Reviewed: June 20, 2006
Released: March 22, 2006
Oh no! At the beginning of Kao the Kangaroo Round 2, players find out that the wicked Hunter Barnaba is up to some nastiness in Kao's home, the Island World-- he's out to hunt down all the peaceful animal inhabitants with the help of some unpleasant magic and a few good henchmen. He's even captured the indomitable little boxing kangaroo himself --that is, until Kao's friend Parrot rescues him from his cage aboard a ship.
Now free, it's up to Kao to travel to each of the five different lands of Island World, liberating his friends from their cages, stomping out the bad magic in the land and hopefully collecting enough cash to bribe the gatekeeper downtown to let him into Barnaba's stronghold for a final showdown.
It's a decent premise, as far as platform games go. But does Kao have what it takes to hold out in the ring against the Apollo Creeds of the platform gaming world?
Kao 2 is a totally straightforward also-ran platform jumping game. The only thing that sets it apart from the pack is that while A-list releases, such as the Sly Cooper series and Psychonauts, are generally considered to get better and better every year, this game is actually worse than any I've seen in a while.
A number of things detract from Kao 2's gameplay. For starters, the basic controls are completely uninspired. There's the requisite double jump, spin attack and butt stomp, as well as a basic melee technique (with Kao's signature boxing gloves) and, a little ways into the game, some limited ranged capability in the form of boomerangs that mysteriously do not return when thrown, even if they don't hit anything. Apparently, the boomerang was just decided upon by virtue of its being associated with Australia, rather than on the merits of the object itself.
Kao (pronounced "K.O." - get it?) himself controls poorly, despite the availability of several years of previous 3D platform games from which the developers could have drawn this game's basic design principles. Precise controls are important in any game that involves death-defying jumps and standing on thin edges. I found the inability of Kao to even perform a simple 180-degree turn without wandering all over the place extremely frustrating in that regard. When it came time for boss battles to be fought, I found myself, more often than not, at the mercy of bosses whose patterns were as easy to recognize as a stop sign, but against whom I was helpless owing to the sloppy, unresponsive feel of Kao's actions.
The camera controls are snarky, mostly because the camera object (i.e., the player's point of view) is solid, which means that if you rotate it into a log it will not rotate any farther until you manually find a way around it. Letting the camera slide through, over, under or around objects would have made the task of getting a clear shot of the action in some levels much less frustrating.
Both of the above complaints tie directly into my biggest problem with the game's design in general: it relies heavily on rote memorization, too often punishing the player for something they could not have known about or seen coming in advance and forcing them to learn, by repetition, what a good game would allow them to conquer with skill. Just because the player is given infinite continues does not mean the developers have a free license to play Deathtrap Dungeon against him or her.
A good case in point is an early level in which Kao has to escape from an improbably large rampaging bear. As the level begins, it is revealed that the only way to run is towards the bottom of the screen, in such a manner that only the next eight or ten yards of ground are visible at any time, rather than the usual long perspective. It doesn't seem too bad until the bear actually starts charging after Kao, which happens as soon as Kao grabs the first of many speed boost power-ups scattered across the course. Suddenly, the little bugger is moving at a good fraction of light speed, and the player still can only see about a quarter of a second ahead. Naturally, as soon as there is a pit, most players will take the fall and have to start over. Of course, there are many, many pits to overcome.
It is this sort of downright poor level design, level design that forces players to learn from trial and error rather than test their skills, which makes Kao such a bad game at its core. To its credit, the game offers a large array of various modes of temporary transportation (including barrels and pelicans), not all of which are as frustrating as the high speed bear chase described above. And the general experience of exploring the decently sized levels on foot can be mildly rewarding despite the occasional invisible barrier, and the generally linear design found throughout most of them. But there are just too many instances of blind luck or multiple attempts trumping cleverness and skill as the mechanic of choice, that the game as a whole stands as an embarrassing example of how NOT to make a platform title.
On the good side, Kao 2's graphics are a bit more sharply defined than usual for a PS2 platform game. On the bad side, the trade-off: polygon counts in this game are low, low, low - Crash Bandicoot low. I've seen prettier real-time rendering playing World of Warcraft, a game not exactly known for its stellar graphics either. However, where WoW at least has excellent character and visual designs in its favor, Kao 2 does not.
