Like the world's slowest boomerang, Kao the Kangaroo has returned to PlayStation after nearly 20 years. The series made its arrival during the early noughties, back when everyone wanted a slice of the mascot platformer pie. This kangaroo with boxing gloves and a stretchy neck didn't quite reach the same heights as his genre stablemates, but the games have a cult following all the same, and this modern sequel is clearly for the fans.
We say that because, in almost every way possible, this feels like a long-lost PS2 title from 2004. This is both a good and a bad thing.
At its core, Kao the Kangaroo is an entertaining, simple 3D platformer. It's all about exploring levels in search of collectables, beating up enemies with basic combat, and slowly unlocking new abilities as you progress. In terms of structure and gameplay, it's enjoyably straightforward, and evocative of those mid-2000s favourites. It's just fun barrelling through each level in turn, trying to complete each one 100 per cent. One could argue its design is archaic, and that's more or less true, but it undeniably carries a certain charm.
Kao's search for his missing family members leads him through colourful jungles, lava-filled caves, and icy mountain temples — it's all pretty textbook, but in a sort-of comforting way. It's predictable, and that's actually quite nostalgic. As you run and hop through each stage, you're on the lookout for letters spelling "KAO", gems, heart pieces, and all the coins you can grab. Linear levels branch out from relatively big hub areas, unlocked by gathering Runes. Kao has a three-hit combo, a more powerful strike after dealing enough damage, a dodge roll, double jump, butt stomp — it's so by-the-numbers, you'll wonder if you've travelled back in time.
However, while its old-school sensibilities are enjoyable, some aspects feel dated in a less desirable way. For example, the writing, voice acting, and animation work are all questionable. The script is long-winded and full of outdated references (Duke Nukem and Skyrim, anyone?), the voice actors sound unsure about the whole thing, and cutscenes feel stilted.
Beyond that, there are also quite a few small annoyances that build up. Certain mechanics just feel a little sloppy. Kao's gloves can be imbued with powers like fire or ice, which you can use to open up pathways and solve basic puzzles. This is a decent enough idea, but sometimes the gloves will be fiery when they're meant to be icy, for example. Other small bugs and issues come to the surface too; detection on ledge-grabbing is inconsistent, it can be hard to tell which bodies of water are safe to walk through, some obstacles are hard to see, there's regular texture pop-in, music might cut out, and so on. None of these things are particularly egregious on their own, but sadly the game's rough edges present themselves often, in one way or another.
Redeeming Kao the Kangaroo somewhat are its visuals and music. The art style is bright, clean, and cartoonish, not a million miles away from Spyro: Reignited Trilogy. Aside from some aforementioned iffy animation, the game looks lovely, and it runs at a near-constant 60 frames-per-second. Combined with a pleasing soundtrack that sets the tone nicely, you have a game that looks and sounds pretty good. It's a shame that the overall presentation is ropey, though — things like awkward scene transitions, occasionally jerky camera movements, and bland UI make the game feel a little undercooked.
The thing is, even though it falls a little short in a number of areas, we did still enjoy playing. Kao the Kangaroo is doing something right, because underneath all the flaws, it's fundamentally decent. Throwing punches is satisfying, discovering collectables is fun, and Kao himself is a responsive character to control. As though the last 15 years never happened, Tate Multimedia presents a real time capsule of a game, for better and worse.
Kao the Kangaroo makes his big return in 2022, but the game feels like it's leapt straight out of PS2's back catalogue. Despite many rough edges and old-fashioned design principles, it ultimately succeeds in delivering a fun, breezy 3D platformer for fans of the series. It manages to evoke feelings of nostalgia despite being a brand new title with its simple gameplay and colourful worlds. It does fall apart under modern scrutiny, but it just about gets away with it, thanks to its harmlessly old-school approach.