In 1993, Natsume licensed the rights to create sequels to Taito’s single-player Kiki Kaikai arcade game. While the sequels retain the Kiki KaiKai name in Japan, they go by Pocky & Rocky in English markets. The first Pocky & Rocky for Super Nintendo added 2-player co-op, a feature retained in the recently released Pocky & Rocky Reshrined for PlayStation and Switch. This installment is easily the best received entry in the series, likely owing to the gorgeous visuals created by Tengo Project (The Ninja Saviors) and solid marketing. Reshrined is a faithful update of the games that preceded it, though sometimes to a fault.
Pocky & Rocky Reshrined offers two game modes: Story and Free. Story is a single-player journey through the game’s 8 stages. Non-voiced cinematics play between each level. The narrative starts out a bit simply but ends up fairly complex and tragic as it progresses. There’s an instance where Pocky knows a character’s real name without explanation, but it’s otherwise a well-told tale that wouldn’t be out of place in an anime movie.
While the first two stages are remakes of levels from Pocky & Rocky, a dramatic event then separates Pocky, the shrine priestess, from Rocky, her raccoon companion. From there, the remaining stages and veer into unknown territory. Rocky works to find Pocky while she uncovers the true nature of series villain Black Mantle. Thanks to the magic of time travel, Reshrined ends up functioning as both a prequel and sequel at once.
Depending on the Story Mode stage, the gamer will control Pocky, Rocky, or the new characters: Ame-no-Uzume (a goddess) and Ikazuchi (a humanoid weasel). Each character shares the same basic controls, but the actual attacks they can use are different. Artwork for Ame-no-Uzume, incidentally, has been censored in the English releases to achieve an “E10” rating, removing her cleavage. Still, her sprites are uncensored, so the changes are mild overall.
Reshrined is a real aesthetic achievement. Tengo Project used software tools designed to capture the look of 2D games from the 16-bit and 32-bit eras, and the results are magical. Everything from the sprites of the heroes, enemies, and huge boss characters down to the lush environments looks like something that would’ve been created in the 1990s or early 2000s. Visual effects like gusts of wind, flying leaves, embers of fire, shadows, and more all elevate Reshrined‘s look beyond simple retro visuals, not to mention the widescreen aspect ratio. The music perfectly matches the colorful and mystical setting, too.
While Reshrined’s modern/throwback visual style is one of its greatest strengths, the gameplay feels decidedly retro. Character movement is controlled with the D-Pad or left stick, and four action buttons handle the rest: ranged attack, melee attack/deflect, dash, and special attack. Any of these buttons can be remapped to the shoulder buttons if so desired. Rapidly tapping the ranged or melee attack buttons will perform secondary functions for each button. Those functions would be a lot easier to use if they could be mapped to their own buttons, but they're not essential to progressing through the game.
With its various moves, Reshrined has the makings of a quality top-down shooter for today’s age. Movement and aiming, however, are stuck firmly in the past. Reshrined is not a twin-stick shooter, the style of aiming that works best for this type of game. Fine, but the problem is that this game doesn’t even have a way to strafe or to lock the character in place while aiming. To shoot at an enemy on the right, players have to stand or walk in that direction and fire. This makes firing and dodging far harder than they should be. Firing diagonally without moving is particularly difficult because the character will often turn to one of the four main directions at the last moment.
These deliberate control choices make Reshrined a genuinely tough game when it doesn’t need to be. Most of Story Mode’s levels actually do have a checkpoint at the boss or slightly before, so it’s not that Reshrined is impossibly difficult. With enough attempts/practice, most shooter fans will be able to reach the boss and then beat the boss after continuing. It’s just that all the difficulty comes from the controls, with players prevented from doing things we’ve been accustomed to doing for twenty or thirty years in other games of the genre. It’s not like being able to aim independently of movement is some modern invention, either. The first Pocky & Rocky’s contemporary, Contra III, had a button for locking the character in place while aiming (as does the recently released Spidersaurs).
Admittedly, there is an Extra Easy difficulty with unlimited lives that will mitigate some frustration. However, Extra Easy isn’t unlocked by default. Remember Final Vendetta’s recent blunder of forcing players to beat the game to unlock training mode, which was later fixed in an update? Similarly, Reshrined makes players farm 3,000 coins from gameplay on Normal or Hard in order to unlock the easiest difficulty. It makes little sense to force players who would need an easier difficulty to suffer through the default one first. What's more, the coin farming system is poorly designed as well. I beat Story Mode on Normal and didn’t get 3,000 coins, so I still don’t have Extra Easy unlocked. Apparently, the game only counts coins that were earned when the player chooses not to continue a game. This makes farming coins extremely clunky.
Upon beating Reshrined’s Story Mode, Free Mode will unlock. This mode excises all between-level cinematics (alas), allows players to select characters (including three that must be unlocked in Story Mode), and supports 2-player local co-op. Playing through the game with a friend is naturally easier because of the added firepower. Coins are not shared between players, and any in-game shops encountered can only be used by one player or the other. There are no co-op-specific mechanics: players can’t revive each other, nor can a dead player borrow a life from a living one. Still, co-op is a great way to enjoy this game.
The trouble with Free Mode is that, by default, players must beat the tough single-player Story Mode before getting to play it. Some gamers don’t want to play a game solo at all; they just want to play with friends. Locking Free Mode away is not an intuitive decision, and it has certainly scared off a few potential players. Luckily, there’s a workaround! Gamers can unlock Free Mode with a code, skipping all that challenging single-player stuff. Problem solved.
Fun But Flawed
Pocky & Rocky Reshrined is a game I wish I could lavish with praise without reservation. It’s so beautiful and interesting that every gamer bone in my body wants to love it. For better or worse, though, Reshrined plays so much like the first Kiki Kaikai and Pocky & Rocky games that it feels like it’s stuck in the 1990s. The inability to strafe or lock the character in place for aiming absolutely cuts into the fun. Players can get used to the control limitations and enjoy Reshrined anyway, as I have, but it always be flawed because of its controls. Still, the rest of the game is so special that players with the right temperament will find plenty to love.
Digital versions of Pocky & Rocky Reshrined sell for $29.99 on PlayStation and Switch. Regular physical editions for PlayStation and Switch can be ordered from Amazon, whereas collector's editions can be ordered from Strictly Limited Games.
PlayStation and Switch review codes were provided by the publisher.
The Co-Op Experience: In the unlockable Free Mode, two players can select their characters and play through the game as a team. Free Mode can be unlocked by beating the single-player Story Mode or by inputting a cheat code (see our story for details).
Co-Optimus game reviews focus on the cooperative experience of a game, our final score graphic represents this experience along with an average score for the game overall. For an explanation of our scores please check our Review Score Explanation Guide.