When children accept that a "win" doesn't always mean happily ever after, their acceptance of gaming as a true storytelling medium is increased exponentially.
KlonoaPublisher: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+
Release date: 2009-05-22
This review contains major spoilers regarding plot points throughout Klonoa.
Here's something we often forget about children: they're tougher than we give them credit for. When Bambi's mom dies, sure, it makes kids cry, but it can also be the catalyst for a major moment in a child's life; in that case, either an inclination toward vegetarianism or the realization of mortality. Fairy tales of the past did not shy from death or tragedy; rather, they embraced such low points, making them central events in the redemption or growth of a given character.
Still, it can be hard for us as adults to comprehend the level of understanding that children can be capable of when it comes to tragedy. As recently as Pixar's magical Up, critics and previewers wondered whether children would be able to "relate" to a story of a widower dedicating a journey to his late wife. Of course they can't relate to it -- no child knows the pain of choosing to live your life with someone, living that life happily for decades, and then losing that someone. What children can do, however, is spot a good story, and Up is by all means a good story, one that is proving to have legs in its positive critical reception and its box office haul.
Given the surprising mental toughness that children seem able to wield, then, it should be easy to accept Klonoa for exactly what it appears to be: a children's game. And yet, it's not easy to accept that, if only for the reason that even adults who play through Klonoa are left shocked and haunted by the endgame.
Klonoa is actually a full-on remake of the PlayStation non-hit Klonoa: Door to Phantomile. As remakes go, it's very much analogous to last year's Bionic Commando: Rearmed, in that the visuals and the sounds have been given a complete and utter overhaul while the core gameplay and level design is exactly as it was in the original game. It's an approach that has the potential to delight old and new gamers alike. Those who have played the previous version of the game can enjoy the new English-language voiceover (though whether "enjoy" is the right word there is up for debate) or marvel at the beautiful presentation of water in the game and the seamlessness of the two and three-dimensional elements of the game. For those who haven't played the original, Klonoa is a wonderful example of a style of gaming constantly left for dead, but just as often resurrected for the sake of a new throwback of an experience: the 2D platformer.
Klonoa is often referred to as a 2.5D platformer, given that moving "left" or "right" often has the effect of causing the scenery to turn around Klonoa himself. Rather than forcing use of the analog stick on the player for 360-degree motion, the scenery adjusts for the sake of allowing Klonoa to always be moving left or right. It's an effect that's discombobulating at first but very effective and easy to get used to once you realize that it controls exactly the same as, say, a classic Super Mario game (even if there are a few flourishes like floats, double jumps, and the use of a little friend named Hewpoe, Klonoa's own personal Navi who will help him get out of puzzles and defeat the various baddies that have suddenly decided to invade Klonoa's home land of Phantomile).
The platforming is well-done, and the main story is surprisingly simple to get through -- another point that leads to Klonoa's "kid game" reputation. This Wii version gives Klonoa two extra hearts right off the bat, allowing him to be hit ten times instead of six before he loses a life, and it also gives an extra added boost to the end of his floating jump, making some of the jumps ever so slightly easier. This being the Wii, there's also an added motion control attack, a cyclone of sorts activated by a vigorous shake of the Wii Nunchuck -- an attack which is neither terribly effective nor at all necessary, making it very easy to ignore if you'd rather pretend that motion controls don't exist.
There are even some added bonuses for those who would spring for the Wii version of Klonoa: new "challenge" levels (which jump the difficulty from terribly easy to controller throwing, teeth gnashing, caps-lock levels of HARD) are unlocked when the story mode is conquered, as is the option to clothe Klonoa in any one of four different outfits, among other little treats that longtime fans of the series will appreciate.
But really, Klonoa is about that story.
The first half of Klonoa is kiddie game fodder through and through, just a big-eared male character deciding to go on an adventure and see who the mysterious and vaguely evil new guy is. Halfway through the game, though, things take a turn for the very, very dark, a turn set in motion by the killing of Klonoa's grandfather. Once that's out of the way, it's as if the writers decided that the audience was primed for pretty much anything: Klonoa then discovers that his best friend has been lying to him all of his life, he gets a lesson on the nature of reality and perception, and the game ends on the screams and cries that come with the realization that his life as he knows it is over.
What starts as a story of guiding this boy on his little adventure ends as an exercise in constant punishment, even as Klonoa does save the "world" or at least what he knows it to be. By the time the last level rolls around, the player is actually so exhausted with the constant revelations and the pain that those revelations cause Klonoa as to have lost some of the motivation for playing the game -- why would anyone want to put someone else through what Klonoa goes through?
Still, as difficult as the game can be to stomach, it's also the type of game that can set the stage for an appreciation of games as more than vehicles for fun and escapism. Most children learn early on that not every story has a happy ending, and that the most realistic of stories often don't; those same children learn to appreciate stories without happy endings for the value that those stories retain even as they're major downers. Klonoa is an example of the ability of a game to tell a story without a happy ending while still allowing for the player controlling the avatar to "win.” When children accept that a "win" doesn't always mean happily ever after, their acceptance of gaming as a true storytelling medium is increased exponentially and society as a whole comes that much closer to accepting games themselves as artistic entities worthy of study.
This of course, is a scenario in which we all win.