‘Shinonome’ and the journey from Japanese AAA games to hardcore roguelikes

After decades at studios like Square Enix and Capcom, Kenichi Iwao and Tatsuya Yoshikawa have embraced the indie route.
Shinonome Wodan Inc

BitSummit, one of the world’s most celebrated independent game festivals held in Kyoto, is known for its inclusive nature, and its myriad of developers who hail from a variety of backgrounds and genres. One particular gem at this year’s event was Shinonome by WODAN Inc, a sound-based action roguelike that’s deeply rooted in Japanese history and culture.

The designers on deck at WODAN are Kenichi Iwao and Tatsuya Yoshikawa, industry veterans who have cut their teeth at the likes of Capcom, Square Enix and Nintendo. Iwoa was responsible for the scenario for Resident Evil and directed Parasite Eve II, and Yoshikawa has a long history in character design, beginning with Breath of Fire IV and most recently in Devil May Cry 5. I chatted with Game Director, Iwao, to better understand WODAN’s vision for Shinonome, and what it’s like going from a Japanese AAA to working at his own studio.

Back to Edo

Shinonome takes you back, way back, into the Edo Jidai, or Edo period of Japan, roughly between 1603 and 1867. You’ll take on the role of main protagonist, Yono, an onmyoji-in-training situated inside a haunted traditional-style Japanese house. Her key objective is to escape the premises all while exorcising yokai, spirits and supernatural entities that she meets along the way. Some of these include ‘Helm Nuppe’, a samurai helmet wearing ayakashi, ‘Grenade Rat’ the ticking time-bomb, and a bull-like creature called “Ushi-oni”.

“There are many legends around yokai that still remain a part of Japanese culture today,” said Iwao.

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“My own home is an old minka, and I enjoy collecting relics of the past like kaidandansu and kurumatansu, these are types of traditional chests of drawers. I like the concept of ‘Tsukumogami‘ which is an ancient Japanese idea that spirits dwell inside old things, so it feels very natural to me to use these motifs within WODAN Inc’s first work.”

The team were also inspired by stories of mischievous and malevolent yokai, plus the charm of old folk houses and traditional ways of life during this time period and sought to capture that feeling even within a contained environment.

“We want players to feel the heat, humidity and the smells that are found in the atmosphere of an old Japanese house,” he continues. 

“These typically cannot be felt in a computer game of course. But for this reason, we’ve gone for a more pictorial approach to Shinonome’s colours and shades versus the style of today’s trendy pixel games.”

When it comes to really conveying that sense of Japan, there is a surprising amount of depth to this game. Food plays a big motif in Shinonome as items Yono can pick up to regain health, but the demon is truly in the details. During Shinonome’s early access winter patch, you could find nihachi soba and rice cake soup in the game, dishes typically eaten during the colder months. For BitSummit, WODAN Inc specifically prepared their ‘Kyoto’ level which also featured traditional Kyoto sweets such as matsukaze and yatsuhashi.

Facing Your Demons

The core gameplay of Shinonome will have you travelling from room to room where each location presents a unique challenge or feature to utilise. Some rooms may house pesky yokai, which you can make quick work of with your arquebus (an old-fashioned pistol), or you can distract them with a paper doll to make your escape. Other rooms can potentially set the scene for a trap, especially if it contains a hearth, as yokai are weak to fire. 

The role of sound adds an extra dimension to the gameplay, as Yona can hear, but also be heard. The aforementioned gun must be used conscientiously as it makes a loud noise when fired, which could potentially summon more yokai to your position. This could also be to your advantage as when you’ve set a trap, you can deliberately call out or make noise to ensnare the creatures into a bear trap. Certain yokai have heavy steps, so prior to opening a door, it’s advisable to listen closely. Conversely, you can mask your own footsteps by wearing ninja tabi to muffle the sound. 

With so many types of yokai, tools and room set ups, there’s no one correct way to clear a game. Levels are also randomly generated so there’s a high amount of replayability. There are plans for mobile (iOS and Android) plus a Nintendo Switch version, which has led the team to work on a shorter mode that can be cleared within three minutes for commute play. Sound subtitles will also be available for periods of time where the environment is too noisy or you’re unable to play the game with sound.

Former Residents

WODAN Inc is yet to be a household name, but the titles Iwao and Yoshikawa have worked on in past careers are definitely well known. The former has worked on everything from the original Resident Evil to Final Fantasy XI, and was even involved in world concept planning for Final Fantasy XIV Online. Tatsuya too is most known for his work on Capcom’s Breath of Fire series, but also counts his roles as Visual Director for Mega ManX8 and Character Designer on Devil May Cry 4 and Devil May Cry 5 amongst his many accolades.

While these titles don’t appear to have a strong connection to Shinonome, the WODAN team did mention additional gameplay features, such as caged elements and ambushes (like that of Resident Evil) were originally on the cards. These game elements had to be dropped due to scheduling issues – but these early concepts reveal the influence of WODAN’s past experiences.

“The biggest advantage since going indie is that we’re able to take on new kinds of challenges with games that is usually never possible when working at a major company,” says Iwao.

“However manpower and funds are limited [when you’re on your own], so costs are always front of mind when it comes to planning.”

Shinonome is currently available for PC via Steam Early Access.

Samantha is a Tokyo-based games writer with a penchant for JRPGs and comfy games. Ask her about Final Fantasy VIII and the giant tattoo on her leg that represents her love for it. Catch her streams on Twitch or her Tweets at @rinoaskyes