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Way of the Thief review — Frightfully unclear

Back in the day, Acquire was the king of the 3D stealth genre. The developer was responsible for the first two Tenchu games, after all. But, likely unknown for some, it also made a PlayStation 2 game in 2006 that was only released in Japan — until now. Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief, the game in question, has made it to the West, remastered for release across modern platforms. The game has a lot of compelling features and some truly unique gameplay, but is overall far too fond of withholding valuable information. And it contains enough awkward choices that make it strange for it to have been re-released with so few improvements. The game definitely needed more of an overhaul. As it is, Kamiwaza is an immensely frustrating experience that I really wanted to love.

Kamiwaza honestly has a strong setup. The game begins with you in the shoes of the young thief Ebizo, a member of the Silver Ravens — a noble thief group. His superior in the organization, Ainosuke, is teaching him the tools of the trade when Ebizo comes across a small child wandering the estate they’re burglarizing. When the leaders of the Silver Ravens end up executing the estate’s owners, Ebizo escapes with the child, giving up his thieving ways and swearing to raise the girl peacefully and happily. But it was not to be.


The girl, named Suzuna, lives for years with Ebizo, who takes up work as a carpenter. But when she comes down with an illness that threatens to take her life, Ebizo realizes that he needs to go back to stealing in order to pay for the medicine Suzuna needs to get better. It seems Dead Rising 2 borrowed its central mechanic from this game, as you’ll need to buy medicine and give it to Suzuna to get her healthy. If you don’t give her the medicine frequently enough, she’ll die and you’ll get a game over. Bummer, huh?

Flipped out of the way

Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief is quite reminiscent of Acquire’s Way of the Samurai games. After the prologue, you’re cut loose into the area of Mikado where you have free rein to explore or steal goods at your leisure. The overall map is quite small but the experience is still a promising one early on, despite how archaic the visualsa are.

This looked like a PSP game in 2006, and time has not been kind. Textures and character models don’t appear to have been updated much or at all. The shadows, however, are an improvement, likely due to the game being ported using the Unreal 4 engine.

Ebizo needs a classic Japanese thief bag to steal anything. You can unlock different ones that can either hold more items or knock out enemies. In lieu of an attack, Ebizo steals. Larger items have what are basically health bars you need to whittle down before placing them in your bag. Similarly, you can pickpocket goods and money from NPCs directly. This pickpocketing is horribly awkward, as you can only do so from the front. If you try it from behind, Ebizo will pointlessly hit his target.

The best part about Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief is the “just stealth” system. You have a cartwheel move that offers invincibility frames when using it to dodge. But it has another feature. When spotted by an enemy, time will slow a bit and the screen gets tinted red. If you cartwheel at this moment, NPCs will lose sight of you and Ebizo will begin to glitter. Attempting to pickpocket or grab items while glittering will see the act of thievery be immediately successful and grant you a bonus that goes toward your skill points. It’s pretty fantastic. This can be chained, allowing you to multiply your score and get even more skill points. It’s a fantastic idea with solid implementation.

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Close to the chest

You’ll be going to the bathhouse to offload your goods in Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief. Doing so will let you exchange them for money. Or you can drop them in The People’s Box in your village which will cause folks to regard you well. They’ll react enthusiastically when they see you and leave gifts outside your door, among other things. You’ll also take on missions from the bathhouse informant, who allows you to buy tips on valuables to steal.

During my first couple of hours with the game, I thought all of this was brilliant. Having a little sandbox where you can go around stealing and taking on missions for cash and helping the people is truly a great idea. But the more I played, the more it became clear that Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief offers an exceptionally shallow experience. Missions will constantly task you with stealing from the same tiny handful of locations, and there just isn’t much depth to the game’s stealth mechanics. For instance, you can sneak, but doing so isn’t all that much stealthier than running full speed ahead.

There’s a system where wanted signs show Ebizo’s face more accurately based on how often you’re seen doing the deed. You need to steal signs to not get hassled while walking down the street. But if your bag is even a little full, guards will start attacking you. I spent most of the game at max wanted level and it didn’t really feel like it mattered, as I could use just stealth to avoid enemies no matter what. And that’s one of the biggest problems with this game: it has all these systems, but they don’t feel like they matter.

