Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Kairo - Thoughts

Kairo is an odd duck of a game; attempting to categorize what genre it falls into can lead to vague and misleading words. The best I can scramble together is that it's a conceptual puzzle game with minimal expression and a focus on exploration. The core of the game is foremost about deciphering what each area is asking of you, since figuring out the solution to the puzzles therein comes quickly afterwards. In that regard it's far from being a proficiency puzzler like Portal or The Swapper are (with a notable mechanic you have to master), but also not as complicated or intricate as something like Myst and its ilk (yet still close to them regarding a level of inference needed). What kept me intrigued enough to finish the journey was not the gameplay or investment in the abstract plot, but the cold, dead, and isolated worlds it threw me headfirst into.

In a way, Kairo acts as a love letter to simple geometry and architecture. The various settings you visit flaunt bizarre structures drained of their color yet paradoxically drowned in it, inciting a silent curiosity as you move around looking for gateways and panels. Through lusterless textures and repeating shapes, every locale remains strangely appealing despite the stark simplicity. If these screenshots don't grab you there's a good chance that you won't enjoy your time with the game, but I was personally drawn in by the austere dreariness plaguing each abandoned lot, the solemn stucco walls beckoning me to explore even deeper. Perhaps I'm overselling the atmosphere here but it's rare to have the ornate details we're accustomed to in current games stripped away, allowing us to reflect on the beautiful, dry skeleton that remains.

While I enjoyed the game overall, I don't feel like there's much to comment on regarding the gameplay/puzzles. There's reoccurring symbols that you need to write down in order to recall their order and sometimes you have to pay attention to small notches on a wall to determine a pattern, but that's about it. Due to the slow walking pace and little problem-solving demanded of me I felt fatigued by the third half, wishing that the game was shorter so it could easily be completable in a single sitting. I also got myself terribly lost at the hub with the torii gates due to its gargantuan size and a misleading auditory cue near the middle, something that extended my playtime well over how long I wanted it to last. Ultimately I wish I spent more time walking around and gawking at the scenery than dealing with the "game" part of the game.

Kairo provides a peculiar experience I'm not sure I'd strongly recommend to anybody I know, but conversely I wouldn't stop them from undergoing its stoic brand of isolation. It's not a boisterous game that will receive a lot of attention but I feel the various few that play it may look back on it fondly, as its strengths outweigh the strange middling ground it trudges through at times. There are scant few games quite like this.

Logo obtained from: lockeddoorpuzzle.com

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Mario vs. Donkey Kong - Thoughts

While listening to a slew of Game of the Year discussions (Giant Bomb's particularly), I looked for something to occupy my idle hands with. Digging back into my 3DS library I chose an ambassador game that I had previously completed some time ago—Mario vs. Donkey Kong, the belated sequel to the Game Boy masterpiece Donkey Kong. In the mood for a nice puzzler that had an emphasis on precision and execution, I sunk my teeth into this title with the aim to 100% it... a challenge I did not expect so much resistance in attempting.

Plot has been far and away one of the least important things in any Mario title barring the RPG entries, but here I must applaud the lack of the "damsel in distress" trope, seeing as it would've been easy to let boring ol' Paulina get captured again (something the sequel would unfortunately embrace). Instead, Donkey Kong gets jealous of Mario's success and steals toys manufactured in the Italian's image, placing the impetus on rescuing the mechanized miniatures at the end of each level. I'll briefly note that Charles Martinet speaks in more frequency here than in any other Mario title to date, shouting dozens of lines including the adorable "come back here you-ah big monkey!" It's pretty cute, albeit somewhat peculiar, to hear the GBA sound chip constantly blaring bitcrushed words at you.

Besides platforming, the crux of the original Donkey Kong was structured on levers and platform-creation tools. The GBA outing changes this up by focusing instead on the utilization of three primary colored buttons—hitting one will correspond to the corporeality of that color's objects, e.g. red ladders and trashcans will be able to be climbed and thrown once the red button is hit. You'll often have to cycle between the colors in order to snag all the optional gifts in each level or make a path to the exit. Although it might seem daunting to enter a stage decorated with dozens of yellow, blue and red outlines, you can get pretty far off intuition alone as it's never horridly complicated.

