I have a huge passion for independent games. I enjoyed Gears 5 and Forza Horizon 4 as much as the next person, but some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in this generation of consoles were made by small teams with relatively minor budgets, who tried to break expectations by offering things we’ve never seen before in the past. RIME, INSIDE, The Swapper, you name it. As such, I enjoy looking at new releases, smaller Game Pass titles or games on sale to see whether there’s something that looks peculiar enough for a try, regardless of what reviewers are saying. This week I’ve laid my eyes on a game on sale I’ve never heard of before. The name is Gaijin Charenji 1 : Kiss or Kill (with that exact punctuation), and it normally goes for 9.99 US Dollars or your regional equivalent, temporarily sold with a 30% discount leaving it at 6.99. It just came out this past September so it isn’t even an old product. The trailer on the page looked intriguing enough for my tastes: a psychedelic Japanese twin stick shooter that combines all kinds of retrogaming styles, cute music and disturbing imagery? For 7 bucks, sign me up. So after a long day of work, I sat down expecting a very peculiar game. It didn’t take long to realize that what I was playing went beyond my wildest expectations.
I want to make an important premise before diving into the actual contents of the game. I’ve had an incredibly surprising and shocking experience with Gaijin Charenji 1 : Kiss or Kill partially because I had no idea how the game will play, what the story is about, how such a game came to be, what kind of surreal surprises it throws at the player. This article will inevitably have to spoil many of those elements, so if at any point you are pretty sure you’d play this game, against my own interests I’d tell you to stop reading and buy the game. The less you know about it, the more impactful its sheer absurdity is going to be. A huge part of the enjoyment I got out of the game was related to the discovery of basic gameplay elements and the shock value of the oddities throughout the campaign, so you may want to skip certain parts of the review if you plan on having the most ideal experience. I’ll refrain from spoiling nearly anything from the second half of the game and the one big spoiler I’ve put into the review will have a handy heads-up first. And chances are your only chance of trying this game on Xbox One, because for a series of likely copyright infringements in the game (I’ll talk about this later) I don’t think this will stay on the marketplace too long, and will most certainly not reach Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription. On PC it’ll probably be harder to erase.
With that out ot the way, let’s dive into what exactly is Gaijin Charenji 1 : Kiss or Kill. After the player chooses whether preferring love or hate as a playable character (whatever that means at this point), the game shows itself as a mixture of the minimalistic obstacle courses of titles like The Impossible Game (with an added CRT filter that throws us back right into the 90’s), the mobility of a twin stick shooter and the chaos of a bullet hell shooter, without really inheriting the complexity or sheer difficulty of either. It does look pretty simple at first, in fact. The player just has to control a dot from a top-down view, having to navigate between tight walls, rotating saws, fast-moving blocks that attempt to crush the protagonist who’s trying to reach the top of each level where the finish line is located. Smaller blue dots give the player extra time, as a counter on top of the screen (starting at level 1 at 180 seconds) reminds players that they can’t just screw around for too long, they need to get moving. Lives are unlimited but dying puts the player back to the start of the level, with the changes that happened to the level already in place: so no recovering the extra time you already picked up once.
Soon enough the player realizes they can also shoot, this being technically a twin stick shooter. This allows the blob to effectively eliminate all kinds of enemies, traps, even the rotating saws I mentioned, making the levels substantially easier. This violence does have consequences however, because every questionable act of destruction increases the player’s negative karma, which will start turning the game into a creepier and creepier experience. The visible area of the field gets reduced as macabre imagery of skulls and desperate faces disturb the player, along with an ever-increasing amount of artifacts and video interference. Relying on destruction does allow to have higher scores through a convoluted combo system as well, but it has to be dosed in order to have an experience that isn’t too disturbing. It is in fact possible to do the exact opposite: as the title implies, Kiss or Kill, and this is Kill mode. Switching to Kiss mode with the press of the RB button, the game changes completely.
