Kraino Origins makes no effort to hide its inspiration. It intentionally clones Castlevania, complete with all the classic tropes that the the first Castlevania offerings cemented. Before the advent of the Metroidvania genre. To spice things up, developer GameAtomic (which is solo-dev Angel Dorantes), added some unmistakable references to Shovel Knight as well. Despite its lack of originality in gameplay, at first sight, Kraino Origins has an authentic visual flair that is instantly appealing to me. If it executes well on those Castlevania and Shovel Knight fundamentals, it is trying to rely on, we could be in for a fun ride.
Kraino, the warrior skeleton
Kraino Origins tells the story of a warrior named Kraino, who is resurrected from the realm of the dead to fight his evil creation, Batcula. Batcula has not only raised Kraino from the dead but also an army of monsters and demons. As Kraino was a force of good in both the living and dead realms, he decides to fight against Batcula and his army of ghouls instead of joining them.
Due to his decomposed state, our protagonist is basically a skeleton with a high hat and a scythe. He is able to use his farming tool as a weapon, of course, with a basic swing and a very ‘Shovel knight’-esque ‘scythe drop™’ attack. He can also reflect incoming projectiles by combining the attack and down buttons, creating a shield effect with his weapon. Kraino has a significant jump arc, but you often need to use the scythe drop bounce after attacking an enemy to reach higher platforms. Kraino’s movement and speed are slightly quicker than Simon’s in Castlevania IV, but not by that much. Just like Simon Belmont, he lacks a dash move, making him vulnerable to fast-moving objects and enemies. You must rely on strategic thinking and pattern recognition to make your way through the eight levels unscathed.
The crypt’s shopkeeper
Additionally, you have the chance to unlock six additional sub-weapons if you manage to find the reasonably well-hidden shopkeeper. He’s hidden behind breakable walls and offers these weapons for a fair sum of your gathered gold. As I said, Kraino Origins does not involve Metroidvania-style leveling or loadout building. Instead, these weapons are all one-on-one ‘taken’ from their primary source of inspiration, such as the axe, holy water, and cross. The daggers are replaced by a super fireball that ultimately has the same effect. You can level up these weapons, which increases their destructive power and adds additional characteristics. For example, the Axe can freeze opponents upon hitting them, making it an effective weapon to slow down fast enemies. The powered-up fireball is extremely effective in clearing a path from a safe distance and ridding the monsters before you start traversing more complicated platforming parts.
In exchange for its mechanically simple concept, the difficulty in this game is tuned to the standards of early 90s NES and SNES eras. It features fairly intricate platforming sections that require caution and strategy, and the presence of faux ‘Medusa heads’ and similar enemies that swarm you when you have to manage the environment does not make things easier. When hit, the knockback can easily throw you off a platform and into spikes or other traps, making it crucial to be careful. There is a wide variety of monsters to deal with. Although some of them, again, are reminiscent of Castlevania (such as bone-throwing zombies and the aforementioned Medusa heads), they are a diverse bunch. When some combinations of monsters populate bits of a level, battles can get pretty intense.
To not put off casual players (like me) too much, checkpoints are well distributed throughout the levels, allowing you to experiment and try strategies without having to worry about lives and long-term progression. More skilled players should be able to get through the game rather quickly. I managed to complete the game in about 5 hours, but I did struggle quite a bit at the end of level 7, which cost me a lot of time. Finding additional health bars does help make the game more manageable when it eventually gets harder.
The bosses in this game are a bit of a nuisance to me. They feel somewhat unimaginative and lack particularly unique move and attack patterns. They often share a lot of moves, which makes them less distinct from each other. While they do take some time and perhaps a few attempts to defeat, they lack individuality and seem like they all learned their evil ways at the same (evil) dojo. The one or two that do stand out, weirdly, are extremely easy to beat.
Overall, Kraino is quite responsive to your inputs and the controls are generally tight and well-designed. However, in particularly hectic moments where there is a lot happening on the screen at once, it can occasionally feel like the game is not registering your inputs for sub weapons very well. This can be frustrating, as precise timing and quick reflexes are often required to successfully navigate some of the game’s more challenging areas. These kind of fails are do happen sporadically and with a checkpoint always close, it isn’t effecting the game that much.
Gloomy pixel art
Angel did an excellent job with the overall aesthetic of Kraino, creating a colorful yet eerie atmosphere with its pixel art backgrounds and characters. The attention to detail is evident, with each level featuring a diverse cast of slightly comical monsters and ghoulies. The modern visual effects are a nice touch that add to the overall atmosphere of the game. The way lighting effects are used is particularly nice.
Kraino’s character sprite is pleasing to look at, with authentic 8-bit animations and a great attention to detail in his design. The same goes for most of the monsters populating the levels, with occasional fun parodies and cameos (did I just see Boglins burping acid in this game?). That can’t be said for the bosses. In the contrary they are generally pretty blend and looking awfully rough. They feel very out of place in the game’s otherwise sprawling and detailed pixel art.
Silence is golden
A big letdown, if you ask me, is the monotonous and dull music. The limited number of tracks is all musically uninspired and short. As the levels take up to 30 minutes or more to clear, these tunes become a factor of irritation after a while, to the point that turning off the music gave me peace of mind. Although I have respect for the attempt of the solo-dev creating this game to create the music too, I much prefer the approach the creator entrusting the music to someone else more talented at creating a solid soundtrack if it is not a core skill.
On the other hand, the sound effects are pretty well done, with convincing creaking metal and chains sounds with chained platforms. The monsters make all sorts of weird noises which fits the slightly comical horror theme quite well.
A one and done experience
The only real gripe I have with Kraino Origins, apart from the bosses, is that it’s an incredibly short experience. While the game does have additional challenge stages that are shorter and without checkpoints, they’re not significantly harder than the main stages and each takes about ten minutes to complete. Once you’ve finished the main levels and the challenges, there isn’t much else to do. The game save slot clock ticked 5 hours on my save, while I bounced back and forth between levels for reviewing purposes. In my opinion, the gameplay could easily have accommodated another 4 levels, which would have given it a more substantial experience.
The game certainly has a lot going for it, well-executed core gameplay, sparkling yet gloomy pixel art, and the fact that it was created by a single person. However, it falls a bit short due to its lack of polish in very specific areas, which may also be attributed to it being a one-man project. It is a blast to play, even if it's only a 3-4 hours long experience.