Not A Knockout
As an Australian who grew up playing the likes of Banjo-Kazooie and Spyro the Dragon, when I heard that a new 3D platformer about a kangaroo was coming to the Nintendo Switch, I was jumping for joy. Kao the Kangaroo looked to be a fun, action-packed collectathon that would scratch that platforming itch. First hopping onto the Dreamcast way back in 2000, Kao (pronounced K-O) saw a few sequels and spin-off games that gathered a cult following before remaining dormant for almost two decades. Now, with a fresh pair of gloves and a graphical facelift to match, developers Tate Multimedia have looked to bring Kao to a modern audience with this series reboot. Unfortunately, this game is anything but a knockout. While some creative ideas are found in Kao the Kangaroo, pointless collectibles, repetitive combat, heinous voice acting, and an egregious amount of bugs made for an unpleasant and disappointing gaming experience.
Kao’s adventure is simple enough. Missing sister? Sure. Dark forces at work? Of course. Mysterious sentient boxing gloves to aid you on your journey? Naturally. As straightforward of a premise as Kao presents, it’s a good enough start to the adventure. As for the rest of the story, it’s as unmemorable as it is poorly presented. Cringey pop-culture references and confusing lore drops make up most conversations but are easily missed thanks to the distractingly awful voice work. With awkward and sometimes mumbled line delivery and forced, unfunny one-liners, it became increasingly difficult not to skip every cutscene. I was surprised that not a single Australian accent was found in a game filled with Australian animals and was shocked that a prominent character even spoke with an offensive, stereotypical mannerism and voice. This made it impossible to care about Kao’s story, and at no point did I find myself with even a smile in any of the game’s charmless cutscenes.
As you’d expect with a game in its genre, Kao offers platforming, puzzles and collectables to spare, each level tied together with a handful of combat encounters. After completing the simple tutorial mission and arriving at the first hub world, you’ll find yourself venturing off to each mostly-linear level in search of runes, the collectible you’ll need to unlock the next level. After collecting enough runes, you’ll be able to challenge a boss and move on to the next hub world. This gameplay loop is nothing new in the 3D platformer genre, and it works well for Kao. However, it is a shame that the actual gameplay to get to these runes is shallow.
Puzzles rely on hitting out of reach buttons, using space altering crystals to your advantage, or imbuing your gloves with temporary elemental power-ups that can change the environment. The free-flowing combat (think an extremely simple version of the Batman: Arkham games) uses combos to build up a powerful attack that can take out a group of enemies. While there is some fun to be had in figuring out the puzzles and deflecting projectiles back at enemies before beating them to a pulp, both of these elements feel undercooked. Neither develops over the course of the game and becomes repetitive fairly quickly. Boss fights do, however, utilise a mix of platforming, puzzle-solving, and combat in their encounters and are some of the most fun the game has to offer.
Runes are only one of many collectibles you’ll find in Kao. An endless amount of coins can be collected to buy new costumes, heart containers (think The Legend of Zelda) increase your overall health, scrolls unlock lore for friends and foes, and letters that spell Kao are hidden in each level. There is a good sense of exploration to experience throughout the game. Old huts can be broken into, secret paths are hidden behind foliage, and most waterfalls have treasure behind them waiting to be found. After a while, I found little reason to go on these scavenger hunts. The game was easy enough that heart containers and extra lives felt redundant, you don't get any special reward for collecting the hidden letters and scrolls smacked of the same poor writing as the dialogue.
The strangest collectable are the dozens of crystals found across the game. What may have been intended as a reward for completing a platforming sequence is lacklustre, as I found they had no actual use in the game. In a genre designed around collecting everything, Kao’s collectibles were undesirable and offered little reward.
From climbing up walls or sliding down vines to making haste over timed platforms, there is a varied mix of platforming gameplay to enjoy but is never particularly challenging by design. I only ever struggled to get through a sequence thanks to the endless amount of bugs I encountered. Falling through the world and getting stuck in the environment forced me to restart the entire level, as there was no option to restart at the last checkpoint. Beyond that, I experienced enemies freezing in place, collectables not registering as collected, invisible walls blocking my way, and even lost all of my save data late into my playthrough. These technical issues don't make the game impossible to play, but it’s undoubtedly frequent enough to be a frustrating distraction.
Visuals and Audio
Speaking of bugs, Kao’s audio design also has its fair share. Missing dialogue and audio cues and the occasional music drop also hinder the game. This, along with the aforementioned terrible voice work, implored me to mute the game and listen to something else while I played. Bugs aside, I saw placeholder text in UI pop-ups and multiple typos in the subtitles. The game is simply unpolished.
While character models and environments look really nice at times, the game struggles to load them on the Nintendo Switch. Whether I was in handheld or docked mode, Kao’s visuals never looked crisp enough to take in the detailed environments. There are also moments where the frame rate would dip well below 30 fps. This was never constant but did appear when a lot was happening on the screen, like when opening chests with heaps of coins or fighting many enemies at once.
Even for 3D platforming lovers, there is little reason to pick up Kao the Kangaroo. Platforming sequences are varied but offer little challenge. Puzzles and combat have some interesting ideas but never develop over the game’s 8-10 hours. There is an abundance of collectables, but few feel rewarding. Characters and environments look good but are undermined by subpar Switch performance. The world and story could have been compelling if not for outdated humour, confusing writing and awful voice acting. Worst of all, the game is overwhelmingly buggy, from gameplay and UI to sound design. Kao the Kangaroo may entertain children for a few hours, but what could have been an excellent return to form for this old-school hero is instead bogged with underdeveloped ideas, poor creative choices and an endless supply of technical issues.
So, why should you play it?
The developer patches out a lot of the bugs.
You like simple, old-school platformers.
You enjoyed Kao back in the day.
But why shouldn’t you play it?
An abundance of technical issues.
Undercooked and repetitive gameplay.
Collectables lack reward.
Horrible voice acting.
There are far better 3D platformers at a similar price point.
James is a writer and absolute dork who is as passionate about making puns as he is about video games. From Melbourne, Australia, when he's not playing Dungeons and Dragons or rocking out at karaoke, you can usually find him engaged in some kind of story.