Cool for Cats
Gorillas and rats have banded together, disseminating their new government manifesto with do-or-die muscle flexing. Frogs, cats, and pandas are the species subjected to such rule, and their politicians are just weak, simpering, or corrupt enough to accept it. In comes samurai kitty Kay, the only one in all of catdom pussy enough to take on the new regimen.
Capcom action/platformer reserves are running on empty, so they need a hero now. Thankfully Legend of Kay has arrived to defend the company’s legacy of strong action/platformers, such as the Mega Man series and Maximo.
Legend of Kay, from Germany’s Neon Studios, lacks Maximo’s zing and subversive wit. In fact, it’s downright juvenile, unless you and your friends frequently square off to see how many ways “cheese” or “banana” can be fitted into an insult. If so, many laughs ahead. For everybody else, these jokes eventually form a perverse, insipid hilarity thanks to Kay’s toddler rebel voice. He talks a lot and I find he sounds like Peppermint Patty with a flu-ravaged throat. There’s a voice mute option, but, while Kay’s voice is technically horrendous, it’s a nice foil to the rest of the talented cast, like that stray salty peanut you sometimes get in a chocolate bar. Everyone else dives into silly accents and voices with aplomb, while Kay remains the bastion of lameness upon which everyone is compared and made better.
After an achingly long introduction and several training missions, Kay discovers his purpose-driven life when the school is shut down by the gorilla/rat coalition. He hightails after them and it’s a rousing adventure that follows, taking him from navigating through mine-filled swamp water, to saving frog eggs in a burning treetop village, to battling leviathans on the high seas. Several nods to ye olde action games abound, such as those life maximizing power-ups known as “heart containers” (oh my, how many years has it been since we’ve seen that beautiful word combination?) and using bombs to top off hidden passages in rock and dungeon walls.
But Kay doesn’t reward memorization of hideaways and secret locations. Rather, it punishes memory lapse. Even though it has all the trappings of a Zelda clone (talking to NPCs, collecting and buying items that are stored in an inventory, and multiple weapons that have upgrades), Kay is structured by stages rather than the freeform world map, so if you miss something, it’s remains there.
The stages are gigantic, multi-building affairs which are occasionally backtracked through, but Kay maintains its brisk pace by not having enemies respawn every time you leave the screen, a design crutch that’s finally showing signs of being collectively weeded out. Just thank God that the developers were smart enough to know that when each battle is a singular event, each one has to count. By no means are the enemies smart, but they’re built and they’ll draw blood if Kay isn’t fighting back carefully enough.
Kay’s collection of maneuvers is robust, and he puts the animals to rest with optic verve. He has the standard attacks that can be strung into combos, and a variety of midair slashes and piledrives. There’s also a nifty little sneaker where he spins around to the back of the enemy, knocks him into the air with his hind feet, and then smacks them into the direction of your choice. Best used when you have bad guys set up like pins, or if a cowering enemy refuses to stop blocking. The three main weapons are the sword, the hammer, and the claw, the last one being useless. While the claw’s fast enough to keep a combo going ad infinitum, it’s terminally weak and, against those with armor, utterly useless. Though the sword and hammer leaves Kay vulnerable between combos, anyone who can mash the button at a rate faster than a pulse shouldn’t be dying too often.
If Kay sounds like your typical action/platformer, it is. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t well done. The graphics are crisp and clean, there’s no slowdown, barely any load times, and the music is grand. Players can make Kay a curious cat: there’s plenty of secrets and side quests, most seamlessly integrated into the level and distinguishable only by how hard they are. At first, I figured the game had a difficulty balance problem, but each optional challenge is only difficult in the sense that I’d fail a dozen times but get better each time in such a marginal way that quitting was no option, paving the way for addiction. It was only afterwards that I’d discover that this confusing sliding block puzzle within a larger sliding block puzzle wasn’t necessary to finish to proceed, or that I didn’t have to climb these extra steps in this towering inferno; the exit was that door I passed on the way up. But the reward is always worth it, and when we stumble into Legend‘s challenges and have our eyes kept off the prize, it makes it more surprising and satisfying in the end.
An ingenious scoring system is the major wrinkle Legned of Kay introduces. Coins dropped by enemies and hidden in containers are not only used to purchase items, but also the only way to get points and unlock extras. There are red, blue, and yellow gems scattered throughout the land and collecting them starts a score multiplier (up to 200x) for about thirty seconds. With each collected gem, the timer for the multiplier restarts, though picking up a different colored gem will instantly destroy the current score multiplier and start a new one.
The game uses these gems to dazzling effect. The stage layout will often do something like anticipate you’ll be in the middle of a red gem-fueled multiplier and will mischievously litter the next few rooms with yellow and blue gems, a brilliant challenge added to the task of killing rats and gorillas. And you’ll be surprised how desperate you are to pick up the coins in the heat of battle, even jumping into enemy barbs if it means picking up that loose nickel. I ran half-crazed through the levels, straight into flames and recklessly bounding over spike pits, whatever it took to keep my 200x multiplier alive. It’s the best thing about this game: the way it drives you to barrel through the level, and not second think your actions because the timer’s ticking.
In the same sense that quick saves ruin PC first-person shooters, so too does an overgenerous save system break Kay’s tension. There are big starter crystals whose colors can be switched and then shattered into gems the color of your choice. So if you know what the gems are in the upcoming rooms, you know which color to start with. Save lanterns appear too frequently, and allow players to dash into upcoming rooms, learn the color of the gems, and reset so they can make sure their multiplier gloriously explodes. The game came to a standstill when I played one scene a dozen times until I got through it with my multiplier intact, and I can’t imagine anyone else not doing the same, especially when the save lantern is right before it and with so many extras at stake.
Kay’s got all the fundamentals down: it’s got all the muscle and swords it needs to carry itself, but never quite hits the high note. The developers held back on us. The constant save lanterns (and each replenishes your health completely) and brain dead dialogue means we’re never totally engaged. But, really, it could’ve been a lot worse, even if our macho Maximo has been replaced by a potty mouthed cuddly kitty.