Kuon is a creepy third person horror adventure in the style of Kwaidan (traditional Japanese horror stories full of ghosts and demons), which has recently been introduced to a western audience by films such as Ringu (remade as "the Ring") and Ju-on (and its American remake "The Grudge"). Kuon is set during the Heian period (roughly 794 - 1192 A.D.) a time when superstition and magic was part of everyday life. The game centres on the strange and disturbing events at the Fujiwara manor, whose inhabitants have apparently disappeared.
The player controls three different characters in three separate phases of the game, the third of which is only unlocked when the first two have been completed (although you can choose which of them to do first). The first two phases are Yin (shadow) and Yang (light). During the Yin phase you control the character of Utsuki. She has come to the manor with her sick sister, Kureha, to find her father, Doman. He used to be the imperial Onmyoji (excorcist) but has recently left this post and set up his own business. Utsuki soon loses her sister and has to wander the eerie manor and grounds to find her family fighting demons ghosts and zombies as she goes. Thankfully, she is not entirely defenceless as she has some handy spells and a small sword.
During the Yang phase you control the character of Sakuya, a young Onmyoji who is in training with Utsuki´s father. She and her fellow students were summoned to the manor by Doman to help him rid the place of demons, but while she and another young student wait at the east gate the others have entered the manor, and have not been seen since. Now she must investigate the manor and defeat the demons using magic and a stylish fighting fan. However, all is not as it seems as it soon becomes clear that there is an evil presence haunting the manor in the form of two creepy twin girls who seem to be orchestrating everything and Doman is clearly involved with them and the horrific events. It also becomes clear that Doman was in fact sacked because of questionable experiments. In the final phase you control Seimei, the current Imperial Onmyoji and rival of Doman, who has come to purify the manor and kill off all of the demons.
Unfortunately, the first two phases overlap considerably. There are a few new plot elements in each phase, but for the most part you are walking slowly around the same map collecting the same items and solving the same puzzles. Although the characters of Utsuki and Sakuya interact with each other during their investigations (strongly hinting that they are wandering around at the same time) you still have to unseal the same doors in each phase, and often find the same monsters hiding behind them. Despite this the plot is suitably creepy and the tension is maintained. Even the second time around some of the cut scenes are beautifully shocking.
The tension is heightened by the idea of a "tempest". As all three characters are sensitive mediums, they can be affected by a shocking vision which takes a physical as well as psychological toll. A tempest point is a location where there is a large build-up of negative energy which is triggered by your approach. Sometimes a ghost will appear or you will be attacked by a Gaki (a nasty Gollum-like creature), while other tempests simply cause you to have a nasty vision and get freaked out. This is beautifully handled and allows the inclusion of some of the classic horror shots, not to mention making you jump. The tension is also heightened by the fact that running not only makes you more prone to damage if you run into a tempest, but also makes it more likely that you will be attacked by something nasty. If your character becomes too scared (or injured) the screen begins to swirl unpleasantly and you lose the ability to use magic. If you do not heal yourself soon you will die. Thankfully, all of the characters can meditate to cure themselves of all injuries (meaning that you really only need to use healing items during a fight when you cannot meditate).
The setting is beautifully rendered and looks pretty authentic. Shadows and skewed camera angles are used effectively to build the tension. Most of the locations are fairly dark and monotone, but coloured by blood smeared across the walls and ground, and eerie messages scrawled in blood. As you pass through each level, new blood trails appear which often lead you to a new foe or discovery. The levels are pretty small and consequently there are frequent load screens which lessen the tension.
The game employs ambient sounds, and the footsteps and heartbeat of the character rather than having a constant musical score. However, you occasionally hear Japanese drumming or a priest chanting and the chilling song sung by the evil twins.
There are some nice visual effects in the game. The limitations of a PS2 title are cleverly shrouded in darkness and one of the nicest ideas in Kuon is the lantern which your character holds. While you walk the sphere that is lit up shrinks and if you halt it widens out revealing more of your surroundings. This is a stylish effect which works very well.
Unfortunately, the cinematic camerawork somewhat compromises the control system and it is often hard to get a good view of what you are fighting until the camera shifts causing you to lose your bearings (a la Resident Evil). The movement system is a little strange because of the shifting views, and it is not clear why your character can only jump at one time and location during play. As is often the case with adventure-horror games, your character finds their way blocked by a corpse or a pile of furniture and cannot climb over them. Instead you must trek around the map to find a way past the rather minimal blockage.
The combat system is similarly flawed. Although you can select spells or your weapon to two hot keys, it still takes a frustrating amount of time to draw the weapon or use the spell. The melee weapon is quicker (once drawn) but is still painfully slow to use and you are limited to a couple of standard moves. Most of the spells are pretty cool although I find the puppet-woman (a slave with her hands tie behind her back who defends you if summoned) a bit disturbing. The missile spells are a little hard to aim, and all have the same delay between repeat uses.
There are a number of puzzles in the game. Some are straightforward (such as using the "Venus" cloth to open a door with a 'Venus' seal) while others are more culturally specific (rearranging blocks to show the twelve signs of the Japanese zodiac). This is a familiar set-up which generally works pretty well but is not particularly innovative.
However, this is not primarily a combat based game or a puzzle game, it is an interactive horror tale and in this respect it works well. Despite the criticisms above I found that I wanted to keep playing and the traditional Japanese setting was refreshing. The game is cinematic, with some nice set-pieces, a high standard of art and decent overall polish. It does scare at times and it is quite engrossing but the awkward and familiar game-play lets it down.