Basic level design stays pretty close to its predecessor initially—get the novelty-sized yellow key and make your way to the exit. After passing through the keyhole's gaping maw, you'll encounter the latter half of the stage, where you must make your way to the Mini Mario encased in a glass orb. Doing six of these stages opens up a single level where you have to escort all the rescued toys and get them into a toy box, which will turn the mustachioed Minis into health units for the following boss fight. As you can surmise there's quite a bit of variety in the game even without delving into the various enemies and contraptions you'll encounter unique to each world (of which there are plenty used in clever combination).

Ah, but it doesn't end there! Completing the first six worlds and final battle will open up the second half of the game, something Super Mario 3D Land players might find familiar. I find these "plus stages" to be more intriguing and fun than the first part of the game, discarding the two-part levels and focusing on the plumber hunting down a lone Mini Mario to guide back with him to the exit. It takes the acrobatic arrangement established in the earlier stages and combines it with the "follow the leader" mechanic in the Minis' escort levels (with only one dopey duplicate to manage fortunately). You have to start thinking of the stages with two mindsets—one for you and one for the Mini—as you each have a skill set that the other can't utilize (Mario is more flexible and can carry objects while the mini can fit into small areas Mario can't). The stages are quick enough to avoid banging your head against the wall in frustration due to a simple mistake, something I was thankful for during my 100% run. Finally, after dominating the "plus stages" there's a final set of expert levels that become unlocked, but they're not nearly as intimidating as they sound (the second stage does demand some intense thumb dexterity though).

If there are some things I must criticize the game on, one of them is the off-kilter difficulty curve. A good number of the earlier levels were far, far harder to "gold star" (getting all gifts & beating it under the time limit) than most of the expert levels. This is due in large part to the strict time limit, forcing you to complete both sections as quick as possible and without dying. Completing one portion speedily is tricky on it's own but forcing the player to do two of them flawlessly without restarting became very taxing (3-3 in particular was extremely tough to shave time off of). And while I praise the second half of the game, the escort missions are far from perfect as AI pathing can be pretty cumbersome and unreliable, jumping when you wish they wouldn't. Level 5-4+ perfectly illustrates this, as anything other than precise movements will lead one of the Marios to certain doom.

The presentation is another point of criticism as the visuals have not aged well. The blurry, chunky character sprites attempt to harken back to the Donkey Kong Country/Land titles but fail to remain as charming or cohesive. Colors are strong but discordant and garish due to the inclusion of the primary switches, and the jiggling 3D modeled sprites stand out against the rigid foreground platforms. It certainly won't cause you to retch upon first glance, but it lacks the appeal, visual fidelity, and homespun creativity apparent in every other 2D Mario game. The music on the other hand is neither here nor there, comfortably fine leaving no impression on the ears.

A final, somewhat small gripe I have is that the "lives" system in the game is absolutely pointless beyond the first half. While 1-UPs serve as bonuses from collecting all three gifts and a way to punish the player if they fail in the glass orb sections repeatedly, these feel cumbersome in the second part of the game where there is no penalty whatsoever from using a continue, since a death entails that you're restarting the level anyway. It might seem like a minor quibble but considering the superfluous number of bonus games you play while trying to 100% the game, it adds up to a considerable amount of time that's wasted for no good reason.

While falling short of the original glory of Donkey Kong, Mario vs. Donkey Kong rides the coattails of its father admirably thanks to some interesting gameplay implementations. The "plus stages" after the credits roll is where the game shines it's brightest, and despite a roller coaster-like difficulty curve there's a massive feeling of elation and success after finishing the final expert stage. It's definitely worth a shot if you're hankering for some puzzle-platform mayhem and can get bear some messy visuals.

Images obtained from: strategywiki.org,   obsoletegamer.com, mariomario.over-blog.com,, nintendolife.com