Until I was approached to review Kalimba, I had never heard of the title. I researched it the game looked decent though somewhat unremarkable. After turning the game inside out, I’m glad to say it crushed my expectations in a very good way.
Kalimba is a puzzle/platformer with a bold yet simple artistic style. Similarly, while the gameplay is mostly limited to two buttons and one joystick, the level design and creative obstacles necessitate a complex and thoughtful approach.
The game begins with a unique narrator appearing before the player to set the scene. The enigmatic and seemingly unenthused “Hoebear” is a hit-or-miss comic feature throughout the story. He appears at different points to narrate, but he mostly pops up in different challenge rooms. The character frequently calls upon meta-humor and constantly breaks the fourth wall. Hoebear can be amusing, especially when he casually insults the player’s challenge score compared to other people on the player’s friend’s list.
As Hoebear goes on to explain in the opening cinematic, the island of Kalimba was once a happy and prosperous place thanks to the protection of a shaman woman and her powerful totem pole. One day, an evil shaman shows up, kills the woman, and obliterates her totem pole, thus plunging the island into darkness and chaos. The spirit of the shaman woman lives on and travels the island to locate her missing totem pieces to save Kalimba. The player gets to play as the little totem pieces that her spirit can control in order to track down even larger pieces. It’s not the most interesting storyline for a video game, but it’s also not the worst. The real appeal of the game comes from the artistic style and puzzle/platformer game-play.
From the start menu to the world map, Kalimba‘s visual appearance is simple, but bold. The bright and clear colors fill out every corner of the various levels. There are also very smooth and appealing animations. Particle effects and shape-based scene transitions help to add a level of polish to the game. Kalimba might appear simple on the surface, but playing for five minutes would show anyone the incredible detail and creativity that went into the art design for this game.
The gameplay in Kalimba mirrors the visual quality; seemingly simple, but powerful and bold once the player delves deeper. From the first story level, the player controls two small totems simultaneously. A central part of the gameplay involves the two totems being constantly separated and brought back together to progress through the various puzzles levels. As I played, I learned quickly about how I could use the environment to adjust how the totems are positioned, but also how to use them to unlock and adjust puzzle mechanisms.
As you progress, the totems also gain the ability to swap. This becomes integral to progressing through the levels as colored barriers block the totems from continuing onward. The green totem can only pass through green barriers and the purple totem can only go through purple barriers. If the totems try to go through a different colored barrier, they are disintegrated. The learning curve reminds me of Portal. The player is shown a new concept, which seems simple enough at first. Then the level design requires that new abilities are used while moving quickly, while avoiding enemies, or in conjunction with other abilities. This often leads to trial-and-error and finding the solution is very rewarding.
One feature that I really appreciated in Kalimba was the respawn mechanic. If a totem hits an enemy or gets killed by a barrier or obstacle, the totems quickly rematerialize in a matter of seconds. They often spawn very close to where they died as well. Instead of a prolonged death animation, loading screen, and one-way ticket back to the last checkpoint that was minutes ago, Kalimba‘s respawn design gets you back in the game in a very uninhibited and streamlined way.
The level designs become progressively more complex and the addition of new enemies and bosses adds a new layer of challenge to the game. At the end of each level, the player is rewarded with a totem pole piece to help build the new totem pole to fend off the game’s villain. Getting gold totem pieces requires the player to grab all of the tokens throughout the level without dying. This small prompt to try and make the perfect run through the fairly short and fun levels reminded me of N+ for the Xbox 360. Both Kalimba and N+ rely on simple mechanics but through their innovative level design, unique art style, and smooth gameplay, manage to add a surprising amount of replay value and enjoyment to what on the surface looks like an uncomplicated platformer.
Speaking of value, the game also has significant co-op options. Two players can play through brand new levels which require strong communication and coordination to solve puzzles. If you’ve played Portal 2 co-op, then you have an idea of what Kalimba co-op will look like. Instead of having control of all of the in-game characters and tools, co-op players will only be able to operate at half capacity. There are also a variety of different game modes like “Old School Mode” and “Shorthanded Mode” which can add extra degrees of difficulty for anyone looking for a higher degree of challenge.
Overall, I was happily surprised by Kalimba. It proved to me that the platformer genre can still produce quality titles. I will also be more careful about judging games by their covers in the future. If you’re looking for a fun puzzle/platformer for the Xbox One, I would definitely recommend Kalimba.
Tyler Davis a gaming writer and contributor to PN2. Go say hi on Twitter @TDavis179