My review of Riven for iPad from a few weeks back lamented how badly the game had been battered by the passage of time, which goes by in dog years for computer games. In the late 90s, playing Cyan World’s first-person adventure game was a ticket to another world; today it’s just a stream of somebody’s over-filtered Instagram holiday snaps.
A first-person exploration game ported over from its debut on Mac and PC last year, Kairo treads the trail that Riven and Myst blazed all those years ago, although unlike those games we probably won’t still be talking about Kairo when it reaches its twilight years.
Kairo is a puzzler at heart – in order to successfully navigate its mysterious world you have to solve various conundrums – cracking symbolic codes and manipulating great mechanisms. This all takes place in the first-person, with rudimentary back/forward controls mapped to a virtual keypad in the lower left of your iPad screen and the ability to look around by swiping your finger along the screen. These controls are fit for purpose, but I would have appreciated the ability to strafe right and left. Some puzzles that require careful positioning end up being tougher than intended because of the inaccuracy of the control scheme – that’s when you really feel Kairo’s desktop roots.
One of the reasons that Riven hasn’t aged well is its effort to achieve photorealism. Kairo doesn’t concern itself with that – you’ll notice its different aesthetic right away. Kairo’s mysterious world (into which you are deposited without exposition or explanation) is composed of simple geometric primitives and monochromatic color palettes that vary from room to room. This is initially unimpressive – my first few minutes in Kairo made me think of a kid playing with 3D Studio Max – but Kairo’s simplicity has a certain magic to it. By keeping the elements of Kairo’s world elementary, developer Richard Perrin gives himself the freedom to play with scale and mass. In fact, if you really give yourself over to Kairo – darken the room, turn up your device brightness, and put in some headphones – it creates an extraordinary sense of place. The game’s cavernous spaces and towering structures succeed in making you feel very small, and very alone.
That feeling is something that Kairo cultivates with sparse but carefully-selected ambient music and sound effects. As a total experience, I thought Kairo was quite beautiful in its way, but my appreciation for it as art outstrips my appreciation for it as a game. As remarkable as the game’s landscapes and the architecture can be, I often longed for something else to hold my attention. A slightly more overt story, perhaps – or even just some company. The pervasive sense of loneliness that the game creates is an achievement, but that doesn’t make the loneliness any less oppressive. I couldn’t play Kairo for too long without having to put it down and go find a human to talk to for a while.
Neither quite as haunting or awe-inspiring as Proteus, nor as cerebral or clever as Riven – Kairo is still an experience worth having for fans of this sort of game or for those who want to admire its landscape. As a holiday destination, it’s one that I don’t regret visiting – but also one that I’m not likely to go back to.