Words: Paul Walker-Emig
How many times in recent years have you played games that ended up overstaying their welcome in one way or another, your enthusiasm dwindling as said games squander your initial interest by settling into a seemingly never-ending pattern of repetition? How many times have you felt as if the developers of those games were more concerned with trying to wring as much as they can from every system and idea so they can say that their game provides X hours of ‘content’, rather than asking whether what their game is asking you to do is still compelling? Far too often, we’d venture to say. You need have no such concerns about Kalimba, a game that’s consistently imaginative and that abhors repetition, that paces the introduction of its many ideas perfectly, ensuring that it is fresh and engaging from start to finish.
The premise around which Kalimba is based is that you control two totems simultaneously. At the start of the game, you find your totems split between two levels, almost as if you are playing a split-screen game. Pressing the left stick, for example, will move both totems in sync, meaning that you have to pay careful attention to the differing obstacles and pitfalls that confront each totem as you move through the level. From there, Kalimba gradually layers new systems on top of that basic premise – you gain the ability to swap the position of your two totems at any point; coloured areas are introduced that only the corresponding colour totem can travel through; power-ups that swap gravity or supersize one of your totems come into play; and so on. As such, you’ll find that, though the basic concept remains the same, this is a game with a level of creativity that means what you’re doing at the end of the game is quite different to what you were doing at the beginning.
Every time Kalimba introduces a new mechanic it does so masterfully. Eschewing tutorials, the game instead just gives you a new ability and combines it with an obstacle that’s easy enough to ensure it’s self-evident how it works, before ramping up the difficulty as each level progresses. From there, the game wastes no time in playing with how that mechanic can be used in new and interesting ways, throwing ideas your way at an invigoratingly relentless place. As soon as you begin to feel like you might be mastering a system, Kalimba moves on, chucking a new mechanic into the mix. In following that pattern, the game consistently forces you to re-evaluate what the game is and how you play it, meaning it is never boring, frequently challenging and always interesting.
Speaking of challenge, Kalimba can be frustrating in some of its tougher sections. As a game that combines puzzle-solving with twitch platforming, though, that comes with the territory. The game is meant to be difficult in its later stages. Having said that, the only punishment for death is that the rating that you get at the end of a level is downgraded, so you’ve got as many tries as you need to get past some of Kalimba’s more devilish sections if your objective is simply to finish the game. Of course, the reason Kalimba knocks your rating down when you die is that it wants to encourage replay. If you want to get a ‘gold’ run, you’ll need to finish a level collecting every ‘piece’ littered throughout it, without dying once. No easy task when it comes to the game’s later levels. In that respect, you could perhaps argue that Kalimba is needlessly finicky, ending up being reliant on you learning levels more than it is having a certain level of skill. Nevertheless, we’d by lying if we said there isn’t a compulsion to go back and perfect those runs and a sense of satisfaction when you eventually master them, as infuriating as the process can occasionally be.
Aside from the fact that Kalimba can be frustrating (again, something which is to be expected with challenging games) there really is very little negative to say. You could argue that the game’s visual and audio design is by no means spectacular, but it is pleasant enough. Granted, its attempts at fourth-wall breaking humour often falls flat, but, fortunately, it never becomes grating. In any case, pointing out those aspects in which Kalimba isn’t quite stellar feels petty, because when it comes to actually playing the game – figuring out the puzzles, perfecting the timing of double jumps, acing a difficult section – Kalimba excels.
As a game that moves relatively swiftly from being simple to complex, without losing the player on the way, Kalimba is a masterclass in design. It also demonstrates that developer Press Play is a studio that understands the value of brevity – the game never overuses an idea, nor takes your attention for granted. Instead, it functions like a conveyer belt of creativity, delivering one pleasant surprise after another.