Chambara is a small game with a big idea: shift the paradigm of competitive multiplayer.
When I hear “competitive multiplayer,” my mind jumps to PC strategy games or first-person shooting. It’s useful to start with the latter when describing Chambara. It’s a first-person combat game with eyes set squarely on the couch experience: two to four friends trying not to be too obvious about their screen-peeking.
But where other games deal in speed, twitch reflexes, and firepower, Chambara deals in stealth. The game’s central conceit: levels are rendered in just a few colors (sometimes, only two), and player avatars are entirely one color or another. Stand in the right place, and from another player’s perspective, you’re functionally invisible. Through positioning, you can perfectly blend with the wall behind you, the floor below, or both. But from another angle, your silhouette might be clear as day against a surface of an opposite color.
The result is mentally challenging, unlike anything I’ve played. Learning Chambara alongside my foe was humbling, like my rookie attempt at a new genre. You can’t just consider your opponent’s sightlines. You must draw imaginary sightlines onto your immediate surroundings, interpreting whether you’re properly camouflaged. You can’t just race through environments hoping to surprise and overwhelm. Anything less than careful attention, and you’ll miss foes standing in plain sight.
Chambara’s brand of multiplayer can be fast and intense; some of my favorite moments were intense showdowns where a win came down to a pixel’s difference as we charged at each other with dash attacks. But more often, it’s a cerebral battle of wits. Victory can come through baiting a restless opponent out of their hiding spot, recognizing an abnormal shape that’s actually your foe’s arm, locking down an awesome corner of near-invisibility, or moving rapidly enough to become visually confusing.
At first, the strategic potential is overwhelming. For this reason, my early time with Chambara wasn’t very satisfying. I frequently caught myself actually standing still, my mind totally occupied by figuring out how to win, let alone putting it into practice. At first, those wins felt unearned. I wasn’t meaningfully stitching together strategies, just benefitting from spawn locations or being in the right place at the right time–not unlike my time with most first-person shooters! But before long, I started to learn Chambara’s language. After identifying a place to hide, I used L2 to “squint” (covering my screen) while I moved there. I realized that, often, I didn’t have to be fully camouflaged to go unnoticed–by simply not moving, I blended with the visually confusing environments surprisingly well. I found that briefly making myself obvious was a great way to draw opponents out of their own hiding. With camouflage nearby, I could reset the hide-and-seek dynamic at will.
Mechanically, Chambara is mercifully pure. With your equipped beating stick, you can take swift swipes directly in front of you or charge forward with a dash attack that briefly immobilizes you. The aforementioned ability to squint can be used to cover your screen and confuse your opponent, and you can wall jump for some impressive acrobatics. Finally, you can toss a shuriken to tag your opponent, highlighting them for a brief period. The limited toolkit makes for a more accessible game, but also one that’s strategically consistent. The macro-level chess match that plays out on the battlefield–players flitting in and out of cover, trying to mind-game each other–trickles down to the micro level of your abilities. A dash attack can be a decisive kill or leave you wide-open for counterattack. Everything’s a one-hit kill, so the stakes are high in every split-second decision.
The competitive foundation of Chambara isn’t just solid. It’s well-considered, surprisingly deep, and totally unique. There’s little I can hold against it, though the predictable respawn points are an easy target. Most of my concerns with the game lie with how little game there actually is. Deathmatch is the only game mode, and there’s no online component. Chambara’s splitscreen-only approach is a good excuse to return to the charms of physical proximity (shoving your friends, or calling out the guy who won’t stop screen-peeking), but it feels like missed opportunity to forego pure tests of mind and stealth with online strangers. Nine maps is a healthy amount, and you can apply one of five color palettes to any of them, but that interplay of color feels way more important to gameplay than physical layouts. As a result, playing on different maps doesn’t notably change the feeling of play. They’re more window dressing than meaningful content.
That said, the price is right. Chambara is a $10 game with more than $10 worth of multiplayer fun if you and your local friends are willing to learn. Its greatest victory is staking claim in the well-worn multiplayer landscape with something that’s not only fresh enough to be humbling, but mechanically faultless. It’s a polished debut to meet a specific need, but if your itch for pure local multiplayer isn’t strong, there’s almost nothing here to hold your attention. Chambara is a clear winner in its category, but tough to universally recommend.