What seemed like an obstacle course twin stick shooter where the player can destroy everything, now becomes a much more relaxing experience in which the main character shoots… kisses, as opposed to bullets. Their range is substantially lower, forcing the player to take more risks by going closer to the targets, but the effect it has on the world around can also be drastically different. While most enemies disappear off the screen one way or another, the rotating saws for example take a lot of time to destroy in Kill mode, while a much lower amount of kisses can make it slow down to a hault, rendering it practically an innocous part of the scenery as opposed to a killing machine. There’s many obstacles that can be overcome with sheer violence, while others function better when they’re given some good old lovin’. It sounds wild, but in the context of the game it makes more sense than one would imagine. Also worth mentioning: whereas the Kill mode has a fairly generic electronic soundtrack, the Kiss variant features the cute yet energetic Marble Soda by moderately famous producer Shawn Wasabi. I have the feeling this might be one of the elements that didn’t get an okay by the copyright holder, considering I didn’t see the artist being mentioned anywhere in the credits. Almost forgot: by using the Love function long enough, just like with the excessive killing the screen gets filled with obstructions of all kind. In this case, it’s mainly rather sexual representations of anime characters that could have been straight-up ripped from some softcore hentai game by the looks. I can’t say I’m informed enough about that world to recognize any characters in particular.
Just when the game starts appearing linear and relatively predictable after a fairly safe boss fight, an immediate shift makes the formula evolve. After only a handful of abstract Flash-game like stages, the player is transported into what is essentially a 16-bit JRPG. The top-down view remains and so does the core gameplay, with the blue dots giving time now turned into silver coins, but the context shifts. We now take the role of an unnamed traveller who has to get through villages and forests between arrows trying to kill him, villagers that for some reason want to do same, along with the fog often hiding dangerous traps. With humans now in play, once again the effects of Kill and Kiss change, having to figure out once again what is the most ideal strategy to use. The world’s visual identity is completely different but the challenges we’re facing are very similar. And yet, the game starts turning into what feels like an insane experiment rather than a videogame.
Up until this point, the game already featured full motion video (FMV from now on) segments showing a mysterious masked programmer connecting to a Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES for short. Not a knock-off, not a fictional console that resembles it: the actual NES by Nintendo. Well, this second part of the game pushes the players into another Nintendo console, the SNES, as it appears inside copies of Dragon Quest VI by Square Enix. Literally. Again, I have the mild suspicion this the author didn’t get a single authorization to use any of these elements, hence why I suggest buying the game as soon as possible if you’re interested: chances are it won’t stay up for long. I’ll let you know I was debating whether I should even write a review about it, as extensive coverage could mean this game’s death. At the same time, the game has been reviewed on a few other publications already and is set to release on Steam in the upcoming days, so it seems the author is fine for now.
FMV is used inside of the levels too, actually. The top right corner of the screen keeps showing this programmer with unknown identity reacting to our every action in front of his computer. Applauses, visible confusion, but also incitement to keep on going on like this. It doesn’t end there: some levels have a smart usage of such videos being superimposed on the level, causing disturbance and adding atmosphere. From an actual fly moving around on your screen, all the way to crawling worms covering most of your view in what is already a pretty busy level to begin with. Every single level is pretty short and they’re all hand-crafted, nothing is random, with very little waiting time from one stage to another. A small musical intermezzo is in fact used inbetween stages, barely leaving enough time to breathe as it were a WarioWare game or something along those lines.
This JRPG area definitely opens up more possibilities as stages become more complex, in some cases even offering secret rooms, alternative roads and fun easter eggs. However, nothing prepares you for the boss sequence of this world that is up there with the infamous bootleg HONGKONG1997 in terms of sheer absurdity. This is a major spoiler so proceed with caution, but I feel that with such an abstract, surreal game where everything can happen, I must bring forward a couple examples just to show what levels of insanity we’re dealing with. So if you don’t want to know anything about the boss phase of the JRPG world, skip the next paragraph.
The final level of this sequence sees the player locked into a small area between cordons, surrounded by protesters complaining about violence in video games. On the other side of the fence, a much bigger but initially unaccessible play area, where the final boss is moving around. The final boss is a stylized giant head of Saddam Hussein, former President of Iraq deposed in 2003 and executed in 2006 as punishment for his brutal dictatorship in the country. Saddam’s giant head attacks the player by sending what are basically running midgets that need to be shot down before they can hit the main character (like most things in this game, they kill the player instantly). As always, there’s a choice: send hundreds of bullets against him or resort to love. The latter is certainly the most bizarrely funny option, as enough love will eventually turn Saddam’s eyes into hearts, eventually ending him in an explosion of hearts as opposed to blood. Oh, and the protesters can also be converted to love or shot to death. Because this game seemingly knows no boundaries.
