Kao the Kangaroo – Video Game Review

Harrison Abbott reviews Kao the Kangaroo…

It might be painfully obvious, but a mascot platformer needs to have a decent mascot.

Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, and more recently Captain Astro Bot are all great examples, due to their distinct visual designs and likable, if simplistic, personalities. None of them are particularly deep or nuanced when it comes to their characterization, but that’s beside the point.

What’s important here is that these mascots are truly iconic. People throw that descriptor around a lot these days without giving it much thought, but, in the case of those listed above, it means in the truest sense of the word.

They are Icons for their respective consoles, development studios and publishers. Mario is synonymous with Nintendo, just as Sonic is with Sega. Meanwhile, Astro and the Ratchet & Clank the boys proudly fly the PlayStation team flag.

In terms of what distinguishes a good mascot from a bad one (e.g. Thing), there are a few criteria. As mentioned above, they should have a strong recognizable look from a simple silhouette and they should also have affable personalities.

Another (often overlooked) ingredient is audio. Some pets benefit from being mostly silent and only communicating through a few sound effects. For example, think of Astro’s cute buzzes or the legendary “Woah!” by Crash Bandicoot. Hell, Cuphead manages to make quite an impression even though he never uttered a syllable.

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Of course, other characters are more talkative and so it’s vital that they have voices to match. Although the games they’ve played in haven’t always been top notch, both Ryan Drummond and Roger Craig Smith have done a great job delivering the English version of Sonic with boyish enthusiasm. After all, their delivery is exactly what you’d expect from The Blue Blur if you only had a photo of him.

Likewise, in his 30-year tenure as Mario, Charles Martinet has managed to take just a handful of basic phrases – including “Mama Mia” and “Let’s-a-go” – and infuse so much personality that you get a good idea of ​​who the Italian plumber is. No one else can remove a “Yahoo!” very much like him, so much so that he is considered blasphemous that Hollywood even tries to replace him in a movie.

The point of this increasingly long intro is that a platforming mascot has to ring true if it wants to become an icon. Astro Bot doesn’t need to monologue, Crash Bandicoot’s exclamations are an integral part of his identity, and Charles Martinet simply is Mario for most people.

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Kao is an obscure platforming mascot from the early 2000s, now attempting a comeback.

The reason I bring this up is that nothing can adequately prepare you for what Kao, the titular kangaroo, looks like in his new 2022 reboot. At first glance, you might expect this marsupial of the kickboxing has a voice like Sonic’s (meaning cool and bubbly with attitude). Alternatively, you can easily imagine the developers taking the more obvious route of having him speak with an Aussie cadence, or capitalizing on the pugilism theme by having him do a cartoonish Rocky Balboa impression.

You know, something like that. Basically, anything other than having your main character feel like a whiny preteen who is forced to act out in a school production against his will. It’s amazing how much Kao’s nasal voice doesn’t match his visual design, reminiscent of that much-derided version of Pauly Shore. Pinocchio which recently became a meme.

The first time I heard Kao speak it elicited an involuntary laugh before it depressingly settled into the fact that I was going to be stuck with that voice for another 7 hours or so. It’s most laughable when trying to sound harsh or threatening, usually when taunting his opponent before a boss fight.

In general, the dialogue-rich moments in Kao the kangaroo are ridiculous, because it’s not just our protagonist who sounds deeply wrong. Each character has a voice completely incongruous with their appearance and supposed personality, to the point that it often sounds like a parody YouTube dub.

There’s a hulking gorilla that looks like a random guy who got dragged off the street to smash his way through a few lines, posing as a deformed Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then there’s a pelican who may be South African, but it’s not entirely clear, and a kung fu master who has no discernible accent but omits random words from in a manner that is presumably intended to evoke Asian stereotypes. You would accuse him of being culturally insensitive, if only it was clear which culture is being mocked.

Honestly, it’s a relief when you find out that speech is only audible in cutscenes (elsewhere conversations are relegated to text boxes), otherwise it would be too hard to focus on gameplay when you’re left in constant giggles.

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The level design and mechanics of Kao The Kangaroo will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played a 3D platformer.

To escalate things a bit, Kao the kangaroo is a reboot of an old-school 3D platformer from the Dreamcast era. Don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with the obscure brand, as you’ve probably played countless titles like this. It’s a standard collecting marathon with anthropomorphic animals (in this case, a kangaroo), themed worlds that connect in more linear stages, and an archaic life system.

