Kairo ReviewJoe Shaffer
White as far as the eye can see...
That's what greets you in the surreal realm of Kairo, a first-person puzzle adventure title on PC. It may seem that you've been plunged into an immense, pale nothing until you complete a quick spin around. That's when you might notice an anomalous temple hovering in the distance. Though there is no solid land beneath your feet, you're still able to mosey over to the dilapidated construct and take a peek inside. It's at this point that you might expect the narrative to kick in, inundating you with a tiresome exposition and an outline of the game's objectives. However, Kairo refuses to hold your hand. You only have your wits and a rudimentary WASD control scheme to guide you on your journey.
To its core, Kairo is your standard "walking simulator." You wander about, peer at suggestive social references, piece together a vague, dialogue-free narrative; and eventually arrive at your own conclusion as to what it all means. The main difference between Kairo and a game like, say, Dear Esther is that Kairo expects more from you than mere plodding. Not only can you run in this adventure, but also interact with your environment. In fact, advancing through the game requires you to solve puzzles found in each region you visit, in an effort to activate inert machinery. All the while, the game's artsy storytelling leaves you alone, seldom interrupting Kairo's interactive segments.
Puzzle solutions are not immediately apparent. You might step into a riddle and catch glimpses of pushable blocks or pressure plates on the floor, but discovering how they work together in relation to the puzzle is up to you to figure out. A quick scan of the vicinity might reveal an ambiguous clue divulging what's expected of you. For instance, there's one puzzle that involves a series of pressure plates positioned above flowing rivers, with each plate displaying various curves and lines. You aren't likely to discern a solution by staring at the plates, and even experimenting with them is sure to yield nothing in the way of hints. Surveying the area, both high and low, eventually reveals a tip for surmounting this obstacle, which comes in the form of a rune engraved in a plate above a stone archway.
Analysis is a big part of walking simulators. You usually can't play one without spotting some obvious symbolism scrawled upon a wall or floating in the water, which might send you rushing to Google and reading forum messages in an attempt to decipher their meanings. Of course, that's when you realize that most symbolic stimuli manifest more as suggestions than actual narrative. While Kairo features plenty of this, like images of ruined civilizations, it also utilizes its analytical aspects in a more constructive way (i.e. the hidden clues mentioned earlier). Its refreshing to find a first-person adventure game that uses one of its genre's tropes in a more relevant and useful way than tossing some cryptic "message" at you.
Sometimes the act of locating the puzzles is a mystery in itself, because Kairo isn't laid out in an organized fashion. You can expect to delve into plenty of crowded rooms, decked out with obstructions that obscure passage ways and portals. You'll even step into your share of chambers that seem like puzzles, but are actually just a collection of miscellaneous debris that merely appears interactive. At one point you'll even travel through three invisible portals in order to locate puzzles, discovered only through experimentation. As you can imagine, though, lengthy bouts of searching can be taxing and does somewhat hamper the experience. For instance, when searching for the aforementioned portals, I ended up wandering for ages, not engaged in any particular task. At points like this, the game devolves into a tedious, bare bones adventure that will have you screaming for someone to throw you a bone.
As it turns out, there are hints that you can access via the menu screen. Doing so, however, deprives the game of some of its greatness. You get three clues per puzzle and situation, with the first clues being the more obvious ones. By the time you've reached the third hint, though, you're no longer reading a vague tip. By that point the game spoils most of the puzzle for you, making its solution little more than a formality. The third menu item may as well say, "Beat the game for me."
Although this is more of a quibble, I'm also not fond of Kairo's lack of content. Over all, the game takes about three to four hours to finish, assuming you don't go nuts with the hints. At the same time, I'm grateful that the developer didn't stretch the game out to a ridiculous length, effectively shoving you through ten or so hours of first-person puzzles with a subtle story.
For me to praise a "walking simulator" says a lot, especially since I found games like Dear Esther to be nothing short of dull, tiresome trudges. Kairo at least gives you a reason to play it by giving you something to actually play. Here you can interact, use your noggin, analyze, experiment, and explore. There's actual substance to this experience, and that's appreciated. I only wish there had been a little more with less reliance on spoiling hints.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.