Kairo is an atmospheric little puzzler which shrouds it’s plot in mystery so well, that even at the end I wasn’t sure what had just happened. Set in a mysterious would that implies apocalypse, the moody atmosphere is what makes this game. Let’s take a closer look!
You start the game on a small structure, which has a throne with an odd glyph on it and not much else. Rendered in black and white, you can see another structure in the distance, across a white abyss. No explanation is given as to who you are and why you are here. Stepping into the abyss, you find it is solid, so you walk over to the other structure to investigate…
And so begins Kairo, a first person adventure game where you exist to bring an ancient machine back to life. Working through three areas – named as the lighthouse, the tower and the garden in the acheivements – your aim is to bring Kairo back online to fulfill its purpose. None of this is explained, it’s more of a realisation you come to as you play your part in the greater machine. When all three areas are activated, an ending cut scene shows Kairo waking up, although its origins and true purpose are a little confusing. In fact, I finished Kairo and immediately searched on line for someone to tell me what the hell was going on!
Even so, I found myself imagining what this colossal machine could be for as I walked the ruins of a once great structure. The sense of armageddon is tangible in the monochrome areas and moody music, but the source of the armageddon is only implied, never explained. Images of a ruined civilisation appear throughout Kairo. Whose civilisation it was and what ruined it are left unclear and are open for debate, as is the origin of the mysterious Kairo itself. To some gamers this ambiguity might be frustrating. I found it interesting as it meant I could make up my own stories about this odd machine. (Even the secret ending doesn’t explain much, although it is way gone to crazyville).
Kairo is played in a first person perspective and can be played with keyboard and mouse or a gamepad. I used my trusty 360 controller and it worked well. Kairo is divided into areas which are connected by portals – many of the areas have a puzzle to solve although some are just window dressing/ transitional areas. Some parts of Kairo can only be accessed after completing all the puzzles in a “hub”. This is indicated by an icon in the top left of the screen which will fill in sections as puzzles are completed.
Most of Kairo’s gameplay is puzzles and they are offered with little explanation of what is required. Most of them I was able to suss after some trial, error and cursing. However, some puzzles were a little too obscure – fortunately there is a hint system built in to help you out. On two occasions I had to consult a walkthrough and both of these were because I had missed something. Most of the puzzles are taxing but reasonable, requiring some lateral thinking in places. When you’re not doing puzzles in Kairo, you’re most likely walking and that can feel agonisingly slow. The slow pace does give you a lot of chance to admire the scenery though – and what a scenery!
The graphics are pretty simple and blocky, but I think it was actually a good choice. It brings a sense of brutalist starkness to the game and with all those geometric shapes floating about, it became more evident that Kairo was very much a machine. The sense of scale is awe-inspiring, with parts of the scenery being so tall that you can’t see the top. Everything, but the doors and a couple of areas, is on an massive scale. The strong geometric shapes also bring the sense of disrepair and decay into focus. Some parts of Kairo are clearly falling down in the slow decay that time alone can bring.
Looking at some of the damage, I’m amazed Kairo still functions. Shown in monochrome, Kairo uses different colours for different areas. “Outside” areas are shown in black and white – other areas have red, blue, green and other colours of lighting. Using colour like this lends a moody atmosphere to Kairo and heightens the sense of isolation and despair. Even though the graphics are simple they do have what looks to be photo textures rendered onto the stone.
As a result, this gave my aging graphics card a thorough workout, especially with MSAA turned on. Even so, at 1920×1080 the textures were a little blurry, which was a shame. By default, Kairo has a grainy overlay to the graphics. Whilst you can turn this off in the menu, I would suggest leaving it on. I felt that the grain really helped the atmosphere of the game and made me feel like not only was Kairo decaying, but so was I.
The sounds in Kairo really help to build the atmosphere of the game with lonely footsteps echoing through bleak corridors and occasional sound cues which are used in some puzzles. What really builds the atmosphere is the music. In places it reminds me of the choir of disharmony in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In others it’s disquieting and full of the sort of despair that devastation on a massive scale can evoke. In short, it’s beautiful, in an apocalyptic sort of way.
Is Kairo Worth Buying?
The short answer is yes, absolutely. It’s an abstract puzzler that creates an atmosphere so rich you can taste it. No, there isn’t a lot in way of a story – it’s more like a skeleton story. But that means that you can go crazy with it and dream up whole new origins and purposes for this dilapidated, lonely machine. I loved the few hours I spent lost in Kairo (sometimes literally). There’s enough ambiguity here for me to play it again and again and still have a new adventure every time. If abstract isn’t your thing then you might want to pass this up. But if you feel like a taste of the surreal, Kairo might just be the game for you.
Kairo was developed by Locked Door Puzzle and published by Lupus Studios Limited. You can buy a copy on Steam for £3.99.