We were never treated to the original Kao The Kangaroo on Xbox, releasing for Dreamcast and PC back in the early 2000s, but the "Round 2" sequel did end up on Xbox in 2003 (launching to mixed reviews), and now almost two decades later, this retro-style 3D platformer is finally making a comeback in the form of a fresh, modern reboot.
If we could describe 2022's Kao The Kangaroo in a nutshell, it feels a bit like a mix of Super Lucky's Tale and Crash Bandicoot 4, albeit with an evidently lower budget and much less polish. The gameplay takes place across four hub worlds, each containing their own individual levels, where the goal is to defeat enemies, engage in lots of platforming, solve basic puzzles and collect coins and other collectibles. You play as the title character, Kao, who sets off on an adventure to find his missing sister Kaia and discover what's happened to his father.
Initially, the gameplay seems very simplistic, which you might expect for a game like this, but the more you play, the more it begins to open up. To the developer's credit, there's a good deal of ambition in Kao The Kangaroo's gameplay, introducing plenty of new mechanics as you progress such as the ability to use fire, ice and wind to solve puzzles, and utilising crystals as a way to make pathways visible, similar how to the time manipulation mechanics work in Crash Bandicoot 4 (albeit more basic). It helps that the platforming feels enjoyable on the whole too, and combat is generally well-designed - button bashing is fine, but there's room for a bit of strategy as well.
There's plenty of fun to be had in Kao The Kangaroo, but it comes with some caveats. Bugs are a bit of a problem at launch - we got ourselves stuck a couple of times, and had some rare instances where double jumps just wouldn't activate for some reason, along with the stomp attack refusing to work which meant we had to restart the level as we needed it to progress. The other downside is that frustration can sometimes creep in when there are random difficulty spikes (although it's actually quite an easy game on the whole), and when the game expects you to know how to defeat a boss or destroy a certain obstacle, but doesn't make it very clear what to do.
In terms of presentation, the level design in Kao The Kangaroo is generally excellent, especially the more standard platforming levels. The variety is superb as well, taking you from beach-type locations to icy mountains and even a creepy amusement park, and visually it looks really good. We also commend that the game throws in a Crash Bandicoot style boulder chase level and an ice level where you essentially slide all the way down to the bottom, but these admittedly can feel quite clunky and irritating compared to what you'd see in something like Crash.
The cutscenes aren't bad, but the voice acting is lacking in some cases (particularly in the case of Kao himself), and the story is nothing to write home about. In fact, until we got to the last little bit of the game, we'd pretty much mentally checked out on the story and just started focusing on the levels. That said, the scenes surrounding the final boss are at least fairly interesting (although the boss himself is ridiculously easy to beat!).
Kao The Kangaroo is a hard one to sum up, then, because while it definitely feels low-budget, clunky and frustrating at times, it's also a platformer packed with plenty of fun and memorable moments. It feels like the developer went the extra mile to inject some ambition into this game and craft something that deserves a place alongside the behemoths of the genre, even if it can't meet the lofty heights of a Crash Bandicoot or a Super Lucky's Tale. It's nice to see Kao punching above his weight in 2022, and not just being relegated to an easy cash grab.