By Tom Hooper aka Atomp
Kairo is a first person exploration and puzzle game where the player will progress through a series of puzzles planted within varied architectural constructions of awe inspiring construction.
The gameplay itself revolves around interacting with the environment mostly through pushing or standing due to the lack of an interact key binding. This is an interesting move and I’m guessing it was done to avoid the inherently ‘gamey’ nature of “Press E to Interact”, in which it succeeds as the interactions feel fluid and natural. Not only this but I feel that this element of game design assists in portraying the nature of the ancient and alien technologies at play within the game world, for example the first interaction is pushing a stone throne back along a track into position by physically walking against it. The feeling of pushing this mechanical piece combined with the sound of stone against stone creates a feeling of fluid and natural interaction far in excess of that provided by “Press E to Push”.
This is really the essence of interaction and the rest of the gameplay is focused around exploring the environments and solving a variety of puzzles. Many of the puzzles have a hub mechanism with multiple puzzles required to unlock further progress, this is a good move as it avoids the risk of linearity and provides the player with a choice if a certain puzzle temporarily stumps them. The puzzles themselves are generally contained within a certain room (although often that word does not do the architecture justice as I will discuss later) although as mentioned they can combine to provide a larger solution to a hub area. These are done well and as a player you aren’t going to be confronted with Myst-like ambiguity in the puzzles, this isn’t going to be a pull-lever-and-unknown-changes-happen-somewhere situation.
The architecture is really where this game blows my mind, and hopefully will blow yours too. The vastness of some of the constructions is astounding and whilst in a first person game such an effect can be lost to the player, Kairo achieves in portraying just how tiny you are very very well. The overall feel is of exploring an abandoned alien monument of great age, it feels like xeno-archeology and that is pretty cool. The architecture varies, whilst some of the rooms feel more like vast expanses filled with just yourself and the puzzle others are corridors filled with strange if not eerie casket like shapes. The key theme is one of vast but very clean architecture, which in some places has succumb to age but on the whole appears as clean cut as the day it was built. Each room is also bathed in a different colour pallet of lighting, lending variety in addition to that of the architecture and the ambient sound (covered later). These elements combine to create an inherent eeriness in the whole situation which seems to prevail throughout, at least for me. The nature of being in such a huge abandoned environment entirely alone leads to that eeriness. This is then compounded by some of the tomb-like elements of the architecture as well as the sometimes player responsive elements such as doors that open automatically or screens that turn on by themselves. That’s really the overall aesthetic that I personally gained from the game; it felt as though I was moving around an immense abandoned alien monument of great age with all the emotional trappings that such an experience comes with.
The sound and music furthered this experience, often cementing the variation between rooms first established by the architecture and lighting. The ambient sound and music lend to the immersive quality of the game whilst often portraying elements of the mechanics of the puzzle, for example a shift in ambient sound to match the completion of a certain puzzle objective. The sounds associated with the specific interactions between player and world match perfectly although on occasion there can be an abrupt cutting off of certain gong/bell sounds as the clip appears to terminate before the reverberations had finished. Overall however the sound and music is very well done and draws the you as the player in, if you have a good pair of headphones then get them plugged in and turn the volume up because it’ll only act to enhance this already great experience.
The game is built on Unity, which is a great thing as it means that it is available on just about any platform you could want; Windows, OSX, Linux, Android, iOS… Unity however can come with some restrictions that possibly become a little more profound on the PC than on other devices, for example the game lacks anti-aliasing which at 1920×1080 on a 28” monitor can lead to some jaggies which don’t do the game justice and ruin the crisp edges of the architecture. I found that the most reliable fix to this particular problem was to use the Nvidia Control Panel to force FXAA for the Kairo application, I saw no real difference trying to force other AA options and FXAA provided an effect that helped immensely. I’m sure you could probably use injection techniques to give the game SMAA or other shader based AA solutions if you really wanted to.
Another little problem that impacted the experience was the amount of loading required as each room is a different area that needs loading, which can break the flow of the game slightly. I’m guessing that this is based around the scalability requirements due to the amount of platforms that the game has to run on, however on the PC there should be enough power to bypass this problem. I’m no programmer but maybe this could have been avoided by loading and caching the hub and the corresponding puzzle rooms on the PC versions whilst retaining the room-by-room loading for portable versions. Overall though the experience is great on the platforms that I’ve tested it on, including Windows 8 and Netrunner (Kubuntu 12.10-based distro) running on my PC (i7 3770k, 16GB RAM, Nvidia GTX 660ti). I also tested it out on Android on my Nexus 7 running CM 10.1M3 and whilst the experience was still good, the build I tried was perhaps not as smooth as I would’ve liked from the Tegra 3, especially around some of the particle effects.
The game is available from the store website using the Humble Store for $8.00 (approx £5.25) which will provide a Steam key plus DRM-free downloads for Android, Windows, Linux and OSX. This is by far the best option for purchase as it provides the most bang for your buck and I believe it is the best for the developer as well. The one platform that this method will not provide for is iOS, in which case you’ll have to get it a DRM riddled copy from the App Store, apparently for $4.99 of which Apple will take 30 percent… slow clap for Apple everyone, great show. My personal recommendation would be to play it on PC or OSX if you can and buy direct from the website through the Humble Store. The game is also available from the Desura, Mac Game Store, Just Adventure, the Ubuntu App Directory and the Steam store, although that’s redundant as the Humble Store purchase provides a Steam key.
In conclusion Kairo is a wonderfully immersive game of exploration and puzzle solving with world design that is astounding in its architecture and sensation of presence. There is a somewhat eerie tone to the abandoned, alien and ancient feeling rooms which house a variety of puzzles. If you enjoy puzzles, have dabbled in Myst or can’t get enough of those ancient alien ruins in sci-fi then Kairo will be very enjoyable.