Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Kao the Kangaroo: Mystery of the Volcano

Australian box art used for representational purposes.

Following Kao the Kangaroo: Round 2, Tate Interactive did produce a third game, Kao the Kangaroo: Mystery of the Volcano (aka Kao: Mystery of Volcano) (Polish: Kao: Tajemnica Wulkanu), however it was never released in the US, leaving US fans who knew about it to have to import foreign copies. In anticipation of the release of a fourth Kao the Kangaroo game, this game made its way to GOG as part of a bundle with the other two games in the trilogy. Though I already had a free Steam copy of Round 2, I purchased the bundle for a chance to play the other two games without having to pay potentially exorbitant prices for a physical copy. After getting to play Mystery of the Volcano, I liked how it built on what Round 2 did, even if there wasn’t too much content by comparison.

Following the events of Kao the Kangaroo: Round 2, Kao and his pelican friend Ace are flying around in a plane. After a brief mission of flying through rings, Ace ends up falling into an island volcano. In order to rescue him, Kao must find and retrieve four Artifacts around the island to gain access to the volcano.

Though the story is minimal, it does provide just enough of a motivation to explore the island and the events that occur. The story itself is also on the short side and can be completed in a matter of hours, though it does provide some interesting world-building and is enjoyable while it lasts. Also interesting is how it explores antagonists with no relation to the Hunter from the first two games, giving it a unique flavor and allowing it to stand out from the other entries.

The basic gameplay is largely similar to Round 2, though with some alterations. Rather than Ducats, the main collectible is green orbs known as “brownies of the Earth” [sic] (more on that later), which are used to fill up a meter to find the Artifacts. The health system is presented this time as four hearts rather than a meter, which can be refilled by collecting red orbs; 30 small orbs refills one heart while a large orb refills all hearts. Checkpoints return as well, though rather than bells, they take the form of periodically-placed tents, including an un-skippable animation of Kao waking up from it every time you respawn.

You also get a parachute to glide across long distances.

In addition to regular attacks, Kao can also throw dynamite, of which he can carry 20 at a time and can be endlessly refilled by picking up more. There is also a minor inclusion of rail grinding on vines, though it’s not as intuitive as something like the Ratchet & Clank series, requiring you to manually jump and aim between rails. Additionally, the game features a day/night cycle which, while impressive, has no real effect on gameplay.

Between the four main levels, a minigame must be completed in order to unlock each of them. Most of them aren’t too difficult to complete, however the first of these, Virtual Race, was more difficult for me to get through due to some awkward controls for that section. Not helping was the lack of a mini-map telling me how far ahead I was from the other racers, so I felt lucky once I finally got past it.

Virtual Race is a pain.

Like Round 2, this game features controller support, though the initial controls are seemingly random, which can result in a very awkward layout and may require a bit of remapping to get to something more comfortable. I even had to unplug and re-plug the controller twice, once because movement was randomly assigned to the D-Pad rather than the analog stick and once due to Kao randomly slowing down while trying to go forward. At first I used a wired Xbox 360 controller, however when I figured out how to remap the controls, I switched to a Logitech Rumplepad 2 to make it easier for me mentally since the buttons are numbered and the controls refer to controller buttons by number. I will also mention I had to do a bit of reverse psychology on the controls to get the camera to not be inverted, since it somehow results in that when trying to map it literally.

Visually, the game improves over Round 2, retaining the art style while providing more visual clarity. The level designs are also good, sticking with an elemental theme while having unique layouts to go along with it.

One thing I did have an issue with was the English subtitles. Said subtitles, which were on and set by default, contain wildly broken English with numerous spelling and grammar errors, and at times I suspected some phrasings were literal translations from the original Polish. Such oddities include the aforementioned “brownies of the Earth” line, at least one misspelling of “kangaroo” and a word that normally begins with “T” (I forgot which) being spelled with a “Y”, among many other things. Thankfully, the English isn’t so broken as to be undecipherable, however as someone whose first language is English, the quality of the translation did still bother me at times. Not helping matters is that the subtitles sometimes scroll a little fast and can be a little distracting in the opening gameplay section.

Though the quality may be dubious I’m at least glad an official English translation for this game exists at all, since the only audio track the game provides is the original Polish. I will admit I am nowhere near knowledgeable enough in the language to judge the quality of the voice acting, however I did find it interesting to hear what a Polish Kao sounds like. While minimal, the music was of generally good quality and provided a consistent experience throughout the game’s short length.

As part of their buildup to the upcoming fourth Kao the Kangaroo game, Tate Multimedia released a few videos showcasing gameplay from the first three games to celebrate the series’ 20th anniversary, with each video providing a few bits of development trivia in the form of a text crawl on the bottom. The Mystery of the Volcano video not only discloses that a fourth game at the time was halted due to the rise in the shooter genre decreasing interest in console platformers, it also mentions that the game was used to promote the Basque language in primary schools, since that was one of the languages it was originally translated to. Though an otherwise interesting bit of trivia, I personally liked that it provided a positive example of how video games can be used outside the realm of entertainment.

Though short, Kao the Kangaroo: Mystery of the Volcano is enjoyable while it lasts. It has some interesting ideas that made me wish that there was a little more meat to it, though it’s probably good that it didn’t overstay its welcome. I would still recommend it to platformer fans and it’s fortunately written such that it serves as a stand-alone experience, though potential players should keep in mind having to spend some time messing with control schemes (if using a controller) and English speakers may have to put up with an unfortunately low-quality localization.

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