The 3D platformer has few responsibilities: Have good movement and traversal and build engaging levels and puzzles. Let us take advantage of our entire arsenal in creative ways. A good art direction is also appreciated. If you can have a good story, great! If not, no worries, the other parts are really all you need. Kao the Kangaroo, then, is a marvel. The game manages to respectably attempt yet utterly fall short in all of these things.
Kao (pronounced K.O.) is an intrepid kangaroo on the hunt for his long lost father and sister. Guided by his martial arts master Walt, the young marsupial has four worlds to trek through on his quest. He’s got moxie, pizazz, and a pair of sassy magical boxing gloves, ready to deliver punches and punchlines in equal measure. Or, that’s at least what the game wants the player to believe.
In reality, Kao the Kangaroo has about half the attitude it claims. The intention is made clear; you can tell what they’re going for. However, poorly written dialogue and some rough voice acting prevent Kao from ever reaching its witty potential. I sat through every cutscene for the sake of this review, ready to give the story and writing an honest chance. The entire time, the skip cutscene prompt hid in the top right corner, tempting me with its mercy. I know I said story doesn’t matter as much, but to have so much without any of it being satisfying is worth mentioning.
Fortunately, in one of the more important areas for a 3D platformer, Kao fares better. From the very start, we are thrust into a combat scenario against some basic enemies. The controls here feel surprisingly intuitive. I do not know what compelled me to immediately hit L2 as soon as I got close to a group, but I am very glad I was rewarded with a lock-on as I did so. Combat is fun and frenetic, if a little simple. Get four hits in with the default combo, enjoy a mega punch from your built meter as a reward, and occasionally remember to dodge roll. Yes, dodge roll. Not quite in Souls fashion, but it’s there.
Boss fights, however, are less engaging brawls than they are combat-based puzzles. This only becomes more true as Kao progresses. The first has you dodging specific sequences of incredibly telegraphed moves; the last has you using almost every mechanic in the game, from elemental powers to even the boomerangs. This isn’t a complaint; I found the boss fights to be a fun time, if a little easy. The encounters worked well to showcase just how enjoyable Kao’s gloves could be when they weren’t botching a joke.
Ease aside, the only real downside to Kao’s fighting mechanics is that they largely ignore the platforming side of things. Yes, Kao can roll away from hits and land jump attacks, but none of these moves can ever be smoothly strung together in a satisfying combo. The lack of any animation cancelling means even at a visually fast pace, every punch feels almost scripted. Once you start the combo, you’re not getting out till either it finishes or you stop pressing buttons. It feels like wasted potential.
This feeling only heightens in Kao’s bread and butter: the platforming. The inability to string any of the base moves together makes Kao’s traversal feel decidedly basic throughout the adventure. Compounding this problem are the weak double jump and slippery physics. The former focuses more on distance than height. As a result, the move always feels underwhelming to pull off; the player is robbed of the basic joy of a double jump. The latter, meanwhile, is the start of the game’s many visible cracks. During puzzles that required Kao to jump from one set of hanging bars to the next on another wall, grabs on said bars would never register unless positioned just right, not touching the left joystick. This led to more than a few frustrating deaths, wherein I would fall to my doom despite visibly being in contact with whatever I was meant to jump to next.
Thankfully, the actual levels through which I occasionally janked my way through are well designed early on. In particular, the Lava Caves level of the first hub world, Hoppaloo Beach, is a treat. The puzzles are engaging, and the hidden paths for collectibles are enjoyable to both find and traverse. This feeling persists throughout much of the first half of the game, in the beach and jungle hub worlds. Eternal Wells — mini bonus levels hidden within main ones, presenting a combat or platforming challenge — offer a mostly fun reprieve from the level proper, with collectibles galore. Indeed, Kao the Kangaroo starts off by showing good variety and some promise. By the time I reached the ice biome, however, the cracks really began to show.
The icy mountain hub world is more of the same. A lot more of the same. Levels begin to increasingly feel far too long for what they actually offer. The Icy Slopes level is at least a fun gimmick challenge, focused entirely on sliding and rail grinding. However, Kao is ill equipped for it. Remember those lacklustre animations? They show (or, don’t) full force here, with Kao’s left and right leaning so ridiculously unintelligible that you can barely tell if you’re lining up the correct jump. Unclear animations paired with tight windows in which to pull them off make for some frantic rail jumps throughout. This carries over to the slide portions of the level. While never being so fast as to be unfair, the game’s roughness is undeniably and unattractively present in this level, exhibiting problems that persist before and after it.
By lategame, a lot of the levels begin to feel monotonous. Even more cutscenes jarringly come out of nowhere, for everything from dull exposition to random new enemy type intros. Boss music carries over to the post-fight cutscene, drowning out the dialogue. Some properly hidden areas offer nothing but a few coins. A good few secrets lean into PS2 God of War-era camera tricks, hiding where you least expect to turn around. Collectible placement devolves into downright laziness. Collectible counters consistently glitch, showing incorrect totals. This is not to mention the collectibles themselves, with numerous pots and boxes which hid them taking a while to actually realise I’d cracked them open. This shoddy hit detection applied to just about every non-enemy thing that had to be hit in the game.
None of this is egregious.
None of it is fun either.
Kao the Kangaroo presents a lot of noticeable rough edges to deal with. These would be less aggravating if there were any payoff for your efforts. For the first two hub worlds, I 100% completed every level, gathering every collectible I could find. By the time I got to the mountain, however, I realised I was doing so without any clear indication of a reward. Once I reached the end, this rang entirely true. There was no tantalising hint of what could have been if I found absolutely everything. The game’s major collectibles ultimately amount to nothing. No upgrades, no plot secret, no real rewards of any kind. They’re just kind of there, for the sake of occasionally fun level design and seeing a number go up. It’s disappointing, to say the least.
The game clearly tries to evoke Crash Bandicoot and its ilk. However, Kao is the exact inverse of Crash’s inherent control and physics sensitivity that makes it such a tight experience. Collectibles offer no real reason to seek them out. The dialogue is nothing to write home about, relying more on occasional references to funnier games than actual wit or substance. Above all, it’s just not as fun. Competent, mostly serviceable, and definitely fun at times! But nowhere near the inspirations it claims.
At least it hides a few things behind the waterfalls.
Sarim played Kao the Kangaroo on PlayStation 5 with a code provided by the publisher.