I have to admit that I’m developing a soft spot for these indie exploration games. It started out as a relationship of convenience, my dedication to one review per week can sometimes see me scrambling for time and this particular genre of games usually doesn’t last much longer than a couple of hours. However over time I’ve come to appreciate their simplicity and the narratives that they create, whether through traditional means or through more abstract methods. Kairo by Lupus Studios is an abstract puzzler/exploration game that tells the tale of one possible future, and what might be done to save it.
Without little more than a title sequence you’re dropped into a strange, clinical world. Off in the distance you can see a building but there appears to be a large, insurmountable gap separating you from it. Tentatively you step forward and find that it isn’t a gap at all and you’re able to cross over to the mysterious structure. Once inside it appears to be a lot larger than it was from the outside and there are rooms heading off in every directly. Curiously you enter one only to find yourself confronted with all manner of puzzles, each of them building upon one another, seemingly towards a greater purpose that never quite reveals itself.
Kairo has a distinctly desolate feel to it with most of the lighting being of a single colour that varies from room to room. It also makes heavy use of the film grain effect to give a little more texture to the otherwise flat environment which isn’t a particularly bad thing and there is an option to turn it off should you find it bothersome. The simplicity is very deliberate however as it ensures that key game elements stand out and, in the case of story elements, shifts control of the narrative over to you. I’ll admit to initially feeling like this was minimal effort design but the further I got into it the more I realised that each of the visual elements was very deliberate, even more so than I gave it credit for.
The core game of Kairo is that of a puzzler with each of the rooms using a different mechanic or a twist on a previous one so that even the similar puzzles won’t have the same solution. Most of them are fairly easy to work out, usually being based off tried and true mechanics that have been done in countless other games, however quite a few of them require quite a bit of abstract thinking. Indeed should you not know a lot of the common ideas in science and mathematics it’s quite likely that a lot of the puzzles will simply frustrate you since there’s really no way to guess the solution.
One such puzzle I could think of consisted of two dials with a central spinner. The dials were controlled by your X/Y position on a plate and each of the wheels contained 8 symbols on them and the central spinner displayed 2 symbols on it. Now any intrepid puzzle solver would look at that and think that you just needed to match the symbols up and, indeed, that’s the answer to the first part of the puzzle. However after that simply matching them doesn’t work but you’re quite likely to stumble over a solution just by chance (at least I did for the second one). The final one actually requires you to know π to a set number of digits (rounded up, as well) which, if you were like me, you won’t figure out on your own because you thought it was a pattern matching problem, not a numbers related one. I admit this might just be me getting stuck in a particular mindset but when you’re dealing in things that are this abstract I feel it might be better to include a couple more visual clues to help you along.
People who’ve played this game will be quick to point out that Kairo does in fact include a hint system that you can access at any time through the options menu. Indeed when I said you wouldn’t be able to figure it out on your own this was what I was referring to as after spending far too long being frustrated by the seeming lack of coherency in the puzzle that was the first place I went to. The hint system is a great inclusion as it helps those of us who just aren’t in the same head space as the developer and just don’t get what certain puzzles were trying to accomplish. I endeavoured to keep my use of the system to a minimum however as there’s nothing more satisfying than working something out on your own.
The lack of any kind of tutorial however does mean that there are some aspects of the game that will be hidden from you unless you go looking for them. In many of the levels in Kairo there are runes hidden away in places that are usually quite difficult to get to and unless you’re the kind of person to explore every section of a level fully you probably won’t know they’re there. Indeed I didn’t know they existed until near the end of the second section when I was nearly 2/3rds of the way through Kairo. So whilst I can appreciate a game that goes for the ultimate in simplicity a little hand holding wouldn’t go astray, at least so I didn’t find out that I was missing a relatively large part of the game without even knowing it.
Probably my biggest criticism, and this should say a lot about the game overall, are the sections that aren’t required for you to progress further. They’re included for narrative purposes, usually giving you some insight into Kairo’s larger purpose, however they either do not contain a puzzle to solve or they have one which is non-critical (although do provide some really good bits of story if you should complete them). Whilst looking at the hints will reveal whether or not you’re in one of these rooms I would’ve been a lot happier if there was some visual indication, just so I didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time looking for a puzzle that didn’t exist.
As for the story I will have to be honest and say that I wasn’t completely sure what was going on throughout most of the game. There are references to mathematics, biology and general science all over the place but apart from a couple key points (like the control room) I wasn’t really sure what was going on. After I was intrigued by the possibility of a secret ending, which isn’t so secret since there’s an achievement for it, I found many good plot summaries that detailed Kairo’s purpose. Reflecting on my time with Kairo it then became clear that all the clues were there and I simply missed a couple key interlinks that would have revealed everything to me. So should you be looking to play this game I’ll advise you to explore as much as humanly possible as the tale of Kairo is one of tragic beginnings that ends with hopeful redemption.
Kairo is a standout title that utilizes its fanatical simplicity to convey a message that will only reveal itself through careful examination. Whilst this dedication to stripping away all extraneous elements does mean that you might find Kairo wanting in some aspects as long as you know this going in you will likely appreciate it far more than if you approach it like a traditional game. It’s not for everyone, indeed unless you enjoy building your own narrative I’d probably steer clear, but Kairo will reward dedicated players who give it the careful attention it deserves.
Kairo is available on PC right now for $8.00. Total play time was 3.2 hours with 27% of the achievements unlocked.