As is the case with all game reviews on this blog, this review will assume that you’ve played the game, i.e. it will contain spoilers for Kairo.
I really love the concept of Kairo. Most first-person puzzlers restrict the player to a series of closed rooms, which can facilitate a lot of nifty gameplay possibilities, but can also make the player feel cramped and restricted. Not so with Kairo, whose open-ended level design puts a large emphasis on exploration. The player navigates through what appear to be ancient alien ruins, solving the puzzles located in them to advance and unlock new areas to explore. With the right atmosphere, art direction, and level design, this could be a truly sublime experience.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Kairo is the best version of that game. It’s a good game, to be sure, but it’s held back from greatness by a variety of issues that initially didn’t bother me much, but ended up making me glad the experience was over by the game’s conclusion. In many ways, Kairo feels not like a finished product, but more like an alpha or beta release.
But before we discuss those issues, let’s talk about what makes Kairo work, for the most part. What Kairo succeeds incredibly well in doing is in imbuing its world with a deep sense of mystery. The game’s environments look like ancient alien ruins, vast in scale and scope, and the symbols etched on their walls don’t call to mind the script of any human language. The game’s colour palette is muted, and it usually contrasts a single colour against shades of grey, as if to evoke the feeling that structures among which the player walks are from long, long ago. Even the game’s synth-driven soundtrack is eerie and minimalist, perfectly complementing the sense that the game’s locales are places to be explored.
More so than any other game in recent memory, Kairo casts the player in the role of archaeologist, uncovering the secrets of what appears to be a lost civilization. Aside from a completely optional hints system, there is no guidance about where to go or what is to be done. The player must be guided through the environments by his or her instincts. Solving a puzzle requires not only using known mechanics to arrive at a solution, but also figuring out the puzzle’s mechanics themselves. When all of this works in perfect harmony, Kairo doesn’t just feel like a game; it feels like a digital space that has recently been discovered and whose secrets have yet to be prodded.
Unfortunately, all of this doesn’t always work in perfect harmony. All too often, Kairo’s lack of polish becomes apparent, and the sense of immersion that the game engenders is ruined. The game’s stripped-down controls usually work in its favour by preventing it from becoming needlessly complicated, but since switches are activated or deactivated by walking up to them, it’s far too easy to turn one on by accident. It doesn’t help that the game’s walking and running controls feel floaty and imprecise. If a game can’t get the simple act of, y’know, getting around right, then you know there’s a problem. It doesn’t help that bugs abound too, so falling off the edge of the map in some places can lead to a never-ending fall. In one case, I hit a small ledge when I was falling, but the game counted the ledge as a surface, so I kept respawning and falling off that ledge in an infinite loop of death. These bugs were easily reproducible, so you’d think they’re the kind of stuff that would get caught in playtesting.
Some of the puzzles also cause some mild frustration. Most of them are clever and well-designed, and it’s amazing how much Kairo does with the simple mechanics of walking, running, and jumping. However, a few of them require a lot of tedious walking back and forth, and a couple of them rely on precise object placement, which is tough to pull off with floaty controls. There are also a few rooms that look like puzzles but in actuality are not required to advance. They’re probably a lot of fun for people who are completionists and who want to uncover every secret in the game, but for someone like me, they were a minor irritation.
Another major problem with Kairo is how it all looks on screen. I hesitate to go down this road, lest I be accused of being a salivating “graphics whore” who can’t appreciate “true art,” but Lord, the graphics in this game are kind of awful. I don’t mean to imply that angular, geometric structures can’t be beautiful – quite the opposite, actually. In fact, when Kairo is beautiful – and it’s often beautiful – it’s because of this simplicity. No, what really bothers me is the lack of polish and graphical fidelity. There comes a point when bad graphics can actually come into conflict with a game’s artistic aims, and that’s exactly what happens here. The low-res textures can make the environments look like outtakes from an early PS2-era shooter rather than the impressive ancient ruins they’re trying to be. In some cases, the draw distance is ridiculously short, as if the player character has severe nearsightedness. If I’m supposed to be awed by the sight of these ruins, I have to actually be able to, y’know, see them.
But perhaps the most frustrating thing about Kairo is that it hints at some sort of narrative with its environments, but never delivers. At first, the only visible things that are out of the ordinary are the weird symbols. But in later levels, there are TV screens on walls with the outline of a person’s face. At one point, there’s a photograph of Albert Einstein, and at another, there’s a geographically accurate translucent globe. These oddities intimate that there’s something more sinister going on than merely exploring old ruins. But if there is, I never found out, because the game just sort of, well, ended, without even giving a sense of what the hell was going on. There’s a difference between generating a vague sense of mystery (which Kairo does exceptionally well) and creating an actual mystery to be resolved. The game doesn’t seem to understand to that difference.
Overall, there’s a very good game to be found in Kairo, but it really needed to spend a few more months in the oven. With a little more development time, developer Richard Perrin could have tightened the controls, touched up the graphics, and massaged its implied narrative into some sort of story. But as it stands, Kairo seems more like a rough draft, full of fantastic ideas, but unable to realize its entire potential.