Xbox Series X/S
PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
For decades, Kao the Kangaroo has languished in the purgatory of platforming mascot obscurity. Unfortunately, his big comeback does little to change this status quo. His latest adventure is competent, but uninspired design and noticeable technical problems make for a hollow excursion that inspires mild indifference at best.
Kao (pronounced “K.O.”) 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 magical boxing gloves. While clearly geared towards younger players, the plot, writing, and performances are dull and half-baked. The story doesn’t go anywhere remotely interesting, and Kao himself can be especially grating thanks to bad comedic delivery. Hit the mute button or fire up your favorite podcast because you likely won’t feel you’re missing much of the experience.
Gameplay takes a page from the 3D collect-a-thons of old but the design feels banal. You spend hours roaming sizable-yet-unexciting overworlds to collect coins, heart pieces, lore notes, and runes for unlocking platforming levels. It satisfies the part of my brain that enjoys cleaning up icons but it’s a hollow sense of nostalgia. The four overworlds, which include your island home, a tropical jungle, and a snowy mountaintop, lack exciting secrets or activities beyond nabbing easy-to-find runes or purchasing cosmetic items to play dress-up.
Entering a platforming level ramps up the excitement, but only barely. Kao pummels pushover enemies with a basic flurry of punches. No matter the shape or size of the foe, they don’t require much finesse other than mashing the attack button until they fall. Boss battles aren’t much better in terms of interest or challenge. Kao features on an old-school life counter but I can count on one hand the number of times I died. I’m not bragging; if you’re competent at platformers, you’ll be swimming in lives because the game fails to provide a worthwhile challenge. Tack on mostly generous checkpoints and a short runtime, and Kao is a breeze to get through.
Imbuing Kao’s gloves with fire, ice, and wind magic bestow abilities such as igniting flammable barriers, freezing water solid, or pulling distant platforms towards you. However, the game only has two basic ideas for each power and constantly repeats them, never mixing up puzzles or letting you use your powers in more compelling ways. The only other significant mechanic involves activating crystals that make platforms disappear/reappear. Like the rest of the game, this idea feels rote and like it’s stuck in first gear.
Kao isn’t without its merits. It controls fine, the presentation is colorful if uninteresting, and it executes its basic ideas adequately. However, technical glitches often rear their ugly heads. Certain actions lack sound effects, sapping them of their impact. Breakable coin pots and enemies occasionally blip out of existence when struck. Certain boss fights and cutscenes lack music, making them awkwardly silent affairs until the soundtrack randomly kicks in. Conversely, one boss’ theme continued to blast loudly during a post-fight cinematic, muffling the dialogue. These issues make Kao feel even more like a budget title in the worst ways.
I initially thought that Kao the Kangaroo would, at the very least, be a great recommendation for younger players. Then I remembered that I and generations of kids cut their teeth on games like Mario, Crash Bandicoot, or Ratchet & Clank – kid-friendly platformers that still offer plenty of mechanical depth, polish, and design creativity. Children are much more capable than we sometimes give credit for, and Kao’s by-the-numbers design would likely bore all but the most nascent of gamers. Kao the Kangaroo isn’t a total disaster by any means. It just feels aggressively average and forgettable which, sadly, has been the case for the mascot for years.