Not since Limbo has the sound of footsteps been put to such compelling use. Every footfall reverberating through the lost chambers of Kairo’s timeless world is another cry stressing your isolation. Kairo breathes isolation, and there’s something sobering about that at this time of the year.
Kairo is a world of secrets and curiosity, one of monolithic machinery left dormant for years upon years. It’s an odd world that trades in cumbersome curios and contraptions that, when brought sputtering back to life, allow streams of water to flow upwards and cubes the size of bungalows to go coursing through trenches without so much as one tentative text entry explaining why such a thing should be of any use to anybody. I spent five hours there and I’m afraid I can’t tell you much about it more than surface details. I like that about Kairo. Some people won’t. Maybe I haven’t the brain for it. Maybe I missed something vital when I opened the command box and skipped level 52. I don’t think so. I just think Kairo’s miserly with the details. The excitement’s in what you don’t know, after all, and I’m still thinking about what I don’t know.
Kairo is a first-person exploration game with puzzles; a crush of Myst, Esther and, at times, ICO that finds solace in the renaissance of games that busy themselves with little beyond magnificent, arcane worlds and their histories. (Here’s something we should have probably acknowledged two paragraphs back: if the idea of admiring structures interspersed with some light puzzle-solving sounds like the videogame equivalent of two Kalms and a half bottle of whiskey, Kairo’s probably not for you.)
It revels in the intrigue wrought from all its machines and oddities; its reluctance to share a damn thing about why you’re here only nourishing your resolve to progress further. You’ll wander through all the grand passageways and yawning chambers, pushing things into place, aligning whatsits and walking past doodads in the right order because, well, why not?
Developer Richard Perrin said he wanted to create a world in which he would feel compelled to explore and I’m confident that he’s done just that. It’s pretty in its own abstract way and there’s a story of sorts, although it’s unforthcoming to say the least. You’re drip-fed clues as the game goes on but most of these only lead to further questions. Why is this statue whispering to me? Why are there paintings on the wall? What are these small collectible items?
It’s this constant sense of bewilderment that keeps Kairo alive as both a place and a game. And while it’s true that you’re inevitably working towards a reveal, it’d be remiss to assume the destination is more important than the journey. Which is probably just as well, Kairo’s finale is perhaps a little too abstract.
When you’re not walking or admiring, you’re solving puzzles and Kairo’s straddle the delicate line between irksome and challenging with some grace. Puzzles involve aligning objects or pressing switches in the right order, spiced up with time limits and some other natty things. With little besides audio cues and the eventual visual feedback of some giant machine whirring back into life, it’s refreshingly unpatronising (although there is a three-pronged hint system if you’re feeling ready for the walk of shame).
A handful of the later puzzles made not a lick of sense even after I’d made for the hints menu, though, and the game becomes a little too consumed with its puzzles during the last act. I’m not averse to a head-scratcher or two, but, with some of the more abstract puzzles, being stuck for a long period snuffed out the intrigue and replaced it with chagrin. WIth that, Kairo’s allure was suddenly all but gone.
A mention must also go to the music. It is to Kairo’s ancient municipal safari what Halo’s rousing battle anthem is to pummeling shrill aliens into mulch with a thundering olive fist. It’s by a man whose name is long indeed and whose moniker is Wounds. Regardless of appellations, his score captures and then amplifies both the sense of scale – all booming echoes that conjure concocted memories of ancient machinery rumbling back to life – and the loneliness so central to the themes of the game.
It doesn’t skimp on playing up to the whimsical wonder of it all, either. Some areas feel oppressive and intimidating while others are awash with magical allure but the soundtrack is always there fortifying whichever moods the deviating colour palette, or Perinn’s blocky-world, are conveying.
It may strike as an odd time for a game to break away from the safety net of guns & goons, but Kairo is a welcome retreat from the chaos and high-drama that traditionally characterises this period of the gaming calendar. There are no goons. There are no guns. There are no explosions, no waypoints, no cars that go fast nor any Hollywood-hued cinematics. Instead there is you and there is Kairo; an enigmatic, enchanting place quite unlike anything else in recent memory.
This review was originally published on BeefJack.