The divide between the prospects of the future and the relics of the past is smaller than ever. Games such as Smash, Shovel Knight, and Rogue Legacy use the building blocks of retro platformers to perpetuate the platforming, arcade-style gameplay many of us grew up with, and the level design of non-isometrics uses platforming influences to create interactive, vertical terrain like the Arkham series, Uncharted, and even some parts in Bloodborne.
Among the key elements of video game fundamentals we see a recurring theme of puzzles from simplistic to extreme. These can come in the form of mind-bending mazes, riddles, engineering problems, or just figuring out the lay of the land so you can traverse with ease.
Why do I bring these up? Well, Kalimba brings both platforming and quick thinking to another level, preserving the notion that platformers will continue to enlighten and enthrall gamers for a long time to come.
Kalimba is an arcade platformer that pits you against an enigmatic warlock and dangerous environments, each filled with challenges you must overcome, all while controlling two characters at the same time. It currently retails on Xbox One for $9.99 and will be releasing on Steam April 22nd (price not listed at this time).
You can find my first look here.
As I said before, if you’re an Xbox One owner, this game has been around since December 17th and is available for you right now, and this probably plays a major factor in why I didn’t catch any of the hype or even notice the game until it came to PC. I’m really glad I did notice it, however.
Kalimba is vibrant and lively, instantly catapulting you into a world of polygons and totems where you play as a disembodied shaman who must inhabit totems in order to guide them around the world to track down an evil warlock.
The story is very compact, served to you in bite-sized loading screens and orchestrated cutscenes through the sardonic maw of a less-than-willing bear, curiously named “Hoebear the Metabear”. By my word is he meta. We’ll talk about that later though.
If you’re not encapsulated by the story, which doesn’t really come off as detrimental to enjoying the game, then I can at least find solace in knowing you won’t ignore the embellished set pieces, level design, and all around aesthetic of Kalimba.
From the menu screen on, I found myself deeply enamored with the music, especially as I tumbled along the levels. It wasn’t long before I realized Kalimba was integrating some portions of the OST into the physical layout of the game. For instance, there are these tokens you can collect and at certain points the music will chime in beat when you collect them, much like Audiosurf in some sense, albeit constructed instead of generated.
Another thing that caught me off guard was how reactive the environment seemed to be. Clouds of energy, pools of fiendish ichor, and especially the narrator himself, were all made of flowing particles that both affected the player and were affected by the player. It reminded me of Dust‘s physics in the weirdest but most satisfyingly insignificant nostalgia attack I’ve had lately.
All in all, the levels were tightly built, fitting together with immense care, almost as if the game developers really cared about their craft or something.
More along those lines, let’s get into gameplay. One thing you’ll learn about platformers and retro games is their adept ability to teach you new concepts without shoving exposition and button prompts in your face like a can of raid to an ant hill, and it’s this text-ridden solicitation that really kills games for me.
Kalimba does a great job of showing rather than telling, something most games seem to pass over. It uses a tried and true technique of giving me one option to choose from – jumping, for instance – and then gives me platforms with certain death below. The only logical solution is to jump from platform to platform, avoiding death, and reaping victory.
As a result of this, I feel like I’ve accomplished a task with little to no prompt, and instead of reading a wall of text or getting a three minute smack on the arse for failing, I can continue down my path to learn new skills for new challenges, or if I fail, I will be reset some metres back so I can try again.
The catch is you have two totems to control with only one set of controls. In other words, they mimic each other, and before long you begin thinking for two instead of simply worrying over one player character.
It sets everything up fluidly, something I have trouble with in a lot of by-the-books, triple-A drivel. My usual big-budgeters were regurgitating a laundry list of “stop here”, “go there”, “pick up a quest”, and “follow the map”. I really had no reason to care and no cause to be alarmed, but most certainly I had no drive to actually immerse myself within the worlds I was exploring.
Kalimba, as simplistic as it may be, makes me actually care about the ending, makes me want to replay, and instills within me a sense of accomplishment over beating new challenges. As casual as it may seem, Kalimba fits the right pieces together at the right time, taking the very basic elements of gaming to form an unique piece of artwork that stands vividly against a rather sordid backdrop, Steam’s Greenlight graveyard included.
All of that being said, I have a bone to pick with Freddy… I mean, the unfortunately named Hoebear the Metabear. In all honesty, I hate Hoebear with a passion. He instills in me a deep sense of primal rage that can only be relinquished through bloodshed, and here’s why:
Being named Metabear is the first indication that he is, in fact, really goddamn meta. He is the epitome of a fourth wall breaking narrator, and never in a good way. Don’t get me wrong, I love self-referential works. I love narrators who spark jokes or poke fun at the characters, especially on the levels of Magicka and Borderlands, where the fourth wall is merely a suggestion. I love characters who deal in both introspection and diegetically address the audience as if it were story time around the campfire.
But Kalimba‘s attempt at acerbic narration headbutts directly with the implicit mood of the game itself. I was really interested in the story, expecting a few meta jokes from the eponymous bear, but when every other line was shrugged out like a droll stand-up routine at a high school talent show, I began to feel the weight of the story collapsing on itself, and instantly dreaded any interaction with Hoebear.
He pushed the limits just barely too far and fell off the edge. If the entire game was self-referential and admonished sincerity, then I could appreciate Hoebear in all his fruitless efforts, but if you’re going to try and enjoy this game for its humour, prepare for more groans and face palms than Bill Hicks at a pun convention.