Employee of the Year
One of my typical least favorite descriptions of any piece of media – game, movie, whatever – is to compare it to a direct cross between two other pieces of media. If you tell me “oh man, this book is just like Harry Potter crossed with The Hunger Games,” I’ll likely start to assume that the thing you’re recommending is a blatant ripoff of the two. In this world of indie projects directly inspired by specific retro classics, it’s never been easier to be derivative, nor to find ways to describe that derivation.
With all of that said, you can imagine my slight hesitation when PS4 indie game Klaus was first described to me as a cross between Thomas was Alone and Super Meat Boy. Those are both great games that I have a personal fondness for, but I couldn’t help but hesitate, knowing how wrong that combination could potentially go. After starting the fuchsia-tinted experience up for the first time, though, it quickly became apparent that Klaus is no lazy mashup of concepts, and yet simultaneously fits perfectly into that description that I was first given. Klaus takes the idea of a sidescroller with narrative, and combines it with the equally-appealing concept of a sidescroller that plays like a slightly less viscous Super Meat Boy. It extracts those ideas into a vial, and mixes them into a cauldron of all-new ideas. The result is challenging, charming, and continuously surprising.
Klaus starts out simply enough. The titular hero wakes up in corporate attire, with a head full of confusion and an outfit ready for business transactions. Things start out in simple run-and-jump mode, as Klaus clears pitfalls and spikes, and avoids viscous sawblades and traps. Right from the jump, though, there’s a twist. The player controls not just Klaus, but certain areas of the environment as well. In one of few games on the Playstation 4 to make truly good use of the feature, the player uses the controller touch pad to select objects to control, all highlighted by a signature yellow-and-black color scheme. Moving platforms are operated with the right stick while Klaus himself is controlled with the left, a layout that lends itself to timing-based puzzles that match up perfectly with the double-agency the player is given.
The other important thing about the player’s multiple roles in Klaus is that the characters themselves are well aware of the player’s own presence. Klaus is a talkative chap, his words appearing in the edges of each level that he runs and leaps through. The little guy makes for a wonderful protagonist, with a personality that continues to surprise as the game goes on. Klaus is well aware that someone is controlling both himself and the world around him, but he isn’t scared. He starts a dialogue, talking directly to the player and trying to piece together just who, exactly, is controlling him, all while also trying to figure out where he is. As he slowly ascends the tower from the basement on up, he grows and changes in a series of ways that manage to convey an amazing amount of emotion through simple text onscreen.
Now, here’s the part where we have to get into light spoiler territory for a moment. The game’s first “world” (the first floor of this supermassive tower in which Klaus is trapped) ends with a boss fight with a character named K1; a big, simple-minded, muscly hulk of a dude, who bears more than a slight resemblance to Klaus himself. Once K1 has been defeated, the game makes its first round at doing something it proceeds to do several more times throughout its length; it completely transforms itself in nature. Starting in the second world, the player is in control of both Klaus and K1, the latter of whom has decided to follow Klaus, seemingly for the simple reason of having a new friend. K1 is slower than Klaus, but has talents of his own, such as jump gliding, and punching things very hard. The two can be controlled together or separately at the press of a button, and their shared existence in levels lead to more complex puzzles that up the ante by just enough to feel like a rewarding challenge, rather than a punishing one.
This change-up is only one of many, though, as Klaus is not completely consistent in the types of challenges it throws at players. This inconsistency is actually a positive, though, as it allows the game to throw new things at players at a level-to-level clip. Each chapter of every floor has its own central idea, and almost always has something unique to offer. Sometimes the player will be controlling only Klaus, other times K1, and often both of them. Sometimes they’ll share a room, and at other times they’ll be isolated from one another. Each floor has its own new mechanics, too. One introduces enemy units that have respawn points of their own. One of the later worlds breaks the rules by having the exit door follow Klaus’ movements, or connecting all empty spaces on sides of the map Pac-Man style. Klaus becomes a crescendo of different game designs that all have their place, and all come together in perfect harmony.
The story of Klaus, K1, and even the player is moving, and just genuinely cool, but what lies on the surface isn’t all there is. Most levels contain at least one hidden portal to a strange and metaphysical bonus level, each of which brings some new, self-contained rule into the mix. Each one has a theme, declared in bold as it starts. “LEFT,” for example, only allows Klaus himself to move to the left, while giving the player the agency needed to get him to the goal. “PROGRESS” involves fast-moving conveyer belts, while others will do things like change spikes and platforms into words or other objects. Each of these secret levels will unlock a piece of the puzzle of Klaus’ life. Collecting all of the pieces from a floor will grant the player access to a special level that recounts memories from a certain part of the character’s life. Experiencing these occasional backstory stages amidst the main story track complements the narrative as a whole, often bringing well-timed context to some of the decisions Klaus makes.
The bonus levels are a good place to bring up the visual palette Klaus brings to the table. Each floor works with a simple base color, but does a lot with that color. The backgrounds of each level of the game have a lot going on, deepening mysteries and elaborating on just what is going on throughout the mysterious and vast building. Secret levels use stark contrast and shadowplay to create specific visual effects, and the last world elaborates on the single-color theme by choosing a distinct and vibrant palette for each of its levels. The soundtrack is one of the catchiest techno beats in a game not composed by Danny Baranowsky that I’ve heard in a long time. Klaus’ presentation is a stylish beast that will burn itself into your retinas. Enjoy the cool eyeball tattoos.
The best thing I can possibly say about Klaus is that it’s surprising. Its story delivers twists that turn expectations upside-down. Its level design is not just clever, but as if a different, equally clever and synchronized mind thought up each and every stage. Every level is a fresh scenario, so much so that the game had something of an addictive effect on me. If I may close this review with a really weird comparison, Klaus reminds me of Shadow of the Colossus. Each situation I was put in was so unique and rewarding that all I wanted to do was keep playing to see what idea they could pull off next. Klaus succeeds in every idea its sets its mind to.
Final verdict: 5/5
Available on: Playstation 4 (reviewed); Publisher: LaCosa Entertainment; Developer: LaCosa Entertainment; Players: 1; Released: January 19th, 2016; Genre: Platformer; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on release code supplied by the studio after the game’s release.