Take the man himself, the big hero, Kao the Kangaroo. Is he really a kangaroo? All I usually see of him is a dumpy little body that could possibly be a kangaroo's except for the legs, and a head comprised of two huge, distended eyeballs and a few pointy bits around them. Kao's friends the beavers, although they nominally resemble beavers, also look like they'd kill you with a rusty fork if given half a chance. And Kao's faithful companion Firefly looks so much like a honeybee; I was quite surprised to learn that she really is supposed to be a firefly, after all. The enemy designs are generally uninspired and often beg the question: what the heck?!? The occasional appearance of what appears to be bearded dwarves with sledgehammers is a good example of this. Why do bearded dwarves with sledgehammers want to kill Kao, anyway?
The physical appearance of the levels is so-so, but still manages to be the main saving grace of Kao 2. Forests, seas and dimly lit town squares are enjoyable enough to look at, with a good (though hardly great) amount of textural detail to make up for the low poly count. They allow the player, if not to be totally swept up, then at least to imagine they are in another, more magical place than they really are. Escaping the everyday is what many people would say gaming is all about, and if nothing else, the background and level graphics in Kao 2 can at least do that.
The music in Kao 2 is actually pretty good. The forest sounds "forest-y," the town sounds shady, and running for your life sound suitably harrowing most of the time. The music leans heavily towards ambience rather than strong melody, which is fitting for the exploratory nature of playing a 3D platform game (even though there isn't as much exploring to be done in Kao 2 as in most).
The sound effects are extremely cartoony, and can either be entertaining or uncomfortably out of place depending on the situation. I usually had no problem with them.
Unfortunately, they apparently hired Jim the Janitor and Nick the Newspaper Delivery Guy to do the game's voice work. Wherever it came from, it certainly is not professional, and manages to detract from the experience of playing the game rather than adding to it. Listening to Kao's cruel mockery of an Australian accent is downright painful. All NPCs of a given species have a single voice actor (and usually the same lines of dialog), meaning that if you don't like, say, the voice of one beaver, you're going to be suffering quite a bit while rescuing the next twenty beavers. All things considered, the sound rating of Kao 2 pans out to be flat average.
At first glance it might seem like Kao 2 has some extraordinary replay value. I suppose, compared against an ultra linear piece of crud like NanoBreaker or The Bouncer, it does. However, compared to most other platform games made in the last ten years it falls somewhat short.
Yes, there are hidden areas, though not many of them. No, they aren't particularly large or rewarding. There are also several unlockable bonus worlds, but rather than make them a challenge to discover, Kao 2 uses the same system to unlock every single one of them - collecting large amounts of crystals in each of the regular worlds, which can be cashed in back at the rather small hub world to unlock doors leading to them. Although some crystals are a bit out of the way, there aren't many that are really ingeniously hidden or cleverly placed. Those crummy controls don't help much when trying to make a precise ledge drop onto a bonus crystal, either.
Last but not least, there are a grand total of twenty-one--count 'em, twenty-one--levels in Kao the Kangaroo Round 2. If that isn't a new record for the least number of levels in a platform game, it must come close--it ties Super Mario Brothers 2. And although Kao's levels are considerably longer than those of SMB2, the fact that it isn't anywhere near as much fun to play as that venerable old game doesn't help its case. Besides, twenty-one is still a depressingly small number any way it's cut.
I don't have any premeditated bias against platform games, 3D games or games that are obviously aimed more at kids. Kao 2 really is just that "blah." While it certainly is playable and beatable, that doesn't mean it is a lot of fun. For every moment of genuine enjoyment I got out of this game, I had three of pure frustration or boredom. The lackluster graphics and hideous voice acting form the less-than-impressive backdrop to a game world where Kao's innumerable deaths are a matter of necessity rather than poor judgment.
Commercially marketed games have been around for some 30 years now. Whatever redeeming qualities Kao 2 might have, there is still no excuse for making a game that punishes the player for things beyond the player's control. That just isn't how good games are made, and until the developers behind Kao learn that, I doubt anybody will really take notice when the next installment comes out.