Kairo intrigues me. It’s been longer than I like to remember since I last played a game that drew a line in the sand and said, “Here’s some puzzles and nothing more”. It’s become the fashion for puzzle games to be narrative-led and Kairo stands as a striking counterpoint to both the folly and genius of story-based puzzlers.
Kairo is a game that doesn’t want an over-arching story to lead you through its puzzles. It excels in producing a captivating atmosphere, both through the level design and sound design, and it relies on this ethos to pull the player into the world. The music, an electronic murkiness in the guise of a dream, is excellent work from Bartosz Szturgiewicz (of Wounds) and is available for a measly couple of Euros.
The world is left in front of you as a toy, a geography tied to the otherworldly needs of the puzzles. The locations proffered by the game are starkly coloured, with broad brush strokes of vivid colours marking the alien architecture. Vast halls of floating slabs and soothing rivers of bright lights nestle next to courtyards suspended in the white nothingness of the world. It’s an aesthetic designed to feel at once familiar and foreign, the corridors and platforms of other games twisted to leave the player feeling discomfited.
It’s these locales that host the puzzles, puzzles that eschew hand-holding (although, for the terminally confused, a hint menu has been slipped into the pause menu) and promote exploration. While exploration is the primary tool in solving the puzzles in front of you, it’s rarely the most effective one. Certain puzzles do lend themselves to note-taking and treading the world’s entwined levels, but more often than not, they are best solved with trial-and-error. The player is there to flail around until they hit on the specific pattern that the game needs to allow progress.
Take the game’s most arresting example of trial-and-error puzzling. A spacious courtyard lays in front of you, a small pyramid in the centre marking the goal of this room. Stepping onto the grass leads to a wall sliding from the ground to block off your progress forward and moving to the side indicates that this puzzle is a maze that only exists while you’re in it. It’s damned clever and made me laugh with surprise when I first cottoned on to the concept. The issue, however, is that this puzzle doesn’t require much in the way of thought. It’s as linear as any FPS you care to name, with progress being dictated by the walls, not the player, and it becomes dull to follow the exact steps the game has decided you must.
To forestall certain comments, I must note that I am aware of how puzzle games work. There is always a particular solution and the player must be corralled into that solution by the game, it’s an unavoidable element of the genre. However, where Kairo fails is in the conflicting nature of the puzzles. It wants the player to solve the puzzles through applied thought, which is admirable, but so many of the puzzles are solved through repeating patterns with a small change: button A, B, then C. If that fails, A, then C, then B. BAC, BCA, CAB, and finally, I CBA. There remain puzzles in the game that I solved by accident, then spent ten or so minutes still trying to solve them unaware I’d literally stumbled into the solution. It’s unfortunately the cross the game has forced itself to bear; in allowing the player complete autonomy, it leaves itself helpless if the player finds the puzzles aren’t strong enough to convince them to push forward.
It might be a little disingenuous to suggest the game lacks a story at all. There is the hints of a civilisation as developed as ours, perhaps even our world itself, destroyed. Television screens flicker with images of the continents and images from old news programmes, but many of these are developed within the extra collectables and secrets the game offers. It is very much worth going out of your way to find these, but the game might lack context for any player who doesn’t explore as fully as the game hopes they will.
Would I recommend Kairo as a game? I’m not sure. The puzzles range from stultifyingly easy to mildly challenging and when the game offers up the latter, it’s an excellent riddle for the player to dig into. I’m just not sure that there are enough of these to warrant buying Kairo as a game.
Would I recommend Kairo as an experience? Definitely. There’s an emotional element to being left adrift and alone in an inhuman environment, the only company the slow drones of the soundtrack. If you have the patience to slowly consume the atmosphere, then you’re unlikely to find Kairo a waste of the £3 it’s currently retailing for.