Kao the Kangaroo: Bend the Roo'les (XS) - ReviewLee Mehr , posted on 06 June 2023 / 1,883 Views
Reviewer’s Note: Although PC users have complained that finishing this expansion erased their main game save file, that wasn't the case with my Xbox version. I can’t guarantee if this issue is/isn’t widespread on other versions nor am I aware if the issue's been fixed on PC yet. Onto the review.
Now this is more like it! After Kao’s first DLC/expansion, Oh! Well, my interest with the franchise was quickly fading. As I've previously stated, I didn't have as strong of an affinity for this revival as Christian Evans did in his VGChartz review, and this meager DLC helping made matters worse. Credit where it’s due: this marsupial has taken some critical hits, yet somehow stayed on his feet. Although it's the same mascot stepping into the ring, Kao's found a new boxing coach: the rookie developer Mataboo. And while the basic platforming core remains the same, this teams' fresh perspective shows glimmers of a prospective contender in his weight class.
After the events of the main campaign, The Eternal World (i.e. the purple-colored alternate dimension) has returned and somehow found a way to infect a new host: The Crab King. With his newfound power, he's able to influence all other crabs and creatures to do his bidding. His ultimate goal is to rid Hopaloo Island of kangaroos in the hope of sleeping once again. After an Eternal Portal opens up in the middle of the island, a curious joey is captured and dragged into it, prompting Kao and sister Kaia to save him and their home altogether.
The immediate difference between Roo'les and Oh! Well is a strong opening right hook. Sure, obvious budget cuts result in story bits being relegated to voiceless slideshows, but the chief antagonist is immediately felt on the island. Kao isn't selecting levels in a conveniently-placed well to tackle at his own leisure; instead, Hopaloo is essentially invaded by ginormous purple crystals. It's such an unholy sight, from the copious amount to the horrific shade of magenta, which subtly impels players to restore the island's previous beauty.
Another difference is the linear mission structure. Kao begins without any runes in his pocket and every barricaded door to the next level requires 1 rune, 2 runes, and so on, to unlock. I typically lean towards incorporating more freedom into design (as much as logically possible), but Roo'les makes a strong argument for certain strictures. Rather than selecting between five Eternal levels with interchangeable backgrounds, each level here captures a certain visual trope seen in the main game: jungle, volcano, winter wonderland, etc. It feels like Kao's ventured across the four corners of the earth to prepare for a big climactic showdown. That's overselling the final boss, but I respect the intention.
Regardless of how the two expansions delineate from one another, they're still firmly tied to the original's mechanics. Kao still has the same attack combo, double-jump, aerial spin, ground pound, and so on and so forth. How much you appreciate what's done here will be informed by where you fall on this spectrum: was the base game an unadventurous rehash of a PS2-era mascot or a retro-revival honoring the past? Since I lean towards the former, there's an innate disappointment in not seeing an extra something mixed in with typical platforming or relatively-easy combat segments. Even a small change-up, like surfing or balancing atop an oversized beach ball, would’ve been refreshing.
Which begs the question: why act more excited then? Think of it less about incorporating new ideas but rather finding creative ways to work within the same template. Time trials are the clearest illustration of this. What better way to add tension than time pressure? Even though special rings add a few seconds to the clock, Mataboo ensured you're not allowed to lollygag around. Whether it comes from a stopwatch or rising lava beds, you can intuitively feel how these challenges inspired the team's overall outlook on level design. There's still the original's collect-a-thon skeleton, K-A-O letters, gems, coins, etc., and all the other gameplay gimmicks; and yet, each level feels like a mini-odyssey that toys with the template in fun ways; on top of that, each level has an easy and hard mode (with achievements for both).
For the sake of not overselling it, I should emphasize that "better" doesn’t mean "great" design either. It’s not like playing with Eternal Crystals to cross special platforms requires much thought beyond turning them on or off when necessary. And the bouts with standard and eternal enemy variants will only raise your heartrate when fighting with the camera; same goes for traversing darkened areas that you navigate with fireflies (one of the original’s worst ideas). Even then, the creative platforming tweaks tend to win me over.
Gameplay seems to be where most of the allowance was used. Just like the original's baseline remains the same, environments and enemies – except for the final level and boss – are Xeroxed over. There's also no narrative beyond "save kid and defeat bad guy" told within a few comic panels at the beginning and end. I don't recall Kao having any canned dialogue throughout the expansion either, nor do I remember any new soundtrack beats. I'm personally more generous to this negative given how Mataboo refurbishes familiar territory to feel refreshing, but your mileage may vary for an $8 expansion.
Can an expansion beat out its own base game? While not exactly a high bar here, the aptly-named Bend the Roo'les breaks from the norm to do exactly that. It's like seeing Kao as a 0-5 fighter hopping back into the ring and clawing out his first win by majority decision. Despite being tied down by the original's perfunctory template and mired with a straitened budget, freshman developer Mataboo handled these challenges with some creative solutions. While that doesn't dispel most faults endemic in the main game, it's the first time I've had a revitalized sliver of interest to see where this marsupial goes next. That ought to count for something.
Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.
This review is based on a digital copy of Kao the Kangaroo: Bend the Roo'les for the XS, provided by the publisher.
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