A furry feline pounces in from last decade!
Cutesy platformers with rebellious anthropomorphic lead characters haven’t exactly been in fashion for some time. Even way back in 2005, when Legend of Kay came out on the venerable Playstation 2, these kinds of games were seriously on the wane. Now, Legend of Kay has been given a re-release for its tenth anniversary to remind us all of simpler times in gaming. There’s no inevitable mid-game plot twist where it turns out you were working for the bad guys all along (TM) or continuous cover-shooting. You’re just a snide teenage cat with a bad-ass attitude who drums his fingers impatiently like Sonic the Hedgehog during his idle animations and saves grateful critters from cages. Legend of Kay really was a trip down memory lane for me, but this nostalgic road has more than a few forgotten potholes in it.
Legend of Kay takes place in a quasi-Chinese styled world where peaceful creatures like cats, pandas and frogs once lived together in the spirit of The Way: a belief in the goodness of all life. Alas, the world now lives under the harsh yoke of the gorillas and their rat allies, and it’s up to Kay – a plucky young cat with some serious swordsmanship skills – to liberate the oppressed populace. Legend of Kay’s story doesn’t stray too far from being a simple good vs evil tale, and seems targeted squarely at children. There’s a few sneaky little jokes for the adults such as Kay’s alcoholic martial arts master, but by and large the proceedings feel aimed at younglings. Indeed, plenty of the dialogue could’ve been lifted from a saturday morning cartoon circa 1992, with Kay lambasting his rat opponents as “cheesebrains”, only to be called “mousebreath” in response.
Kay travels between levels in a linear fashion, traversing the world and liberating oppressed creatures wherever he goes. As you’d imagine, there’s more than enough things to be clambered onto and lept over. Kay has a double jump and the ability to fly though the air once he starts a combo. Most of the “jumping puzzles” revolve around zhongs: these mysterious floating idols which you can break with a smash of your sword. Once you’ve smashed one, you can zip to the next one and keep chaining the combo. Since some chests can only be unlocked by smashing them with a big enough combo chain, you’ll need all the zhongs in procession to get the swag within. Sometimes, an electrified zhong is thrown into the mix to throw a spanner into the works of your plan, threatening to make you electrify your self if you lose concentration. This definitely makes for some exciting sequences.
Button and box-based Puzzles are one little addition to Legend of Kay’s repertoire, but they’re hardly a big selling point. There’s a few moments when you’ll have to push boxes onto buttons to make a door open, but it’s always pure trial and error, with no real clues or methodology to it. The good news is that there’s a good few mini games littered about to keep gameplay fresh. There’s a few disarmingly fun high-speed segments where Kay rides on top of a rampaging boar or flies a dragon through a aerial minefield where you’ll have to balance the time-limit imposed need for speed with the terrain-imposed need to not crash into obstacles.
There’s certainly no shortage of combat in Legend of Kay. You’ll be fighting everything from armoured gorillas, to shuriken-throwing crocodiles to ninja turtles. Yes, ninja turtles. Your weapons of choice include a sword, claws and a hammer. Combat is fast and fluid, with a satisfyingly diverse rock-paper-scissors style of combat that requires fast thinking rather than simple button mashing. Your claws do more damage to unarmored enemies, while your sword helps you faster strip your adversaries of their protective bindings. You can string together combos with each attack making the chain stronger or execute a powerful somersault ground pound, but you can expose yourself to attack with these flamboyant strikes. It can be better to cartwheel behind enemies who are blocking to attack them on their exposed flank. Legend of Kay constantly encourages you to change things up to maximize your advantage, making for a satisfying experience.
There’s one key way Legend of Kay pushes my nostalgia button, and that’s how you get loot. Just like in the classic Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, you will break a lot of pots. A lot. By the end of the game, you’ll have taught everyone foolish enough to put their faith in clay-based storage mediums a valuable lesson. Inside these pots you’ll also find useful power-ups like bombs and potions, as well as cash you can use to buy things from a wise old cat and his traveling stall. The power ups are quite useful to have in fights, but the most important things the merchant sells are heart and magic containers, which permanently increase Kay’s maximum health and magic power. This is handy since every five notches of magical power you have, you can unleash a devastating lightning attack which electrifies every imperialist oppressor around you.
The problem with this system of loot and levelling up Kay’s stats is that it doesn’t scale particularly well throughout the game. At the start of Kay’s journey, I found money to be a valuable commodity which I’d have to spend judiciously. Also, fights were actually refreshingly challenging, with Kay never more than a few hits away from taking a permanent cat-nap. However, by about the mid game I felt like I had more money than I could possibly ever spend, and a vast health bar I scarcely glanced at during combat, knowing it’d be able to easily absorb my attacker’s blows. When looking back at retro games, a rising difficulty curve is one thing old fogies like me always harp on about, and it’s a shame Legend of Kay’s combat actually becomes less challenging as the game goes on.
Legend of Kay, like many older games, brings into focus how many design choices have been largely phased out in the modern era. For example, there’s plenty of backtracking to be done in Legend of Kay. In a modern day game if you were to reach a final room of a mysterious temple and complete your objective, you’d probably stumble through some secret door which would take you back to the nearest quest hub. In Legend of Kay, there’s plenty of times where you’ll simply have to return the way you came, spending up to five or ten minutes running, jumping and clambering over areas you’ve already cleared of enemies. There’s also an old fashioned lives system. Lose a life and you’re back to the last checkpoint, lose them all and you’re back to the last save point. I actually really liked this compromise of old and new, and the possibility of being sent back a fair bit after losing my lives made some combats more intense.
What’s really frustrating about Legend of Kay though is that if you miss any secrets or goodies on a level, you can’t go back once the level is completed. In the first level, Kay is training with his Master in the cat village. Several cats seem to have nothing better to do than stand around in front of interesting looking places, saying you can’t do whatever fun activity they’re guarding unless you’ve done the relevant tutorial. I’d resolved to do all these long-winded tutorials then smugly return to all these excessively cautious cats to do their challenges. Without any warning though, I abruptly ended up completing the first level, being shunted on to the next. This is clearly one lesson Legend of Kay didn’t learn from Ocarina of Time: if you’re going to pack your game full of secrets, challenges and goodies, it’s courteous to give players a quest hub to go between them.
Overall, Legend of Kay isn’t exactly a CAT-astrophe (expect to hear plenty of puns like this in the game), but certainly seems a good distance away from being a classic game worthy of being so lovingly remastered and re-released as it has been. If you’re a fan of nostalgic, cartoony platformers but have some sort of strange allergy to Nintendo games, playing Legend of Kay is a colorful enough way to celebrate gaming’s good old days.
Final Verdict: 3.5 / 5
Available on: PC (reviewed), PS2, PS3, PS4, Wii U, OS X; Publisher: Nordic Games; Developer: Neon Studios, Kaiko; Players: 1; Released: 27 July, 2015
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Legend of Kay: Anniversary Edition provided by the game’s publisher.