Preview: Kainga

Back in the dim mists of my youth, I enjoyed playing Black & White, Peter Molyneaux’s ambitious “God game” where you had to work to build up your animal avatar (I generally went with the tiger; never could get the cow into the buff “bull god”/minotaur I wanted) and try not to lay your worshippers low. It was frustrating at times, but generally engaging. Its influence on the beta title Kainga is clear, though they seem to have gotten the engaging/frustrating mix flipped around at the moment.

In Kainga, your avatar is a Thinker, a sage who is supposed to come up with all new technologies to help your village complete a specific goal. The technology tree is broken up into generic categories, from which you pick a specific technology. Choosing a tech costs a resource called Favor, which can be replenished if you hold Festivals. Festivals also increase your area of control, as well as increase Ante, a counter which dictates the intensity of events like storms, giant monsters, and invasion from neighboring tribes. While there are certain constants, the tree itself is scrambled up each time in typical roguelite fashion.

“Giant stew pot…early civilization…hostile tribes…are we the cannibals here?”

Rather than a straightforward story, you’re given a menu of challenges based on accomplishing a specific task in a specific region. It might be liberating a Thinker being held prisoner or just getting a bunch of lanterns hung up. Accomplishing these goals, as well as completing Festivals, grants you Karma points which you can spend back in the Thinker’s Lodge where you start each game. At the present time, though, only two regions are actually available to play. When you take on a challenge, a new map is procedurally generated.

The visual style for Kainga is rather different than Black & White, going for a stylized 2D “paper doll” sort of look. It definitely helps sell the idea of early civilizations starting up, though it can also be somewhat confusing, particularly when other tribes attack. The color schemes for different tribes are supposed to be different, but sometimes it still gets visually cluttered. Meanwhile, resources and terrain are rendered in a very low poly fashion. The giant monsters are similarly rendered, but they have an appropriate sense of scale to them. Music and sound effects are appropriately primitive. You’re not going to be hearing a lot of brass or complex string arrangements here.

Sometimes, the neighbors complain about your parties…with swords and clubs

As it stands right now, the learning curve on Kainga is brutal, almost pointlessly so. As of this writing, I’ve only managed to complete a single challenge, and even that seemed like a fluke more than a logical consequence of my actions. More importantly, there’s a sense of futility to the whole affair. There’s no feeling of continuity or greater destiny involved. Once you’ve reached the end of the challenge, good or ill, you pop back to the Lodge and start all over again. If you fail, sucks to be you. If you succeed, it’s basically “have fun, kids!” and wash your hands of whatever happens next. Granted, the game is sub-titled “Seeds of Civilization,” so the assumption is you starting a culture, not seeing it through its rise and inevitable fall. But if it’s all basically stunt work, relying on getting by with whatever combination the tech tree decides to grant you each time, the appeal is likely going to be limited. Other roguelite games have some sort of throughline, something to keep you playing if you fail. That “gotta” factor is so far missing in Kainga.

Mechanics in Kainga are not what you would call entirely clear. Even with tutorials, there’s still a lot of trial and error, not to mention a distinct lack of decent AI for basic tasks. While other Thinkers can be rescued and presumably become available through the Lodge, there are two other “starters” which you can’t seem to unlock at the present time. And there’s no information on how to unlock them, which seems like a bit of a needless tease. Yeah, yeah, it’s in beta, but getting players the information they need is an important principle of design.

Get used to seeing this room a lot.

It’s hard to say where Kainga is going at this point. The roadmap is promising more zones, more creatures, and other elements in the future. But if you’re looking for compelling gameplay, something that captures the “just one more turn” feel of the Civilization series, the sense of awe in Black & White, or the “one more run” out of Hades or Darkest Dungeon, this one may not be for you just yet.

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