In the year 2006, a video game development studio named Press Play was founded in Copenhagen, Denmark by Ole Teglbjærg, Rune Dittmer, and Mikkel Thorsted. Two years after the release of their 2010 inaugural title, Max & the Magic Marker, the company was acquired by Microsoft Studios where they joined the same family of studios that included 343 Industries, Rare, and Lionhead Studios.
In 2014, Press Play announced “Project Totem”, which would see the creation of a new title slated for release on the Xbox One. Later in the same year, it was officially titled Kalimba. It saw its original release on Microsoft’s platform in December of 2014 before debuting on Steam the following April. Kalimba was released to a fairly positive reception with critics praising the concept, but finding the graphics and sounds forgettable. Selling itself as a puzzle-platformer, what does Kalimba bring to the table?
Analyzing the Experience
The island of Kalimba is a wonderous place home to a totem pole that stretches into the heavens themselves. The totem pole was created by a noble shaman who uses it to protect her people. One day, an evil shaman invades the island, destroying both the good shaman and the totem pole. All is not lost, however, for the good shaman soon discovers that her spirit can control pieces of the destroyed totem. Through this, she can hopefully save the island inhabitants and build a new, better totem pole in the process.
Kalimba centers itself around a fairly novel gimmick. The good shaman’s spirit brings life to and takes control of two totem pole pieces, which are controlled by the player simultaneously. Specifically, the player controls one piece and the other imitates its movements perfectly. The controls for moving the pieces are what one would expect out of a platformer – movements are determined with the control stick and the “A” button is used for jumping.
The goal of a given stage is simple enough: reach the end. Naturally, being a video game, the developers have placed all manner of obstacles in these stages, rendering the task easier said than done. As you go through the first stage, the pieces both have their own separate section to navigate, but they are not identical to each other. In a manner similar to that of the original Super Mario Bros., the game foreshadows this development with an antepiece. The stage features pickups that award points upon being collected, but their placements will quickly begin to desynchronize. If you’re to collect all of them, you will see one piece jump into empty air where there is a pickup on the other side.
The game then tests the player’s knowledge of the mechanic by having buttons the pieces need to stand on in order to open the way forward. Notably, the buttons are in different places, requiring you to place one piece behind a wall while the other advances until they are the appropriate distance away from each other. Before too long, managing these inconsistencies is key to keeping your pieces intact.
Being entirely synchronized, one piece’s destruction will result in both of them being sent to the last checkpoint. The most common obstacle you will have to navigate the pieces through are colored substances – a miasma, so to speak. The first such miasma is black, which will instantly destroy your piece. The basic rule to keep in mind is that any surface besides solid ground will likely destroy one of your pieces.
Where things get particularly interesting is when the miasma comes in different colors. These walls can only be passed by a totem pole piece of the matching color. If the colors don’t match, they will be sent back to the last checkpoint as usual. You will quickly run into a situation in which the pieces cannot advance, no matter how much clever maneuvering you do. In order to get the pieces through these seemingly impossible situations, you can have them switch places with each other.
As with any good puzzle platformer, these simple mechanics are then applied in many different permutations of increasing complexity. In the first few stages alone, you will guide the pieces down deep crevices, guiding them away from the miasma, and making strategic jump-swaps in order to keep them intact. It’s a game that successfully tests your foresight, reflexes, and timing all at once.
Much like the classic platformers of the medium’s formative years, Kalimba is divided into worlds, of which there are three. Although the backgrounds are different for each world, taking place underground, on the surface, and in the clouds respectively, the real difference lies in what central gimmicks they employ.
The underground portions introduce you to the central mechanics, including demonstrating your pieces’ ability to ferry one another across hostile terrain before reversing gravity at key intervals. The surface stages typically involve a power-up that causes one of your pieces to increase in size. Unlike in the Mario series, this game’s physics account for the size difference, as the larger piece handily outpaces the smaller one. Finally, the clouds feature a wings power-up, which anchors a piece in place, but allows it to glide once the one you control latches onto it from below.
While I can certainly say that Kalimba is a unique game, it does have a few shortcomings. To begin with, it’s not exactly a long game, providing less than four hours’ worth of content. This would have been understandable had the game been released in the 2000s or earlier when the indie scene was in its infancy, but in the mid-2010s, such a flaw was far less defensible. By 2014, “good for an indie effort” was no longer a meaningful qualifier. The previous year saw the release of Papers, Please, which was a fully realized game that offered many hours of content and significant replay value in the form of multiple endings. Sure, the game’s presentation was simple, but the creator, Lucas Pope, was easily able to get all he could out of its few moving parts.
Technically speaking, Kalimba does offer some replay value in the form of its pickups. The overarching goal of Kalimba is to restore the island’s totem pole, with each piece being at the end of a given stage. The number of pickups you get is one of the factors that determines how the piece is restored. If you barely collect any, the totem piece will be an ordinary wooden log. As you collect the pickups, the piece will become much more glamorous, gaining accessories before turning golden if you find them all.
The problem with this proposition lies in the other factor that determines the piece’s quality: the number of times your piece gets destroyed. Indeed, if you want the piece to be restored to its absolute best quality, you not only have to get every single pickup, but you must also turn in a flawless performance. While I can certainly appreciate wanting to seriously challenge players, I find these requirements to be a bit much. It can theoretically be done with enough practice and patience, but for want of a tangible award such as extra content, it comes across as the developers attempting to stretch a thin experience too far.
Drawing a Conclusion
In many ways, Kalimba is a lot like Braid; it too is a puzzle-platformer with a strong central concept that leaves itself open for many creative permutations. However, it shares the same defining weakness as Braid inasmuch that while its central concept is good, the developers ultimately didn’t get as much mileage as they could out of it. Typically boasting one central gimmick for each of its three worlds, downloadable content notwithstanding, Kalimba doesn’t provide an experience that successfully builds on itself. In addition, its short length ensures that even these gimmicks aren’t explored to their fullest extent.
Despite its flaws, I can envision a fan of puzzle-platformers having a lot of fun with Kalimba because, despite what certain critics say, it certainly has an identity of its own. In fact, I would actually go as far as considering it superior to Braid if for no other reason than because it has far more in the way of self-confidence. It knows it’s about having fun and owns it as opposed to trying to shoot for some nebulous, high-art standard like Braid did. It was this attitude that made the independent gaming scene of the mid-to-late 2010s so appealing, and you will certainly understand it yourself if you ever decide to pick it up.
Final Score: 6/10