Learning and games can definitely go hand-in-hand.  There are plenty of games out there that cross the borders of education…stuff like ‘Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?’ and The Oregon Trail have shown us how education can be fun and schools are using educational game software like Kahoot and similar apps to educate students.  But learning a language, especially a complex one?  That’s a whole different order of business and that’s what Kana Quest from developer Not Dead Design and publisher White Thorn Games sets out to do. 

This odd, cutesy little game is designed to teach you hiragana.  For the unaware, the Japanese actually use three different alphabets, katakana, kanji, and hiragana.  Of the three, hiragana is the easiest and only has 46 shapes called kana (because Kana Quest) which make 72 characters.  That’s not to say it’s easy to learn, but you can use hiragana to make most all Japanese words and the shapes are easier to learn.  If you want to start…this is definitely the place!

Kana Quest tries to gameify the experience of learning hiragana.  The game is broken down into 13 stages with 9 levels each.  This is a matching puzzle game but instead of matching gems and blocks, you’re matching hiragana symbols.  Each symbol has a cute little face and a hiragana symbol on it.  Click on it and it flips over, revealing the sound that the symbol makes. In the beginning, things are pretty simple.  ‘K’ sounds match with ‘K’ sounds, ‘N’ sounds match with ‘N’ sounds, and vowel sounds match with vowel sounds.  This means that ‘Ka’ matches with ‘Ke’, ‘Ki’, ‘Ku’, or ‘Na’ for example.  Simple, right?

Things get pretty tough pretty quickly though.  Your goal is to get all the tiles on the board to match in order to fill a gauge on the right side of the screen.  To do that, all the symbols have to align.  When they align properly, little hearts appear between them, showing you you’ve got it right.  Match them all and you solve the puzzle.  Do it in the fewest moves possible and you get a gold medal, followed by silver, then bronze for numerous attempts…but that’s not all.

You’ll also have to account for stone tiles that don’t move and you have to work around them.  There are mystery blocks that force you to determine the missing sound by entering it before you can proceed.  Even accents show up later on, and that’s where things get really complex.  Toss in some immovable blocks, some accents, some blocks that only move one way, and you’ve got yourself a challenging puzzle, especially when there’s no way to tell the move count for the fewest moves!

There’s plenty of help in Kana Quest though.  In addition to an undo button and a reset, you can actually go into the menu settings and unlock every single level and world in the game right off the bat.  Don’t feel like you’re stuck because that isn’t the goal of this game.  The entire goal, and one Kana Quest sort of succeeds at, is to make you learn to recognize the sounds of the hiragana alphabet through symbols.  Can you do that here?  Sure, if you’re paying close attention.  However, you can always flip the tiles over to see their sounds written in Western letters instead, allowing you to just match the sounds without learning the symbols, making this a weird little sound matching game.  Even just playing a few levels in the beginning, it’s easy to get into the habit of ignoring the Japanese symbols and just listening to the sounds to arrange them.  That bypasses the entire purpose of the game, so in that sense, Kana Quest kind of fails because unless you’re determined to learn hiragana, you can absolutely avoid it and play the game.

Game is a term we should probably use loosely here because aside from tricky tiles, there’s really not much going on as a game here.  You’re basically just matching tiles, learning symbol sounds, and ideally, getting a feel for hiragana symbols.  This isn’t a true language tool however because you’re not putting the symbols together and learning word and sentence structure.  You’re just practicing on recognition.  That’s the first step to learning, but it’s only a stepping stone and there’s plenty more to learn if you want to read hiragana.  It’s not just hiragana either.  If you want to, you can swap to katakana as well and learn to recognize a whole second similar set of symbols!

Now, as you may have noticed, this isn’t the fanciest looking game.  The tiles and UI are pretty much the extent of gameplay and while you get a little success graphic each time you solve a puzzle and the backgrounds are chill and soothing, there’s really not much here in terms of visual design.  Sound is similarly minimalist because if you’re playing Kana Quest, you’re here to practice symbols, not tap your toes to tunes and be wowed by the visuals.  Don’t expect a lot from the graphics and sound and you won’t be disappointed. There’s nothing bad of course, but there’s also nothing really notable because that isn’t the purpose at all.

If you want to learn to read Japanese, it’s a process.  While you’re not going to be able to read Japanese from a $15 game on the Switch, you can definitely learn to recognize the symbols if you take some time to play Kana Quest and take it seriously.  It’s a decent matching puzzle game that’s kind of fun, but the main purpose is really just symbol recognition and at that, Kana Quest does a good job.  With the introduction of two Japanese alphabets, it’s a unique little game that tries to make learning fun and somewhat succeeds.  It’s all a matter of what you want to get out of it though…this is no Japanese language class and if this is how you learn, Kana Quest is probably for you.  Some players will find it quaint and useful, while others will probably play for a bit and move on to a different type of learning tool.  Hey, everyone’s got to start somewhere though, right? 

This review is based on a digital copy of Kana Quest provided by the publisher.  It was played on a Nintendo Switch in both docked and undocked modes and played equally well on both.  Kana Quest is also available for PC on Steam.