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Kalimba

Platform(s): PC, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Press Play
Release Date: Dec. 17, 2014

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.

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Xbox One Review - 'Kalimba'

by Brian Dumlao on Jan. 30, 2015 @ 2:00 a.m. PST

Kalimba is a playful yet precise platforming game where players control two totem pole pieces with one controller.

Press Play has become quite good at making 2-D puzzle platforming games. The developer's last two games revolved around Max, an adventurous boy with a magic marker that could do things like make vines and raise pillars. It should come as no surprise, then, that its next game, Kalimba, is also an excellent 2-D puzzle platformer.

The story revolves around a shaman who used a great totem's power to make the island village prosper. One day, a darkness arrives, and a wizard kills the shaman and destroys the totem, scattering its pieces all over the island. Though her physical body is gone, the shaman's spirit lives on and can occupy and control a few of the totem pieces. Your objective is to rebuild the totem to drive away the darkness and return peace to the island.


The character of Hoebear the Metabear gives the title a little personality. As the only speaking character in Kalimba, he acts as a narrator, but the most memorable moments are when he breaks the fourth wall. Whether he's giving you hints on how to defeat bosses, taunting your inability to complete a challenge, or giving you guff for not beating your friends with a faster completion time, almost everything he says can elicit a chuckle. This is also evident when he berates you for actively skipping the cut scenes.

Upon playing the first level, you learn that the hook for platforming is simultaneous control. You have two on-screen characters to worry about at all times, but instead of controlling them individually with two analog sticks, you move them at the same time with just one stick. At first, both characters are separated by platforms, but you can move them both in the same direction and have them jump over pits at the same time. You can also swap the characters with the touch of a button; it's a useful tactic since the totems can only pass through energy fields of a matching color.

At first, the game feels rather easy. Various areas are filled with black energy, and you can't harm enemies since you don't have any attacks. Having your characters move at the same time means that you need to find ways to offset their placement to hit some of the switches to unlock the rest of the level. The task isn't too difficult to grasp, especially since the enemies are few and far between, and the level layout is pretty straightforward.


The game's ease erodes quickly once the totem duo gains more abilities. You are quickly introduced to the ability to stack your totems, which makes movement easier since they're essentially one unit, but it also opens up the double-jump ability, where one totem can jump while the other uses the extra height to jump even higher. You encounter a glyph that, when touched, gives one of the totems the ability to defy gravity and stick to the ceiling. When flipped, the glyph causes both totems to collide and bounce against one another until they finally switch back or hit solid ground. Another glyph gives one of the totems the power to grow in size while another glyph provides wings so one totem can carry the other across pits. Then there are the cannons, which fire any of the totems into the pointed direction. All of these things are color coded, so placing the totem in the incorrectly colored cannon or glyph counts as a death.

The new abilities are introduced at a steady pace before boredom can set in. The number of tricks required in a level also steadily increases in difficulty, including crumbling platforms and pillars, and gaps that can only be crossed by manipulating your abilities at the right time and in the correct order. They're well designed and rather ingenious. While some can be rather troubling to get through, the game is generous with checkpoints and lives. Players are sent to a spot near the last failure point, so sections don't need to be repeated. Lives are infinite, so the player can fail multiple times before they figure things out. Death has consequences, as it negatively affects the totem's appearance. Collecting spheres determines how good it looks, but deaths take away those spheres. If you die enough times or fail to collect enough spheres, a nicely carved totem can turn into a simple wooden log.


Kalimba features more than a series of puzzle platforming levels. Some of the stages have multiple paths that lead to challenge rooms in the Metaverse. With the purpose of testing out the abilities you've earned along the way, the rooms come with their own leaderboards and taunts from Hoebear. The challenges are rather tough, but finding them means you can replay them outside of the Campaign. There are also boss stages, which have you avoiding attacks but also give you the ability to attack the bosses. Though the fights only require you to keep hitting the brightly  highlighted weak points on each boss, they're still exciting enough that you wish the game had more of them, so you'd more opportunities to play with the tools at your disposal.

As far as gameplay goes, there aren't too many problems. The totems might move slower when compared to other platforming titles, but there aren't any situations where you're overrun by an enemy. The jumps are a bit floaty, especially when you hit a gravity-switching glyph and swap places to get through some of the tougher sections, but that can be compensated with a little practice. The Campaign mode is short, clocking in at 24 levels that can be completed in a few hours. The leaderboards for each level — and the totem appearance changes — are enough of a motivator to replay levels. It would be nice if the leaderboards showed more complete data, though, since you don't know your exact place when compared to everyone else.


There are plenty of other modes to experience once you've exhausted the Campaign mode. Old Skool mode lets you replay the entire campaign from the beginning, but instead of giving you unlimited lives, you're stuck with three and must hit point thresholds to gain more. You also don't have any continues at your disposal, so losing all of those lives means starting from the very beginning. Co-operative mode is local only, but when you consider the amount of coordination and timing needed for some of the puzzles, this is forgivable. Here, you and a partner each control two totems as you go through stages that are completely different from those in the campaign. The drawback is that you only have eight stages instead of the campaign's full 24. If you somehow need to make things harder on yourself, you can play the same levels in Shorthand mode, which allows you to control all four totems by yourself.

Compared to Press Play's previous work, Kalimba's graphics are pretty simplistic. The game is colorful but restrained; this is appreciated during the later levels, where you'll need to swap totem positions constantly and quickly. The animations are surprisingly stunted, so walking only takes up two animation frames, but the constant expressions on the totem faces make it acceptable. The camera is smart enough to know the appropriate time to pull back and when it's better to zoom in, so it never creates a situation where you miss a critical swap or have a poorly timed jump due to not being able to see all the important stuff on-screen. What solidifies the style is the fact that every element is composed of tiny triangles. Much like the use of voxels in Resogun, this allows for some fine particle movement, such as shards of dust when walking on the ground or walls dissolving walls when certain switches are hit. Seeing it in action does the effect justice, and though it is a minor thing, it makes the game look beautiful in motion.


The sound is rather mellow. The effects are audible but not exactly pronounced over everything else. The music is light and positive, even when it tries to be more serious during boss fights. The voice for Hoebear is a little gruff but playful, almost like a lighter version of the narrator's voice in Bastion. It fits in well with the rest of the game and is delightful to hear, even when he starts ragging on you for hunting down Achievements.

Kalimba is a solid puzzle platformer that is trickier than expected. The puzzles and platforming are done so well that the ability to control more than one character simultaneously doesn't feel like a gimmick. The game may have a relatively short campaign, but there are many modes and difficult goals to keep the player coming back for more. Puzzle platforming fans should flock to this sleeper title.

Score: 9.0/10



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