Just the two of us

When I first saw Kalimba at last year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, it was still called Project Totem, but what started out as a quirky side project meant to entertain guests at the Press Play holiday party a few years back quickly intrigued me with its potential as a full-blown puzzle-platformer.

I’ve always had a penchant for this genre, with friends from college still referring to me as an idiot savant when it comes to effortlessly working my way through any number of twisting, trap-filled corridors. But Kalimba is novel in that you’re never controlling just one protagonist, but two—and the duo must work together in myriad ways in order to progress.

On the surface, even with the duality twist, the game seems simple enough. You find yourself on a tropical island named Kalimba, which has been protected for generations by the magic of a totem pole. An evil shaman appears one day, however, and shatters the monument, looking to cloak the island in his unique brand of dark magic. The totem pole’s guardian realizes that she can control remnants of the old pole, two pieces at a time, in the hopes of building a bigger, more elaborate magical ward. Taking control of these pieces is where players step in. With guidance from an aloof talking pink bear named Hoebear, players must work their way through 24 levels, collecting intricate wooden carvings on the way to sealing the dark shaman away forever.

The most impressive thing about Kalimba is how smoothly the difficulty scales. You start off with minimal obstacles to demonstrate how the two characters work in unison, but the action ramps up. You’ll begin by just pressing the A button to jump, but you’ll eventually swap your characters back and forth, acquire special amulets that let one of your totems walk on the ceiling or change their size, and even obtain the power of limited flight.

Even with all these new mechanics building on top of each other as the game progressed, I never felt the challenge was too much to handle. That’s partly because some levels include themed minigames based around your new powers, which give you the chance to perfect your new skills before continuing on. Not once did I feel frustrated by a puzzle—instead, I welcomed each new one with glee, and even the handful of times I had to resort to trial-and-error, the checkpoint system was generous enough that I never found myself having to replay huge sections to get back to where I’d initially gotten stuck.

The levels also feel distinct enough that there’s never any sort of repetition. Each puzzle is carefully crafted to push you to explore new ways to use the increasing range of your abilities—and this makes each successful solution all the more satisfying.

What’s more, the simple-yet-colorful art design ensures there aren’t any unnecessary distractions to take you away from the task at hand—which I appreciated, since the puzzles only get more intricate in the game’s limited local co-op mode. While this option only consists of eight levels, having four totems bouncing around the screen (with each player controlling two) requires some intense teamwork and concentration.

These level designs also succeed because of the tight controls. It wouldn’t be much of a puzzle-platformer if they stunk, but there’s a precision here that veterans of the genre can appreciate. All the jumps (particularly in the later levels, once it becomes ingrained how far your little totem avatars can go) are spaced out just perfectly, and the obstacles are set up just right so that you can make some impressive runs through each course as you start to master them.

Kalimba’s primary fault is its length—or lack thereof. Between co-op and single-player, the game offers 32 levels in total. Yes, some of the charm in a game like this lies in mastering the levels, collecting every item, or performing a speedrun courtesy of an always-running clock, but it shouldn’t take players more than three hours to get through that initial playthrough, and then it’s diminishing returns after that.

Some extra options do enhance the replayability—like “Old Skool” mode, which places you at the start at the first level with three lives, and from there, you must get through the whole game in one sitting. But again, I can’t imagine Kalimba continually drawing players back again and again, because once you solve the puzzles, it’s much easier to replicate your results the second and third time through.

When a game leaves you simply asking for more, though, it’s hard to be too disappointed. What Kalimba lacks in substance, it more than makes up for in style. With inventive puzzles, tight controls, and colorful worlds, there’s more than enough to keep those twitch reflexes sharp, and Kalimba should prove to be plenty of fun for gamers looking to put their puzzle-platforming skills to the test.

Developer: Press Play • Publisher: Microsoft • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 12.17.14
I only wish Kalimba were a bit longer, because its inventive puzzles, charming art style, and tight controls equal a winning combination for this quaint puzzle-platformer.
The Good Inventive, fun twist on the puzzle-platformer; the challenge steadily ramps up; excellent co-op mode.
The Bad A very short experience.
The Ugly Hoebear making fun of me for Achievement hunting. That hurts, dude.
Kalimba is a Xbox One exclusive. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review.