Richard Perrin's Kairo [$0.99], released under his Locked Door Puzzle label, is billed as a minimalist, first-person exploration puzzle game. That's a mouthful, and it's true, but it doesn't begin to describe the game's texture and feel -- it's equal parts serene, melancholy, unnerving, and dreamlike.
The world of Kairo is like a playable, explorable tone poem.
Kairo's minimalism is its defining characteristic: it affects everything in the game, from the puzzle design to the environments. There's no real narrative frame (or text, really) to speak of, just a few scattered hints that the game takes place in some deserted future-Earth. Abandoned monuments abound, but there are no people, just the puzzles and long-dormant technology they left behind. The game's environments are built out of simple shapes -- cubes, blocks, spheres -- giving the game a futuristic, alien quality.
The abstract environments, lack of narrative, and audio direction all help set the mood for each section. The lack of some over-arching emergency gives players time to relax and explore the nooks and crannies in a peaceful, pixelated garden, but it also keeps us disoriented and confused when Kairo takes a turn for the creepy and macabre. Kairo isn't a horror game per se, but it re-creates the feeling of being alone in an old house -- every scrape, every bump in the dark, every muffled footstep feels overblown and significant. Disembodied voices are terrifying when you know you're literally the only living being on a dead planet.
The game's visual and narrative style is matched by equally sparse controls and puzzle design. On the left side of the screen are virtual buttons that move your first-person avatar forward and backwards, and the the camera is controlled by touching and dragging with the right thumb or index finger. The controls are tight and simple and worked well on my iPad 2, but here's the kicker: there's no dedicated interaction button.
This means that every puzzle in the game is a mix of aural, visual, and spatial cues. With no way to interact or pick up items, entire swathes of traditional puzzles (physics puzzles, inventory management, etc.) are rendered off-limits. Some designers might find that restrictive, but Perrin finds a lot of interesting and graceful ways to work within that context, mostly with the help of audio cues -- a bell-chime for "good," a cymbal crash for "bad" -- and visual symbols. The majority of the puzzles are logic-based, which works well with the control scheme and mood of the game.
Perhaps my favorite puzzle involves walking on a giant track-pad connected to two wall-mounted dials: moving vertically moves one dial, but moving horizontally moves the other. Getting the dials aligned just so -- there are clues on the wall to help you figure out where this is -- will activate the machinery necessary to advance.
Doing away with text-based instructions and relying on atmospheric clues makes Kairo an elegant and understated game, but that elegance isn't always intuitive. Kairo is perhaps over-dependent on players paying close attention to each puzzle's fine details, or on making connections between disparate parts of the world -- even after "solving" a puzzle, you may not notice what affect it had or why it was important. Kairo doesn't always do a good job highlighting the salient features of its design: I was stuck for two days on the game's second hub area before I had an epiphany about how to interact with the game's numerous fragmented monoliths, for example.
It also helps to know that kairo is the Japanese word for "circuit": there are four hub areas, each with a number of puzzle rooms attached. Once each puzzle is solved, the circuit is complete, the hub area is activated, and the player can move on. Given the lack of text or narrative in Kairo, learning the structure can do a lot to keep players focused and oriented.
In any case, any unintuitiveness is largely mitigated by a generous hint system. Kairo isn't about making players feel dumb or setting up arbitrary challenges and goal posts: Perrin is obviously focused on letting the player explore the mysterious world he created, see how it works, and try to make sense of it. There are no penalties for using the hints or experimenting as much as you need to solve each puzzle -- it's more important to see what the world has to offer than it is to be stumped by a designer's funky logic.
I like that Kairo demands attention, demands that you clear out some time, relax, go slowly, and be observant. It's a thoughtful, deliberate, and delicate game. Few players, I would imagine, unlock of all of Kairo's secrets during one play through -- there are a few optional rooms that I haven't been able to wrap my head around, hints or no hints. Even after having beaten Kairo, it's story is still mercurial and vague -- all that exploration provided more questions than it did answers.
Kairo's roots as an indie PC game are apparent, but it's made a great transition to iOS. The controls are responsive and well-suited to touch devices, but more importantly, Kairo brings something fresh and unique to the platform -- there's nothing like it, to the best of my knowledge, on the App Store. We need more games like it.
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