The journey begins on a stone platform where a bright white fog surrounds. In the distance there is the faint outline of another stone platform. An island in a sea of white. Questions run through your mind: why am I here? How did I arrive? Where is here? Who am I? Am I even alive? Did I accidentally skip the intro scene?!?!? The game provides no explanation – there is no tutorial, and there is no opening scene to skip. You’re just dropped into this strange land, destined to uncover its secrets.
You enter the next room, but it stretches out for miles. How is this possible? The land seems deserted, but why? And is it truly deserted, or am I just a puppet in a much larger game? At first there are no answers to be found, only more questions. As the game unfolds, subtle hints will present themselves, and you are driven by the desire to learn more about this strange place and the purpose behind it.
Almost everything in this game is a puzzle, and the storyline is no exception. Uncovered piece by piece, it’s up to the player to connect the dots. Only environmental clues are given: mysterious symbols, grainy pictures, the puzzles and their resulting effects.
If you pay close attention during the game, continuously thinking about what the current puzzle is trying to do or what the symbols mean, then you might put the pieces together. You might come up with a plausible story that works with a rewarding conclusion…but what if you don’t? What if you miss too many clues or fail to make the connections? There is no safeguard to address this risk. The end of the game makes the linkages somewhat obvious, but having a strong hint in the middle or three quarters of the way through would have made a big difference.
While going without a firm story doesn’t ruin Kairo, the puzzles do get long in the tooth without a strong motivator or purpose. On the other hand, the lack of regular explanations fosters the curiosity to go out and discover your role in this strange land.
You’ll come across many puzzles during your journey, and thankfully there is little repitition between them. They have many effects. Some help get mysterious machinery working again, some enable access to the next area. In other cases, there are several puzzles all contributing to a common goal. For example, one series of puzzles focus on redirecting a beam of light to another area.
The goals often aren’t obvious until the puzzles are completed and you can look back at your work.
These puzzles start out easy: find an object and push it into a slot. Then things escalate up to multi-step symbol oriented puzzles. There is a hint system if you get stuck, and it works well. However, they are not readable when playing with an Oculus Rift (DK1) due toits low resolution. Turning off anti-aliasing makes them “almost” readable. While none of the puzzles are intricate Rube Goldberg machines, they can be pretty clever and rewarding when finished.
Given that a big part of Kairo is about discovery and exploration, and that it’s an Oculus Rift VR game, the environment is obviously important. Kairo takes place in a very blocky environment. It is almost completely comprised of simple geometric shapes like cubes, spheres, rings, and so on. That might sound tedious, but due to the consistency in style and great lighting and shadow effects, it creates a world that begs to be explored.
Few places feel the same due to the user of great lighting effects. Each room is distinctly lit. Some rooms might have a strong red hue to them, where every object is a little red from the lighting, while others might have a green or bluish tint. It helps give some personality and makes them easy to remember.
Despite the graphic’s simplicity, the lighting and blocky graphics conveys a message that Kairo, whatever this place is, was purposely designed to look this way. That these simple graphics are not compromises due to being an indie game, but that they were meant to be part of the story. A game’s ability to create this feeling is crucial to how well perceived its environment is, and Kairo does a great job in this respect.
Just one example of the great use of lighting
Even though this game is a “Rift Enabled” game, it was not originally designed to be that way. However, Kairo’s exploration and puzzle game nature made for a good translation to VR as far as game play and game mechanics go. There was a lot of added immersion created due to being in the Rift, and that was awesome. However, it also created some trade-offs like a loss in graphics quality because of DK1’s low resolution and, for me at least, a bad case of motion sickness.
For me, Kairo ranks up there with Half Life 2 in its ability to churn my stomach and get me cold sweating. THankfully this did get better as I played it more, so it was only the beginning half where it really affected me. I don’t know why it had this affect; the style of movement could be a big factor. Kairo uses a pseudo-tank style movement where looking is almost decoupled from movement direction. If you look a little bit away from where you are going then the movement direction is not affected. However, if you look all the way to the right or left, your character will start to drift in that direction. It’s hard to notice unless you’re actually looking for it, but it is there. While this technique can be nice, it makes it a lot easier to lose track of your body’s direction. But this is not an unusual control scheme in VR games, so what else could be causing my motion sickness?
Kairo has a ton of stairs and ramps, and according to some research done by Oculus VR, stairs are known to create discomfort (but ramps are usually ok). To make matters worse, the stairs cannot always be walked up. Many of them require jumping up the steps and of course the jump, with its very rapid vertical movement, can be quite taxing and discomforting. All this vertical movement could be a big reason for my motion sickness and may be a serious design consideration in VR. However, it was also a bit uncomfortable just looking around and walking. Maybe the issue is latency? Unfortunately, I didn’t have a latency tester to check this, but it could definitely cause these kind of issues.
Then again, motion sickness has been an issue with me more often than other people, so this experience may not be reflective of the majority. Assuming this reaction is unique to me, Kairo is a very good VR game. It had a sense of scale, was nicely paced, and the areas were a good size. The game easily ran at 60 fps or higher on my Nvidia GTX 660 graphics card. Another bonus is Kairo had a solid three to six hours of game play depending on how quickly you could beat the puzzles, making it one of the longest VR experiences available as of this writing.
Whether playing on a monitor or an Oculus Rift developers kit, Kairo is a very good game for the price. The environments are fun to explore, it has some good puzzles to solve, and the graphical style is very unique. But it is not perfect. If the story is not uncovered it does feel like a letdown and the puzzles may start to feel like a chore. If the story is uncovered, and you guessed correctly, then it feels like a great success.
Depending on your sensitivity to VR sickness, playing it in VR with the Oculus Rift developers kit (DK1) can be taxing, and you do lose some of the graphics quality due to the low resolution. But, excluding the numerous stairs, it translates over to VR very nicely. In the end, Kairo is well worth the five dollar asking price.
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