If you’ve got this far into the review, you might have thought for a second that this is just a practical joke. A prank, in which a never heard before staff member of XboxEra tries to make you believe there’s such an absurd game on Xbox One that somehow eluded any certification process, dodged any copright disputes, an ID@Xbox game where nobody in the Microsoft chain seemingly wanted or could do anything against this product. It seems impossible, and it’s not even a game in the Creators Program where anybody can upload anything without verification. As said, this is part of the ID@Xbox program. It features achievements, another feature that as far as we know they’re not just giving away to anybody. It is, for all intents and purposes, a proper Xbox One digital release, not some bootleg I uploaded on a hacked console. This is all real.
And as the game goes on, insanity just reaches peaks I didn’t expect even after that ridiculous boss fight. As the consoles turn into newer models, we can see our nameless program effectively mutilate himself (pretending to for story purposes anyway, the game isn’t that crazy) to connect his body to the cursed videogames he takes part in. Other videogame styles, genres and visuals follow, and after a while the worlds start glitching, meshing into each other without seemingly any reason or rhyme. It truly feels like a descent into virtual insanity, perhaps an abstract representation of videogame addiction. It truly feels like something of a standalone creepypasta fangame distributed in obscure message boards, and yet it’s an actual digital Xbox One release. Other oddities include a sequence where the actual dashboard of the console is simulated inside of the game (with a broken English message at the end reminding us that “it’ a joke” (sic), and a secret room where the entirety of the cult horror classic by George Romero, The Night of the Living Dead can be witnessed. Copyrights or common sense be damned, this is all happening in Gaijin Charenji 1 : Kiss or Kill.
I could go on much longer, just compiling a list of the absurd things you’ll encounter in the game if you decide to play it, but I think I’d do a terrible disservice. The game only lasts an hour or so, in line with many shoot ’em ups, but it manages to fire its cylinders fully in those 60 minutes by throwing new ideas and surreal events as they go by. Replayability is guaranteed by a complex points and combo system, not to mention karma having an influence on the outcome of the game as well. Negative or positive both have different endings, and in one case there’s even an extra playable section. Further playability is guaranteed by a Survival mode which apes one of the more classic levels of the game, turning it into a one-life survival experience against giant waves of enemies in the vein of Geometry Wars. I’d say this isn’t the strongest part of the game considering the controls aren’t as smooth and precise as the best twin stick shooters around, plus even the hitboxes leave a lot to be desired, but it gets the job done for a bit of variety.
In short, Gaijin Charenji 1 : Kiss or Kill feels like an unauthorized bootleg version of certified insanity. Its seemingly innocent twin stick shooter formula soon turns into an explosion of creepy imagery, absurd battles against unlikely opponents based on real world counterparts, told through an FMV-filled abstract story and a multitude of styles and genres. This certainly isn’t a game for everybody, in fact many would find it broken, offensive, inappropriate, dumb. But its boldness is undeniable, and it even features a surprisingly heartwarming story about its creation. The game was originally planned to release as a SEGA Dreamcast title two decades or so ago, but the premature death of the console and the late programmer of the title Yoshihiro Takahashi meant this project was lost forever. His son Yosuke picked up the pieces and finished the project alongside another programmer, Youenn Thirion. If this isn’t a testament to how far videogames can touch our emotions, I don’t know what is. It is available on Xbox One, it can be bought directly from the game’s website for PC as an executable and it will also release on Steam on the 9th of December.
Gaijin Charenji 1 : Kiss or Kill
- You never know what's coming up
- Kiss/Kill gameplay mechanic is surprisingly fun and deep
- Simple and addictive core gameplay
- Easily the most surreal "proper" videogame release of the generation
- Some stages are a bit repetitive
- A couple technical fallacies
- No level selection