Several months back, on this website that I call a blog, but others may call a self-indulgent shit. I reviewed Antichamber, a game that’s best described as being akin to an M.C. Escher tribute done by a two-year old with a box of dollar store Crayola knock-offs.
It made heavy use of portals to mess with your sense of direction, which was interesting in its own right. But terrible graphics, bad puzzle design, and annoying and a deceptive level layout that disallowed backtracking, killed the game for me.
But one thing always bugged me about Antichamber. Could it be that I just don’t like these kinds of games? The arty, pretentious, first person walk-em-up? Could the only reason I hated the game be because I didn’t get to shoot anything with a gun the size of a car?
That wouldn’t be fair, would it? For me to critique something from a genre I hate. I mean you won’t see me reviewing the latest FIFA title, or some romantic comedy film, or another Tom Clancy novel. Fool me once, you prick.
Now, I could just say that I do like those kinds of games, as long as they’re done right. But even that’s hard to claim when I’ve never really played any game that can compare to Antichamber.
Q.U.B.E. quickly comes to mind. A game about gloves that can send commands to various objects in the world around you. But that game reminded me more of Portal, with its stark white environments, and relatively coherent narrative. It doesn’t really fit with the feel Antichamber tried to provoke.
So that’s a bad comparison. One would need to find a game that’s more surreal, more abstract, and more about the experience than anything else. Perhaps a game like Kairo. An abstract, and surreal odyssey that did what Antichamber failed to do: Be good.
Not to put down Antichamber anymore than I’ve already done. But the similarities are quite striking.
Neither game has much of a story, relying more on the environment than anything else. They both have a surreal visual design, failing to mesh with anything that could resemble reality. And they both are heavily puzzle-based games.
The biggest difference comes from their visual style. While Antichamber made it look like you were exploring wire frame models hovering in void, the levels in Kairo actually utilized textures!
This shouldn’t seem like a big deal, and it really isn’t. Overall the visuals are pretty bland, but when compared to Antichamber… well, it’s amazing how something as mundane as a stonewall texture can add to one’s immersion.
But it can be thrown off by other bizarre aspects. Such as the paperfall.
It’s supposed to represent water, but instead looks like flying sheets of paper. You can even stand in the middle of it, and I keep getting the feeling that my player character should be sliced up into a million pieces when that happens… but it doesn’t, it just phases through him.
I just think it’s an odd design choice. And it gets even odder in context; since near the end, in one of the final rooms, you see actual water.
Why they decide to use water here, and not earlier, I have no idea.
But let’s look past that, and turn to the plot.
Kairo‘s plot is simple. You start in a stone gazebo floating in void. The only other structure is a small stone building also floating in void.
By walking through the void (somehow), you arrive at the building, and through a bit of exploration, find several antique machines that you manage to get working again.
Admittingly, there isn’t much plot, and there’s absolutely no dialogue. But there are hints at a larger story here. Who built these structures? What was their purpose? Where exactly are we? These questions aren’t really answered, but then again, they don’t really need to be. A bit of mystery never hurt anyone. I know I’ve complained about that kinda stuff in the past, but since Kairo‘s not directed by J.J. Abrams, I’m ok with it. Besides, these are not questions that really need to be answered, and it’s hard to explain why without spoiling; but basically, it’s clear that everyone who could’ve answered these questions is probably dead. It seems a bit unreasonable to ask dead people to talk.
But one thing that is clear is that it does take place on Earth.
Or at the very least, it’s Earth-adjacent.
The puzzles themselves are a bit phoned in. Some are as basic as assembling a symbol using basic shapes. But others are more mechanical in nature, one requiring you to use a kludge to repair a severely broken set of cogs, which I really liked. I also got a kick out of the invisible maze, where walls pop out of the ground when you’re close enough. So you have to navigate around obstacles you can’t see until you run into them.
But one puzzle that really threw me off was near the end. It’s in some blue planetarium-like room, where you need to adjust the positioning of the planets to do… something. And it threw me off because I solved it accidentally. I entered the room, started experimenting with the machines, just messing around, see how things worked. Then there was a bunch of noise, and everything started working. I solved the puzzle before knowing how to solve the puzzle. I’m pretty sure that’s indicative of bad design. Either that, or I’m just awesome.
Another puzzle isn’t really a puzzle, but a game of chance. You just have to press the button over and over again until you win. Or until you give up because you think you’re doing something wrong.
That is unless you check the built-in hints system. Every puzzle room comes with three built-in hints to help you out, which I really like. When it comes to looking up game help online, simple hints seem to be an endangered species. Can’t tell you how many times I’d look online for some help to get past a given section in a game, and all I manage to find are walkthroughs that explain in detail how to beat a game. Which I find to be a bit condescending. All I’m looking for is a bit of help; I’m not looking for someone to actually play the game for me. So I’m glad that at least one game is trying to keep the spirit of hints alive. Giving you help without giving you the answer.
However, I’m not sure building it into the game is the best way to go about it. Because hints should be something you go out of your way to find, that way you only use them as a last resort. Not only that, in one room, the last hint outright gives you the answer. And that’s just not on.
Though it would’ve come in handy for one particularly obscure section. Near the end of the game, there’s one final hub area leading to three separate puzzle rooms, one side room, and one other room nested within the hub room. If you’re like me, you’ll find the side room, and the nested room pretty quickly. But the three puzzle rooms will elude you. Spending hours looking for three rooms that should be out in the open is an extremely frustrating experience. But what really annoyed me was the actual location of the doors.
Yeah, I know, that’s not a door. But passing through this arch will transport you to one of the three puzzle rooms. This would be fine if there was some indication that these things actually did something, and weren’t just decorative like every other knickknack in the game. Or if we saw something like this earlier, that way we’d know what these arches did. But that doesn’t happen! You see, before this point, every door in the game looked almost identical. So for the final section to throw this shit was really irritating.
It’s also one of those things I found by accident. I was exploring the area, just fucking around, moving from one end of the map to the other. And when I decided to do a quick slalom around the pillars, it transported me to the room I already spent hours searching for. Really irritating.
So, yeah, Kairo‘s not a perfect game. Even the engine runs into its share of problems. The game is loaded with clipping issues. You can walk through various parts of the environment, which is annoying. In one case I actually fell through an object I thought I was supposed to use as a bridge (turns out there was an easier way I didn’t spot). And in some cases, while brushing up against a wall, your vision will clip through it, giving you a small look at what’s behind in the skybox.
The former is probably to do the designer not bothering to equip some objects with a full clipping layer for some baffling reason. But the latter… well I have no idea. It’s possible the clipping layer’s too small, but I’m just guessing.
But despite these faults, I can’t really say it’s a bad game. The atmosphere and level design is incredible, and it has a superb soundtrack. And the ending, above all else, is actually somewhat coherent, and gives closure. Which is more than I can say for Antichamber.
Though it does come a bit sooner than I would’ve liked.
If you can pick Kairo up for a few dollars, definitely give it a play-through. I highly recommend it.
Just… watch your step.