21 years after the last game in the series (not counting Heavenly Guardian), the Pocky & Rocky series finally returns courtesy of Tengo Project and Natsume, who merged with Atari back in 2013 and is now Natsume-Atari. Though a small team, Tengo Project has proven itself capable of taking Natsume’s SNES games like Wild Guns and The Ninja Warriors and modernizing them in a way that both pays respect to and arguably surpasses the source material. Reshrined follows in the same footsteps and takes the beloved Pocky & Rocky to new heights by giving it a gorgeous facelift, introducing new elements like additional characters, and by picking up where it left off with a new storyline that goes into expansive and unexpected territory. The wait has been long, but the end result quickly proves to have been worth the wait.
At first, Reshrined puts up a veneer not unlike 1994’s Donkey Kong, presenting the player with a beautiful recreation of the first two levels of Pocky & Rocky. The youkai are once again up to no good, Rocky returns to Pocky to request help a second time, and their journey takes them through a familiar shrine and bamboo forest. The levels do offer new surprises, such as new foes, a new green power-up that grants homing projectiles, and major revamps for the first two bosses, but enough of the early game follows the same beats that someone going in unaware could mistake it for a remake or remaster. The mechanics stick close to the original game, though some additions make things more friendly; collecting multiples of the same power-up results in a temporary “Max” mode that empowers your character, enemies drop coins that can be exchanged for randomized items from NPCs hidden in stages, and power-ups lost from taking damage are dropped on the ground, giving players a chance to reclaim them before they disappear (unless they’re playing on Hard, which removes this mechanic).
Once the second level is completed, things change quickly – Black Mantle appears to the duo earlier than expected and sends Pocky’s soul to the Land of the Kami through a surprise attack. This setup is the beginning of Black Mantle’s new scheme, Reshrined’s segue into its new content, and a proper reason for Pocky to interact with the game’s new characters. The story provides a significant amount of backstory for Black Mantle that wasn’t present in the original game, giving a previously basic villain more depth. Evocative locales like a fleet of airships and a city consumed by the flames of war inject darker elements into the plot, granting Reshrined a slightly sharper edge. Though it’s only eight levels long, Reshrined feels grander than the games before it thanks to the scope of its story and its more comprehensive look at the world of Pocky & Rocky.
Using her soul, Pocky can possess her new friends and gain access to their abilities. Along the way, Pocky meets the goddess Ame-no-Uzume, a demon warrior by the name of Hotaru, and a thunder-commanding youkai known as Ikazuchi. These new characters offer different approaches compared to Pocky and Rocky and their arsenals are nearly powerful enough to make the veteran heroes feel outdated. Ame-no-Uzume commands two magatama that can be shifted around to focus fire and she gets access to a dash that grants her invincibility frames. She can even float over holes and water, rendering those hazards completely ineffective! Hotaru is the most unique and arguably most technical member of the cast, primarily focusing on melee and charge attacks instead of projectiles. Ikazuchi’s thunder-based projectiles are extremely powerful and make it easy to tear through hordes with attacks that can home in on or bounce between enemies.
The ability to charge your melee attack returns alongside a new ability called the “Attack Augmentation”, which can be activated by tapping the projectile button instead of holding it. Both of these abilities are far more significant than charge attacks were in the original game and can patch up character weaknesses or dictate the ideal playstyles for each character. For example, Rocky’s attack augmentation summons tanuki buddies to carry him around and enable him to move while shooting in a fixed direction, making up for his slow speed and subverting the rules of the run-and-gun in one fell swoop. Hotaru’s attack augmentation causes her to shoot arrows that change in trajectory depending on the power-up color she has, serving as a way for her to attack without having to approach. Mastering when and how to use these abilities alongside determining which power-up serves each character best gives Reshrined a layer of depth beyond its predecessors that allows for player expression through character choice and preferred attacks.
The structure of the story mode has you mostly playing as Pocky and the other characters only get a level or two to shine. The fifth level chooses from Hotaru or Ikazuchi at random, which means that you’ll have to play through the story mode at least twice to try out and unlock both characters. This limitation is alleviated by the Free Mode, which lets you playas any character. This is also the only mode that allows for cooperative play (local only), but in a bizarre twist, it needs to be unlocked by completing the Story Mode or by collecting 10,000 coins. In a similar vein, the game offers an easy mode that provides infinite lives, but to access it, you need to collect 3,000 coins, which will likely take multiple playthroughs to accumulate. A single playthrough will only take an hour or two for an experienced player, but for people who prefer a specific character or those who want to play with someone else, having to play through the entire story first may sour the experience in a way that could have been easily avoided.
Reshrined is a visually stunning game full of expressive youkai, breathtaking environments, and plenty of personality. Every environment has an impressive amount of detail inserted into it, from animated background elements down to every single leaf on the ground during the first boss fight getting its own physics that are affected by the player’s movement. Standing around with each character triggers a unique idle animation and it’s a very cute touch! Every environment feels distinct and the returning ones have enough additions that series veterans will find something new to appreciate. Tengo Project also had the confidence to use some enemies for just a single level,preventing repetition from ever setting in. Even with all the special effects going on and enemies taking up screen space, the action never becomes unreadable and the general difficulty is always fair while being easier than its inspiration, making it a good entry point in that regard.
Pocky & Rocky Reshrined is remarkable in how much it manages to pack into each play session; you’ll get exciting action, visual splendor in spades, and a trip down memory lane all in one place. It’s safe to say that the third time is the charm for Tengo Project and hopefully Reshrined marks the beginning of a bright future for the series – let’s just hope the next one doesn’t take another 21 years to arrive!