Review : KAO The Kangaroo : A Comeback Story

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Kao the Kangaroo (“kay-oh”) is one of the longest running 3D platform franchises in the industry, having been originally released at the dawn of the new millennium, with entries spanning all the way to present day. In the game you play as the titular Kao, who is an anthropomorphic marsupial with a mean right hook thanks to his magical pair of boxing gloves. If you are sitting there wondering how it is possible that you and so many others have never heard of this game, despite how long it’s been around, that is because it has been nearly twenty years since its last release, which begs the question: why is this long forgotten franchise suddenly making a come back? To that end, I have no clue, but what I do know is that I have played a ton of this spontaneous, full reboot of Kao the Kangaroo and am glad to see this franchise, which I have never heard of, make its long-awaited comeback.

The game is being developed by the original creators, Tate Multimedia, in Warsaw Poland. If you are wondering why a team of Polish developers is so passionate about an Australian kangaroo, so am I. However, I would be lying if that weird juxtaposition did not add to the game’s overall charm. While the original Kao was released on the Sega Dreamcast, and then its sequel on PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube, Tate Multimedia have spent nearly the last 20 years building almost only PC, portable, and mobile games. So it is great to see them back on consoles here. The impression I got from the game’s promotional material led me to believe that it would be a kid friendly experience, so I decided to do something interesting with my play through. I played this entire game on Xbox Series X while using the Xbox’s internal co-pilot feature, with my daughter at the helm and me as her backup. This really added to the experience for me as I was able to see it from the perspective of someone who is new to gaming, as well as someone who has spent hundreds of hours with Kao’s genre contemporaries throughout my life. So with that in mind, let’s jump in!

At a surface level, Kao the Kangaroo borrows heavily from the likes of Spyro the Dragon in its design. As Kao, you will start your journey on the island of Hoppaloo Island, which acts as the a hub world of sorts. Within this hub world, you will be tasked with finding ancient runes, and, upon collecting enough of them, you will be granted access to the various levels that exist within the hub world. The levels themselves contain even more runes, among other things, to collect. Once you have completed the levels and collected the majority of the runes in that world, you will be able to gain access to a new hub world with more levels to explore. The hub worlds are also home to a lot of the game’s story elements, with NPCs you can speak to and, in some cases, merchants selling goods you can spend your hard-earned coins on.

The hub worlds are a nice touch, working well here just like they did in Spyro. But what makes Kao stand out from some of its contemporaries are the levels themselves. The levels are very well designed and relatively lengthy. In my play through it felt like each level either added a new mechanic to the fray or a unique combination of previously learned skills, which helped them all feel fresh and unique. The levels also feel relatively meaty in comparison to other games in the genre, with each one taking me anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes to complete. Of course these levels are chalk full of nooks and crannies, containing collectibles and power ups that I was constantly on the lookout for which could have padded those times, somewhat.

Part of the reason I was so eager to find every secret in each level was, of course, because there are achievements tied to doing so, but also because some of the collectibles were actually quite meaningful. Some give you standard things like extra lives and an increase to maximum health, but others provided some interesting game play experiences. Eternal Wells are hidden doorways to mini-stages that are tucked away inside of regular levels, and they present unique combat challenges or platforming challenges that I thoroughly enjoyed. The game’s various levels can also coalesce into furthering the story of the hub world, with pre and post-level cut scenes, which I quite enjoyed.

Then there is Kao himself, the boxing kangaroo who you will be controlling throughout the entire adventure, and he’s a joy to play as. There is something that is so satisfying about laying down a three hit combo with your fists that just feels better then a spin attack or a breath of fire that we see in other similar games. I will say, though, that Kao might pack too much of a punch, as almost every enemy in the game is a pretty big pushover, easily defeated by simply spamming the punch button. This is likely intentional, given the game’s targeted demographic. Combat is but a small part of what makes a 3D platformer, however, and even though Kao may wipe the floor with his foes with ease, it takes more then a few punches to save the day.

The platforming in Kao the Kangaroo is solid, with the standard array of running, jumping, double jumping, and dashing that you would expect to see in a 3D platformer. There are some interesting uses of the game’s magical boxing gloves that really add to the complexity of some of the maneuvers you are asked to pull off and puzzles you need to solve. In some cases there are gems you must smash to reveal hidden platforms to step on, or elemental orbs that will temporarily imbue your gloves with an elemental power used to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles. Overall, the game feels precise, which is not always guaranteed in a 3D platformer but is always guaranteed to make one fun to play. There is also a finely-tuned difficulty curve, here, which I noticed by the amount of times I was asked to take the reigns as my daughter’s co-pilot. The combination of great platforming and level design are the crux of what makes Kao stand out.

Finally, as a capstone to each world, you have some pretty great boss battles. These were all major highlights for me as they offered a nice bump in difficulty compared to the game’s normal combatants. Each boss provides a satisfying array of abilities, and they often have multiple phases, which switch things up even further. They also often tie into the overall story that each world is trying to tell, giving them more characterization and making the fights a tad more meaningful.

The game’s presentation is decent, and at times quite beautiful. There is a specific cartoon sheen that came with the Toys for Bob remakes of both Crash Bandicoot and Spyro, and that is at worst mimicked here and at best perfected. The colours pop, and nearly every frame is gorgeously vibrant. As a fan of the games that clearly inspired Kao, the music also fits in well and made me feel right at home.

Where the presentation falls short, though, is in the game’s attempt to add more narrative then expected into the game. While I applaud the effort to tell more story then the genre usually sees, putting so much of a spotlight on the characters sometimes exposes the cracks in the game’s overall presentation. For instance, the running, jumping, and punching animations all look and feel great, but once the camera zooms in on a character, the facial and idle animations are noticeably stiff. A lot of the dialogue in these scenes are fully voice-acted as well, with some up and down performances. A lot of it is passable, but some of the delivery was a little rough.

With all of that being said, there is one thing that I think is very important to mention. Every single time a weird animation took place, or some rough dialogue was delivered, I would look over at my daughter to gauge her reaction. Every single time I did this, what I saw was a big smile and eyes glued to the screen. All of it landed for her, and as the game went on, all of these scenes increased her engagement with not only the game itself, but its characters and story. So while it may not be for everyone, the game’s presentation and its attempt to add more story beats than usual to a 3D platformer can make a big difference to some.

It is surprising to see a game like Kao the Kangaroo, once thought to be lost to history, be fully rebooted like this. However, what is even more surprising is how good of a job the team at Tate Multimedia was able to do with it. While the presentation has some peaks and valleys, the game’s level design, platforming, and combat should surely grant this Kangaroo a seat at the table right next to the bandicoot and purple dragon that clearly inspired it.

Final Verdict : 7.5

     Fun Factor : 8
     Technical Prowess : 6
     Time Investment : 10+ Hours
     Replayability : 4

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By Eric Bezanson

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