Kalimba is a delightful game. Bright colours, tight controls, platforming, animals with accessories… Developers Press Play basically laid a Pip trap and waited for me to blunder into it.
You play as a shaman, attempting to rebuild her protective totem pole after it’s destroyed by an evil shaman. The good shaman has also been destroyed and thus must resort to manipulating objects with her spirit. These objects are two differently coloured pieces of totem pole and by controlling them simultaneously you can solve puzzles and progress through zones, collecting the errant pieces of your pole as you go.
Each of the three zones is divided into a number of levels and it’s these you’ll be navigating with your little pieces, sometimes stacked atop one another, sometimes moving separately, sometimes one stuck mid air pretending to be an eagle while the other pootles around. The controls themselves are tight (hooray because tight controls, oh no because then all mistakes become your fault) and various mechanics are introduced gradually. Each is easy to grasp, even though they can come together in complex-seeming sequences.
For example one medallion activates a change in gravity. Flipping between characters means that gravity will either draw your totem pieces together in the centre of the screen or cause them to fall towards the top and bottom, away from one another. By alternating these you can approximate flying, swooping past obstacles or arcing towards a safe spot. A different medallion lets you pause one character in mid air, acting as a bridge for the other or pausing a flight across the map while an enemy glides past.
On your way towards the level end point there are little tokens to collect if you want to improve the quality of the totem slice you’ll receive. Collecting all of them will net you a golden totem piece, the next tier down is a regular animal but with snazzy accessories, the one below that is just the animal and anything less will get you a hunk of uncarved wood. Deaths will count against this total and so I have had many a frustrating summary screen where I can see the gleam of gold before the fist of reality smacks my glorious totem piece back to “regular animal” or worse.
When you first encounter a new obstacle you’ll likely die a few times as you figure out the timings of your abilities and the order of the button presses. It can be a frustration (as always) but the checkpointing is incredibly generous and so you’ll be able to move through the level in increments, even if you’re struggling to find the flow and even during boss battles.
I was streaming some Kalimba last night and the feelings about the latter were mixed. My own feeling is that Press Play would like you to be able to at least get through each level and then it has systems in place to incentivise your return. It’s like that first go is for you to mark the beats of the area and then to start trying to perfect it.
In terms of incentives, there’s the totem rating system so you could return to get a better-looking piece as your prize, thus symbolising better mastery of the game. There are also leaderboards which will allow you to compete against friends, a local co-op mode, time trials and a multiplayer competitive option. If you did want a more hardcore experience there’s also Old Skool where you start with three lives and get no continues.
The one element I wasn’t entirely convinced by was the narrator, Hoebear. He’s very meta-gamey, making comments about the structure of the game and breaking the fourth wall and so on. It’s not awful, but when the game has such self-confidence – a well-honed control system, neat levels and a joyful art style – his sections felt slightly world-weary in a way that doesn’t really benefit Kalimba.
Kalimba is relatively short if you’re looking to just rattle through the story mode – I got through the it in a couple of hours – but the longevity comes from the repetition and the desire for that perfect run. I am now going back through the levels trying to get gold on all of them and make my totem pole glorious.