Developer: Press Play
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Rating: E for Everyone
Ever wonder why people emulate older games? Is it the nostalgia? Is it because nothing can replace the experience that that particular game brought upon the player? In any case, emulation is popular these days no matter the morality of it.
Press Play and Microsoft Studios bring us Kalimba, available on the PC and Xbox One. Not only does it remind me of classic old games, but it also pays them an excellent homage as well. I felt every bit the spirit of Super Mario World and all the vintage side-scrollers of days gone by. This time though, you play as two characters instead of one. An exciting twist to the nostalgic side-scrolling is an ability to swap places with those two characters. Kalimba plays smoothly and masterfully, another positive call-back to the days of perfectly crafted games where the developers didn’t have the ability to patch a release after the fact.
Welcome to the world of Kalimba, where spirits roam free and shamans wield them. Kalimba has achieved spiritual harmony, but that is jeopardized when an evil shaman from the sea messes with the island’s positive vibes. The evil shaman has killed the good shaman and as a result, pieces of the good shaman’s totem become spread across the island. Her spirit lives through these totem pieces as they try to work together in pairs to restore the main of Kalimba reestablish her stability over the island and control the evil spirits.
Besides all the talk of spirits and shamans, Kalimba is a clean, fun-for-all-ages game. The story is essentially a derived good vs. evil theme.
There are many hours of fun to be had between the main single-player campaign, the co-op campaign, and the extra downloadable content levels for one or two players. It all feels very “indie” because of its simplicity, but Kalimba goes into such complex depths with its gameplay that you forget that you’re even playing an indie title because of all the polish. Global and Friend leaderboards show you where your skills land between the rest of the world while also adding replayability. As you go through the two campaigns, there is a map of stages a la Super Mario World to show your progress. Along with this map, there is a huge totem that you build as you collect bigger totem pieces at the end of each stage, effectively restoring the main totem by the end of the game. Players get special gold totems if they collect all the tokens in each stage while not dying once. This mechanic adds yet another layer of replay value. There are also secret “meta-space” portals that lead you to challenge-type levels in the vein of old Donkey Kong games. Finally, bosses round out the ends of sections to shake up the game, focusing more on platforming than trying to confuse you with labyrinth like paths.
What makes Kalimba so special is the main gameplay mechanic of swapping the place of your current two characters. You move left and right with the A and D keys, jump with the space bar, and you swap characters with the Ctrl key. It gets interesting in co-op mode because you have the option to use the same keyboard. In this mode, players are split between both ends of the keyboard, where one player gets: A, D, Ctrl, Tab, and the other player gets Left key, Right key, Shift, and Alt. I am completely honest when I say that at times, you have to use your peripheral vision to watch both characters at once to make sure you’re doing each platforming puzzle correctly.
When you’re not swapping between the current pair of unique characters, there is a punishing crash-course in front of you to conquer. Walls of stone and dirt block your path while black muck hurts you on contact. Floors of ice require you to control your traction before you fall off to your death. There are also special colored zones that require you to use the correct colored totem of the pair to go through safely. Additional mechanics include switches that need one or both characters to be on, pairs of separate switches that require both characters to simultaneously stand on, and unique abilities for each section of unique pairs. For example, one pair of totems can gain wings, enabling the characters to float slowly across levels, or stop in mid-air. Another ability is to grow in size to activate bigger switches or take out certain small skeleton enemies. One section in the game even gives that pair of totems the ability to reverse gravity! The beauty of Kalimba is that each small differentiation brings exponentially more complications for you to overcome.
If you ever want to test the chemistry of a friendship or relationship, play Kalimba in co-op mode. You will soon find how connected you are with this person because you need to be in full synchronization to achieve success and finish these tough levels. You may get by the first few levels with just communication, but as the levels go on, you will have to act quicker than you can even speak. Finishing Kalimba’s co-operative campaign means complete interdependence. You must know exactly what your partner will do before you even do it or say it yourself. It is an absolute blast that I would recommend to any pair of gamers.
One thing I have to say though is that each level is directed like an Oscar-winning movie. Just as a level is about to make you rip your hair out, you reach the end and you are able to breathe again, ready for the next one. Checkpoints are also placed effectively and it feels rewarding to conquer a certain platforming puzzle and be able to start right after it if you perish.
Indie titles are just simply not supposed to look this good. The polish Press Play and Microsoft have achieved in Kalimba is absolutely incredible as it just gleams in every single frame. The overall look of the game is like a high quality cartoon due to the mini animal-like characters you play as, and the blocky, colorful environments you run and jump along. There is also a functional aspect to the graphics as well because of the precise character control. For example, a lot of the game involves positioning your characters perfectly so that you can enter specific colored zones unharmed, or avoid the evil black muck that will hurt you. There are also some incredible particle effects that happen when these zones of colors move around. It looks like the triangular polygons that make up these shapes are freely flowing around the objects naturally.
In the background of the majestic island of Kalimba exists an intriguing, mystical score that evokes old Super Nintendo side-scrollers like Mario, Metroid, and Castlevania. It fits the game perfectly as the tone of each melody changes per the current level at hand. Dark levels with dirt platforms will give you an eerie vibe, while bright stone platform levels ring brightly with soulful synthesized lines.
Along the way, there is a narrator named Hoebear that gives you tips and fills you in on important plot details. Hoebear is a purple “metabear” that uses self-aware humor to make players laugh and remember that this is just a game to enjoy and play with a full heart. If you choose to skip his dialogue he will even grunt at you!
Kalimba is a must-play for anyone who grew up playing games like Super Mario World and Kirby. This professionally polished game effectively captures the spirit of the difficult traversing of a platformer mixed with a brilliant swapping puzzle mechanic that works without fail. Press Play and Microsoft Studios have masterfully crafted a true gem of an indie title in Kalimba. Both single-player and co-op campaigns give you great value for a modest price.
The Bottom Line
Kalimba is a must-play for anyone who grew up playing games like Super Mario World and Kirby. This spiritual game effectively captures the spirit of the difficult traversing of a platformer mixed with a brilliant swapping puzzle mechanic that works without fail.