It's not often a game earns merit on account of its subtext, much less a derivative action platform game with a talking ninja cat for a hero. That Legend of Kay has a subtext at all is a surprise; that it is more toothsome, political and challenging than any other mainstream console game I've played this year is downright weird.
Indeed, an American audience may well find the game's bluntly provocative tale of a "terrorist" training camp being shut down by warmongering imperial oppressors a little too close for comfort. Even more so, considering that it is our playable "hero" who is labelled the terrorist, and who sets out upon a life-threatening mission to bring moral justice to his land and chase the oppressors and their new world order out of town. Please don't think this a politically motivated review. This is all there in the game's first hour, and an adult is left in little doubt as to the parallels being drawn.
It's one thing to comb Metal Gear Solid 3 or Killer 7 for the political messages that critics are so desperate to find and display as proof of the medium's supposed maturity, but here's a kiddy platformer game in which they're practically screaming at you. Even the somewhat hollow references to WMDs ("Weapons of Mass Devastation") and spoofs of Che Guevara posters are entertainingly punchy, instilling a more reasoned sense of moral justice than these kinds of games usually muster with their wearying good vs. evil clichés.
Rather more expectedly, however, the allegories don´t really stretch too far as soon as the generic adventure game dynamics start hogging the limelight. Replete with double jumps, token race games, a lead character with cocky American snarls, inexplicable difficulty spikes, coins to collect and so on, from a flippant checklist point of view the game itself seems about as safe as its motives do edgy.
Yet there remains something oddly, enticingly discordant about the whole experience, as if it were made by people who skipped the last few talks at the "How to make a generic 3D platformer" seminar day. From the faux samurai story and oriental theme wedged into an archetypal platformer world, to the seemingly random decision to tell the narrative via Max Payne-inspired comic book cut-scenes, to a weird hallucinatory moment when Kay pauses to see fish apparently swimming in mid-air above a steam vent.
Characterisation and dialogue also display a pleasantly spiky subversiveness: Kay's noble sensei is actually a listless drunkard, his mayor a corrupt and disloyal fool and our fluffy little hero himself carries with him a suffocating surplus of hubris, referring to others as "dip-wads" and "lying bastards" without too much provocation. It is, in the event, quite refreshing to see such characters presented as fairly textured and even flawed people, regardless of what "side" they're on.
It is clear that developers Neon Studios wanted to avoid spending years of hard work on a generic game with no integrity. (Of course, the same should be clear for every other game as well, but you have to wonder sometimes.) Nowhere is this more evident that in the combat system, which punishes button bashing with inescapably long and drawn out battles and rewards those who seek to master their exemplary combo system. Allowing Kay to fly to any enemy with a tap of the triangle button and cumulatively boosting the strength of his attacks, shrewd application of combo attacks can see some encounters end within a few satisfying seconds rather than laborious minutes. Strangely enough, the bigger the battle, the easier and more satisfying it seems to become for a skilled fighter. Rarely is such a learning process fostered in a game of this kind, and behind the wannabe Jak and Daxter-style visuals and Disney-esque voice acting lies a game design that feels noticeably Japanese in its approach to the genre, with shades of Shinobi, Ninja Gaiden and Maximo apparent in its combat, character control and structure. (It is little wonder then that Capcom have stepped up to publish the game in the US, although still one heck of a coup for this little-known developer.)
Strengthening its Eastern ties, the inclusion of a score that runs the length of the game is a cute, old-school touch that dares to suggest highscore runs. A score multiplier system built around collectable crystals opens this up as a very real possibility, but as enticing as it is, the gem placement often seems oddly patterned, their numbers rarely add up to satisfyingly round combo multipliers and the multipliers are restricted to single color gems rather than allowing the player to use their initiative and chain them. Perhaps I'm missing something, but whether the system is too underdeveloped, too demanding or both, its execution comes across as inconsistent, if not confused, and never quite lives up to its massively alluring potential.
Technically, while the world appears less sophisticated than those of recent genre giants Jak 3 and Ratchet & Clank 3, Legend of Kay is accomplished in all the right ways. A steady frame rate, smart character models, slick animation and vibrant colors and lighting effects all come as standard, but it raises its game in less obvious ways to make the experience itself flow impressively. The autosave feature is a shining example: asking the player to merely walk near a save point on the way past for it to kick in, it ditches the sticking points of both totally manual and totally automated checkpoint saving by making the player's decision to save a near subconscious one. It is unfailingly reliable—unless you're aiming for high-scores, in which case it ought to be turned off.
There are familiar dents in this veneer of course, whose familiarity will make them more bearable or more exasperating depending on the player. The camera gets predictably quirky when indoors. Animal riding sections, quite apart from making no sense—"I'm just trying to get from A to B; why do I need to hit all these checkpoints?"—are disproportionately tough and rudely unbalance the gameplay by sacrificing fun for difficulty. Unavoidably taking damage while attacking is as frustrating as it's always been, and the stupidity of having "lives" in a game with such a nice autosave system is a little hard to understand. Game areas also tend to outstay their welcome, perhaps due to some plain and unexciting art direction, which dampens some of the game's drama.
These afflictions are all countered by the superb orchestral score, the graceful character movement, the well-balanced character upgrades, the brilliantly subtle D-pad map and more besides. But to list the number of ways in which Legend of Kay swerves from strict genre adherence to genre subversion (and back again) would take an even longer review than this one.
By forgetting some of the market expectations and putting a bit of themselves into their work, the game's creators (some of them at least) have made confident and convincing strides towards evolving the genre, and struck a balance between Eastern and Western gaming tastes that only Nintendo is normally capable of nailing so well. It's an incomplete experiment, one whose advances will seem as minor and inconsequential to some as its normalcies will seem frustrating and restrictive to others. But if nothing else Legend of Kay succeeds in affirming one underlying subtext on which we can all agree: appearances can be deceiving.