If you expect Legend of Kay to be some feel-good kiddy game, prepare to be surprised. Don’t let the anthropomorphic heroes and villains fool you into believing this is anything but an accomplished action-platformer with enough challenge for even veteran gamers. No, it’s not a perfect game, being plagued by poor voice acting and occasional graphical slowdown, but a compelling story and some interesting game mechanics make it worth a look.
Calling Legend of Kay the equivalent of a Zelda game for the PS2 isn’t far from the mark. It has the perfect blend of gripping plot and intense combat with just enough exploration and puzzle solving to keep things moving. Kay is a young child in a cat society that has lost touch with The Way, a quasi-religion that kept the peace between different species. Without the protection of this chi-like energy, rapacious animals like apes, rats, and bears have invaded the once peaceful lands of the cats, rabbits, and frogs. Kay stands up as an overeager hero for the good animals in this setting that mixes parts of a kung-fu flick with the seminal graphic novel Maus.
The first thing you’ll notice is how gorgeous Legend of Kay looks on the PS2’s aging hardware. Every texture, even if it’s an insignificant patch of grass or rice paper wall, is intricately detailed, and the character models are clean and smoothly animated. The areas aren’t Grand Theft Auto huge but they aren’t small either, and loading times are thankfully short between maps. The graphical beauty does come at a price, though; many of the environments feel a bit claustrophobic. The reason for this quickly becomes apparent as the game slows down in wider spaces. The designers did a good job of masking the PS2’s weaknesses, but as it’s impossible to eliminate them, the result is the occasional disturbing error.
Most of the action is fairly standard for the genre; Kay runs, sneaks, double-jumps, swings, climbs, wall-jumps, and has combo attacks and power moves. The controls are all easy to pick up. The different actions are presented seamlessly in the beginning of the game, without feeling like you’re walking through a tutorial. Instead, you’re learning the tools you need to get to new areas just in time. The real standout game mechanic is a combo system that lets Kay fly through the air from target to target. This technique is used not only in combat but also to reach otherwise inaccessible areas in action puzzles. It’s this combo attack that makes even routine battles exciting, setting Legend of Kay apart from the pack.
A host of other features are thrown in to round out the action, though none of them are necessary and at times they seem to distract from the excellent combat and puzzle solving. There’s a merchant system that somewhat replaces the typical progression of finding the items needed to complete the next item-finding quest. Money, though, is ridiculously easy to come by. There are boar-riding races that require not only navigation through twists and turns but also jumping over and breaking through obstacles. More important is the choice of weapons and an armor system, both of which open up partway through the game. Weapons improve as the story progresses, and you’ll get a choice between the traditional sword, the more powerful axe, or the lightning-fast claws. The weapon and armor improvements add a needed sense of accomplishment as the game moves along.
What doesn’t add to the game is the voice-over acting. Actually, that’s unfair; overall, the acting isn’t that bad. But when the main character sounds like he’s being voiced by a spoiled eight year old doing a bad Bart Simpson impression, it’s hard to appreciate the good voices. Most of the cats, for example, are voiced very well, and it’s a credit to the developers that all of the dialogue is voiced. But with the foundation of racial tension, some annoying and possibly offensive caricatures creeps into the story. The rats speak some kind of pidgin, while the gorillas are the expected big, dumb brutes. The rabbits have a grating, whiny dialect, and do we really need any more Rasta frogs? Can we all agree to boycott any games featuring frogs that sound like they should be wearing dreadlocks and listening to Bob Marley? In truth, there’s more good voice acting than bad, but the bad is really bad.
There are a few nice bonus touches, too. Cut scenes are done in a comic book format, so it feels kind of like playing a game set in the Usagi Yojimbo universe. The themes of inter-racial and -cultural conflict combined with Eastern religious philosophy is an interesting choice when so much of the industry is leaning toward bad movie licenses and gritty, antihero street drama. It’s almost strange that the designers took this track, as the cuddly, kid-friendly images obscure a truly deep and challenging game — even on normal difficulty settings, some battles are extremely difficult. A final nice feature is an automatic save system that saves the game when you approach a save point, without having to make any confirmations or go into a separate screen.
Legend of Kay is likely to get lost in the shuffle leading up to this year’s holiday season, but it’s one of the better action games to hit the shelves this year. The designers were smart not to go crazy with new concepts. Instead they introduced a few great game mechanics and reused tried and proven ones. The story is as rich and detailed as anything out there, and doesn’t rely on the same tired clich?s as every other game out there (they use fresh clich?s). And the puzzles and tough combat will shock anyone who thinks that talking animals automatically equal kiddy game.