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How about a hint?

What’s worse is that the game does an absolutely atrocious job of explaining many of its finer details. The wanted system, how alerted the guards in the area are, Suzuna’s health, the game’s multiple endings, practically none are explained. Even the finer points of ‘just stealth’ aren’t taught all that well. There’s no excuse for this lack of clarity. The game could have included new tutorials or even notes in the digital manual. Instead, there’s very little cluing you into the finer points.

I’m not sure if you can cure Suzuna or not. I gave her 15 panaceas and she got a lot better, but Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief locks you out of being able to interact with her no matter what during the endgame. If your wanted level is maxed out, guards are  randomly waiting in your house — leading to an instant game over. There were periods where I couldn’t go home at all. This means no giving Suzuna medicine and no saving.

And it’s totally random. Once, I loaded a save and left my house before realizing that I wanted to do one more thing. I entered the door that I had just walked through and it triggered a cutscene where Ebizo got caught even though it was impossible for anyone to have entered.

What even is that?

Later missions tell you to steal items in an area without telling you where or necessarily what they are. I wasted a good amount of time trying to find a “bladed top” in a couple of missions. The game gives zero indication as to what a bladed top even is. There are also a lot of awkward, clumsy elements at play. Sometimes you’ll enter an area and get spotted immediately because a guard will be looking your way when the area loads. The ‘just stealth’ prompt doesn’t always work. Sometimes I’d perfectly ‘just stealth’ my way out of a guard spotting me, but then they’d spot me anyway.

You get captured and put in prison, and have to make a choice between escaping or serving time and losing the contents of your bag. But the escape from prison is horrid, as the map makes it unclear what leads where and the narrow corridors make it annoying to navigate while dodging guards. One story section forces you to escape and it’s just dreadful.

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The controls are decent and are quite a bit more accurate and responsive than in the first Shinobido, which released a year earlier. But you can’t lock onto enemies and since your pickpocket only works from the front, actually hitting anything can feel like a crapshoot. Again, though, it’s far better than the awful useless flailing in Shinobido. But that doesn’t do much to erase my agitation when a guard sees me through a wall. Or attacks me through a wall. 

User unfriendly

You can use skill points to purchase new moves or licenses to unlock accessories, which is all well and good. But if you put a license into your inventory before you complete its objective, you lose it until you start a new game plus. The game makes no attempt to tell you this. When starting a new game plus, you lose all of your purchased skills as well. Again, the game makes no attempt to tell you this. But the thing that made me the angriest was the ending.

The first time I beat Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief, the people didn’t like me and I had the max wanted level. I got the worst ending, which made some sense, I guess. So, I went back and maxed out the people’s approval and stole wanted signs until I wasn’t wanted, and then beat the game again. I got the same ending. Either better endings can only be achieved on subsequent playthroughs or there was some secret requirement to get a better ending. But I don’t know because the goddamn game doesn’t tell you. There’s no excuse for all of this needless secrecy.

Kamiwaza could have been improved at some point in the 16 years since its release. Instead, it was thrown into a new engine and little seems to have been done to mitigate its issues. This is immensely disappointing, because it’s almost a good game and only stays a mixed one due to the lack of needed quality-of-life changes. It’s also locked at 30 fps. I reached that bad ending less than eight hours into my playthrough, and the game’s content had already started growing stale by that point. 

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Sneaking your way

There appear to be four endings, but I’m not going to wander around aimlessly and hope to stumble onto how to unlock these endings. It doesn’t help that the game is being sold for an steep $40 USD, despite being a mostly no-frills port of a 16-year-old game.

There are a lot of things I do appreciate about Kamiwaza: Way of the Thief, but the game needed a hell of a lot more love than what it was given. If you love games about stealing, wait for a deep discount. If you don’t, do a cartwheel if you see this game in the street and pray your just stealth works like it’s supposed to.

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