In this particular outing (which is the franchise’s first since 2005), Kao embarks on an island-hopping quest to find his missing father and sister. Along the way, he dons a pair of magical boxing gloves imbued with mystical powers, then explores obligatory platforming biomes of an ice world, lava caves, jungle, and a vaguely spooky area.

Suffice it to say, he’s totally unremarkable in almost every way. The story is simple, the characters aren’t very funny (try as they might) and the gameplay is competent but ultimately listless.

You have the usual repertoire of moves at your disposal – Kao can jump, roll, shimmy, climb, stomp – and it’s all pretty responsive. That’s except for the inconsistent grappling hook mechanism which, when released, will launch you 20 feet into the air or send you into a straight vertical drop, as if your feet are weighed down by anvils. By the way, both of these outcomes are equally likely, regardless of how much forward momentum you seem to have when swinging.

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Kao goes through the typical environments you’d expect from this genre, including lava, ice, and jungle levels.

The lack of decent audiovisual feedback is also a big issue here. If Kao collides with death spikes or a bomb, he rarely reacts audibly and there is no animation to indicate you have taken damage. You just unceremoniously lost a heart icon in the HUD.

Looping music sporadically kicks in and out for no apparent reason, leading to some very awkward sets that unfold in near total silence. Conversely, on other occasions, the soundtrack will refuse to fade even after the fight is over, totally drowning out any subsequent dialogue exchange (perhaps a small mercy in retrospect).

In short, everything is very rough around the edges. Still, that can be forgiven considering that it’s an indie release and doesn’t have the resources of a AAA budget. In fact, the fan community had to get a hashtag on social media, so the developers at Tate Multimedia could even get Kao the kangaroo 2022 greenlit in the first place.

Given the financial limitations, you can skip a few technical quibbles here and there, but the end product is still very bland. What’s really missing, aside from an endearing hero, engaging combat, reliable mechanics, interesting level design, technical stability, and cohesive sound, is a creative spark.

You’ve seen it all done before and you’ve seen it better. The levels use the exact same themes as mario has been recycling for decades now, there are sequences in which you flee from a rampaging pursuer that are clearly meant to monkey Crash Bandicoot’s bouldering steps, and the atrocious attempts at humor (aspiring to Ratchet & Clank) are guaranteed to make your toes curl. On that note, prepare for goofy references to TikTok and a baffling “Arrow to the Knee” joke.

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Whether it’s Crash Bandicoot Monkey, Spyro or Super Mario 64, Kao always leaves you thinking of better games.

You eventually unlock elemental powers that grant Kao’s boxing gloves special abilities, namely ice, fire, and wind. Still, these are mostly used for solving environmental puzzles and they don’t affect the action much, other than occasionally changing your animations. So even this gimmick doesn’t add much flavor to the proceedings.

Speaking of combat, the fights here are pretty unchallenging and button-mashed, but that at least means they’re accessible to small children (who, let’s face it, are the target audience). Plus, there’s a decent amount of enemy variety to keep things fresh, with you encountering new enemies all the way to the final level.

If you want an introductory platformer for toddlers, this could be a strong contender as it doesn’t require much precision, the timing windows are usually quite generous, and the hunt for collectibles will occupy their time well. In that sense, it could serve as a cute gateway title for beginners, before they move on to more difficult games.

Globally, Kao the kangaroo is a title I desperately wanted to love, because its heart seems to be in the right place, and it has a certain old-school charm to it. To put it bluntly, the game is simply uninspired, technically shoddy, and too formulaic to eliminate any sort of nostalgic itch I felt for the heyday of 3D platforming. The sad truth is that, even in the year 2000, this would have been a lackluster offering.

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The combat is functional, if incredibly simplistic.

Advantages:
+ There is a certain retro appeal, even if it quickly fades
+ Accessible to toddlers
+ Vacuuming all collectibles can be rewarding

The inconvenients:
– Breathtaking dubbing
– Janky platforming and combat
– Missing audio and music are common
– Bland level design
– Rehash ideas that have been done much better elsewhere

Rating: 4/10

Tested on Xbox Series X (also available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC).

A revision code was provided by the publisher.

Harrison Abbott