A couple of years ago we were in the middle of a 3D platformer renaissance, with all manner of dormant franchises being given new leases of life. It’s a trend that has either come to a standstill or an abrupt end, as this year has seen very few platformers so far. This makes Kao the Kangaroo’s return incredibly well-timed, which is ironic as timing has never been the franchise’s forte.
The original Kao launched on Dreamcast in the space year 2000, clearly aiming to be the console’s answer to Crash Bandicoot. It came and went without much fanfare, partly because the audience for a family-friendly colourful platformer wasn’t quite there. Kao’s 2003 multiformat sequel, meanwhile, was up against such greats as Super Mario Sunshine and Ratchet & Clank. To call it a failed franchise is off the mark, however – the PC versions reportedly sold well, notching up respectable sales in the developer’s home country of Poland.
This is a full-on franchise reboot from original developer Tate, giving our plucky hero a significant – and much-needed – makeover. Kao is out to find his lost sister and father, with their disappearances believed to be linked to ominous purple crystals currently blighting Kao’s idyllic island home. Helping to even the odds, Kao discovers a pair of magical talking boxing gloves, which periodically dole new elemental powers. After being trapped inside a chest for some time, the gloves have developed a brazen Venom complex, speaking in a garbled tone.
Although visually similar to 2020’s Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time – boasting a bold colour palette with schemes that delightfully clash – it soon becomes apparent that this revival was created on a fraction of Crash 4’s budget. This is most evident within the quality of the cut-scenes, ergo the dialogue and voice acting, with most scenes simply entailing the camera flicking between headshots while characters remain rooted to the spot. Dialogue is neither witty nor snappy, with some NPCs waffling on for far too long.
Kao even rolls off the tired “I’m here to kick ass and chew bubble-gum” line during the first boss fight. That’s the level of cliched dialogue we are dealing with. Kao’s performance isn’t without merit, however – he has a slight impediment, which is quite endearing.
A small-scale budget has seemingly impacted the game’s length too – our initial playthrough took around 4 hours, although to see everything (bonus ‘Eternal Well’challenge stages are hidden in each stage) you can add a few more hours to that total. Just four worlds feature: Kao’s island homeland, a tropical jungle with a beverage production line, a snowy mountain retreat, and a twisted underworld. Each has its own hub to explore and consists of three stages and a boss battle.
Bosses have multiple phases, prompting a change of tactics mid-fight. While this may sound innovative, battles actually become easier as the game progresses – Kao starts out with just three hit points, making the first couple of encounters tricky, but this amount quickly increases by both finding/purchasing health bar extensions. By the time the story was nearing its end, we didn’t feel the need to pay much attention to Kao’s health at all.
Each stage requires a certain number of magical runes to access, found not just within the levels themselves but also dotted around hubs. Level design is consistently good, and no two levels play similarly. That said, a lot of tropes are present – Sonic-style rail grinding, Crash-style running into the screen chases, and simple block shoving puzzles. The fire ability is used to burn passage-blocking spiderwebs, while the ice ability can freeze water to give access to new areas. The wind ability is a bit of a let-down, simply used to pull floating platforms closer. Not incorporating these elemental skills into combat feels like a missed opportunity.
Considering Tate hasn’t touched a platformer for a while, the basics feel remarkably refined, making for an experience that can be gratifying. The environments are inviting, and Kao himself is a pleasure to control, being remarkably responsive. If you mistime a jump, chances are he’ll still grab hold of that platform regardless and pull himself up. This removes a lot of potential frustration and keeps the pace fast following.
During combat Kao automatically locks-on enemies, dashing from one to the other while his fists are ablur; a sight accompanied by some satisfying sound effects. Once a gauge is full a power punch can be unleashed, killing multiple enemies at once. And that’s your lot. There are no combat upgrades, with only new traversal tricks introduced along the way.
While I enjoyed my time with gaming’s other sprightly box-breaking marsupial, that time was all too fleeting. The £24.99 price tag does accommodate for some of the shortcomings though. It certainly isn’t being mis-sold, and it’s leaps and bounds over Outright Games’ licensed platformers, which generally cost more.
This is a humble game, clearly made on a modest budget by a team that apricates and understands the genre, even if it fails to match the mastery of its peers. Visually appealing and easy going, younger gamers or for those simply looking a short but sweet platforming fix will be in their element. We’ve certainly seen far less successful comebacks over the years.
Tate Multimediaâ€™s Kao the Kangaroo is out now on PS5/PS4, Xbox One/Xbox Series, PC, and Switch.