For decades, Kao the Kangaroo has languished in the purgatory of platforming mascot darkness. Unfortunately, his big comeback does not change much to this status quo. Its latest adventure is competent, but uninspired design and notable technical issues make it a hollow excursion that inspires slight indifference at best.
Kao (pronounced “KO”) is a young kangaroo on a journey to find his missing sister and father. He enlists the help of his wizened martial arts teacher and acquires a pair of talking magic boxing gloves. Although clearly aimed at younger gamers, the plot, writing, and performance are boring and half-baked. The story isn’t going anywhere remotely interesting, and Kao himself can be particularly gritty thanks to poor comedic delivery. Hit the mute button or fire up your favorite podcast, because you probably won’t feel like you’re missing much of the experience.
The gameplay is inspired by old 3D collect-a-thons, but the design feels unremarkable. You spend hours traversing sizable but unexciting worlds to collect coins, heart pieces, lore notes, and runes to unlock platforming levels. It satisfies the part of my brain that likes cleaning up icons, but it’s a hollow feeling of nostalgia. The four overworlds, which include your home island, a tropical jungle, and a snowy peak, lack secrets or exciting activities beyond capturing easy-to-find runes or buying cosmetic items to disguise.
Entering a platforming level increases the excitement, but only slightly. Kao hits pushed enemies with a flurry of basic punches. No matter the shape or size of the enemy, it doesn’t require much finesse other than mashing the attack button until it falls. Boss fights aren’t much better in terms of interest or challenge. Kao is on an old fashioned life counter but I can count the number of times I’ve died on one hand. I don’t brag; if you are proficient in platforming, you will swim through life as the game does not provide a worthwhile challenge. Throw in generally generous checkpoints and a short runtime, and Kao is a cinch to traverse.
Imbuing Kao’s gloves with fire, ice, and wind magic grants abilities such as igniting flammable barriers, freezing solid water, or pulling distant platforms towards you. However, the game only has two basic ideas for each power and repeats them constantly, never mixing up the puzzles or letting you use your powers more convincingly. The only other meaningful mechanic is activating crystals that cause platforms to disappear/reappear. Like the rest of the game, this idea feels rote and like it’s stuck in first gear.
Kao is not without merit. It controls well, the presentation is colorful if uninteresting, and it executes its basic ideas adequately. However, technical problems often crop up. Some actions lack sound effects, undermining them of their impact. Pots of breakable coins and enemies sometimes disappear when hit. Some boss fights and cutscenes lack music, making them awkwardly quiet affairs until the soundtrack randomly kicks in. Conversely, a boss theme continued to explode loudly during a post-fight cutscene, drowning out dialogue. These issues make Kao feel even more like a budget title in the worst way.
At first I thought Kao the Kangaroo would be, at the very least, a great recommendation for younger players. Then I remembered that I and generations of kids had cut their teeth on games like Mario, Crash Bandicoot, or Ratchet & Clank – kid-friendly platformers that still offer plenty of mechanical depth, polish, and creativity in design. Kids are a lot more capable than we sometimes think, and Kao’s number design would probably bore all but the most nascent gamer. Kao the kangaroo is by no means a total disaster. It just seems aggressively average and forgettable, which unfortunately the mascot has been for years.