes we’re used to.

The Fujiwara Manor has such a great sense of place right off the bat, putting it right in line with not only good survival horror games of its time, but also with the level design of FromSoft’s current games. You can tell it’s both a practical place that people could live in and a compelling level with secrets to be discovered. While you do have to run through the same area in the two separate playthroughs, the way you become accustomed to the space is satisfying, giving you time to discover all the ways that areas can loop back on each other. This looping and unlocking, along with save points that create tension while exploring, are key both to survival horror and Soulslike games, so it’s easy to see the shared DNA in the level design ethos.

FromSoft was able to capture the fixed camera angle perspective, providing interesting points of view as you traverse. Many times there would be something or someone that would walk in front of the camera, in a way your character could not notice, providing a clever little jump scare that plays with the medium in a fun way. From time to time the angles did switch in odd ways that got me turned around or obscured where to go. Your characters’ light source is fairly dim, making the awkward shifts even harder to handle while you’re still familiarizing yourself with the space.

One aspect of the genre that they didn’t really nail was the puzzles. Most of them were just as simple as collecting objects and bringing them to the right place, but the few puzzles that required some problem solving didn’t work for me. They also weren’t really effective at communicating anything about the world, feeling like a tacked-on nod to the genre rather than something that was integral to their overall design.

Combat in this era of survival horror games was clunky at best, and despite FromSoft’s later skill at crafting finely-tuned combat, Kuon is just as clunky, if not more so, than its contemporaries. In addition to the previously mentioned spells, each character starts out with a melee weapon unique to their character, but functionally similar. Most enemies can be pretty successfully stunlocked by the correct rhythm of melee attacks, and even when they get through to grab you, you can generally shake them off before doing any damage. If you run into a standard enemy one on one, it’s mostly just swinging at them for what feels like way too many swings until they die. Bosses, on the other hand, can feel extremely lethal and require you to just keep to a distance while pelting them with spells. Neither tactic feels particularly satisfying, making for a very lackluster experience when dealing with creatures.

There are a couple other wrinkles Kuon tries to throw into the mix that are largely underdeveloped, but are interesting attempts at something different. The game has a very slight stealth system that allows you to sneak past enemies if you walk instead of run, but it never really ends up feeling very useful. Fifteen years later they would figure out how to make stealth engaging in Sekiro, but it didn’t add to the experience in Kuon. There’s also a system to summon NPCs, which feels like a distant predecessor to the player summoning from their various games in the vein of Dark Souls, that never ends up being as impactful as it feels like it was intended to be. The weakest summon, a small spider, feels like it dies before getting a hit in, and none of the others do much aside from draw the enemy’s attention for a bit. I’m glad they tried to spice up the combat a bit, but it mostly just feels like ideas they would improve on much later down the road.

While the style of the game’s world is interesting, the enemies aren’t really much to write home about. There are a couple boss creatures that have creepy designs, but none of the standard enemies leave any  impression. There’s a system in the game that will punish you for running through certain areas with a “tempest,” which is a screen flash that leaves your screen blurry for a bit and occasionally summons some ghosts. Anytime you’re in a room without enemies, you can quickly meditate to heal, so these tempests don’t do much aside from give you a cheap jump scare and a time tax while you stop for healing.

It was great to see FromSoft make a triumphant return to the Armored Core franchise last year with Fires of Rubicon, so it would be a dream of mine for them to dig into their back catalog again for their next project and work on a new survival horror game like Kuon. There’s so much horror in the DNA of their modern games, especially Bloodborne, that it would be great to see a smaller project from them that focuses solely on creating an atmosphere of dread. Their impeccable level design and worldbuilding is perfect for the genre, so the current iteration of the studio would have no problem putting together a horrific world for you to traverse. The studio has changed a lot in the 20 years since Kuon came out, and should they want to return to the genre, all they’ve learned in that time could help birth a new survival horror classic.

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