As a pretty big fan of the genre, I’ve noticed some stagnation in the platformer genre recently. That’s not to say that quality still cannot be found. Efforts such as Light Nightmares II and Cyber Shadow are well worth seeking out. What concerns me, though, is the lack of originality — too often, developers have turned to the past for inspiration but struggled to make it their own. For better or worse, rookie developer PixelHive took this same route with their latest title, Kaze and the Wild Masks.
Taking place over four unique worlds, Kaze and the Wild Masks is a deliberate throwback to the classics. As the titular hero, you’ll spend equal amounts of time bashing through enemies as you will gliding over chasms. The opening batch of levels reinforces this loop but gradually introduces new gimmicks. If the adventure seems too easy at first, just wait until you have to ride a series of ropes away from a hurricane. You’ll almost wish things stayed as simple as they first appeared.
As the title implies, Kaze gets to don a handful of unique masks during the campaign. There are four in total, with each one being entirely different from the other. The eagle mask lets you take to the skies, the shark mask allows you to dive deep into bodies of water, the tiger mask gives you the power to dash through enemies and cling to walls, and the lizard mask grants you faster movement, but at the cost of putting you in perpetual motion. Besides expanding upon Kaze’s abilities, the masks also add some much-needed variety to the game. The regular platforming segments are solid but lack surprise. The mask-focused segments, though, do a good job of mixing things up.
Kaze and the Wild Masks wears its inspirations on it sleeve. Right from the get-go, you can see how much love the studio has for the classics of the genre. The Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis were ripe with all kinds of platformers, and this effort seems to pull a little from a lot. Although lacking in mid-90s attitude, there’s the rebellious animal protagonist. The variety of gimmicks found in the campaign calls to mind the classic Donkey Kong Country series. And Kaze has the butt-stomping and spinning attacks reminiscent of a certain mustachioed plumber. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if that adage is true, then a whole lot of developers will be flattered by this game.
As much as the title calls upon aspects of the past, it is most clearly influenced by Rare’s Donkey Kong Country. In the first two worlds alone, you’ll spot riffs on levels such as Bramble Scramble and Stop & Go Station. Obviously, these are not one-to-one copies, as that would be foolish. Kaze does enough to differentiate itself from the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy, but it’s hard not to compare the two. The title rides a fine line between homage and imitator, though if you’re going to borrow heavily from another franchise, there are certainly worse ones to take from.
The problem with doing this is that you would want the latter release to be better than what it is drawing inspiration from. And while the Donkey Kong Country trilogy may play a little rough today, I’m not sure Kaze is better than it. For as much variety as there is on display, it still feels like it goes back to the well on certain gimmicks one too many times. Considering there are only 30 or so levels, there are too many instances where you are stuck running away from something. These kinds of levels weren’t great twenty years ago, and they haven’t gotten much better now. The masks are a bit of a mixed bag as well. The eagle and tiger levels are enjoyable enough, but both the shark and lizard areas are rough, to say the least. The shark sections suffer from loose underwater physics, while the endless runners of the lizard levels are more annoying than enjoyable.
The game’s visuals also call the mind the classics of the 16-bit era. Large and colorful sprite work is on display for all of the creatures. Technically, the graphics are one of my favorite pieces of the title. They really pop on higher resolution displays, but still kind of look like they would have come from a lost Super Nintendo game. The level design, on the other hand, is serviceable. The same few themes (ice, desert, etc.) are used repeatedly, but the levels look and feel different enough from one another that this isn’t a huge deal. I wasn’t a huge fan of the soundtrack — if you’re going to ape Donkey Kong Country, the music is important. There’s nothing here even close to the bangers churned out by David Wise and company.
Still, when it comes down to it, I think my biggest gripe with Kaze and the Wild Masks is that it lacks personality. There’s basically no plot to be found, which makes it rather difficult to get invested in Kaze’s journey. Platformers are rarely known for their epic storytelling, but there’s usually something being told that keeps pushing you forward. For instance, in order to get the best ending here, you need to collect all of the doodads from every level. But why should I worry about getting the good ending, when there’s nothing good about the story to begin with? It’s a frustrating misstep for the game, and even a modicum of additional content would have made a noticeable difference.
Kaze and the Wild Masks is a competent and well-made platformer. The gameplay is crisp, the challenge never gets too frustrating, and the visuals are fun and colorful. And yet, the entire time I was playing it, I was reminded of more competent titles from years past. In its efforts to replicate the past, Kaze and the Wild Masks never manages to stand above those efforts. It’s a well-intentioned homage, but that’s all it really is. I do hope that developer PixelHive gets the chance to follow this with a sequel — it’s clear they know how to make a solid platformer. They just need to focus on their own ideas rather than relying so much on the past.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Soedesco.
Kaze and the Wild Masks is a competently made, and mostly enjoyable addition to the platformer pantheon. However, its over-reliance on gimmicks from the past only calls to mind stronger efforts.