A world drained of color confronts you in Kaleidoscope, by the three-man studio of Morsel. As a Dream-Build-Play finalist, Kaleidoscope has well earned its indie chops, but does its gameplay fulfill the playfulness set forth by its visual design?
Set Design: In Kaleidoscope, you control a jet-black, inkwell-looking creature named Tint whose mission is to restore color to his world, which has been mysteriously drained of it. You're given four abilities - a speed burst (rarely used) a jump (and very useful double jump), a force field to protect against projectiles (a little too strong), and a hover that can be used to glide or control a steep drop. While the rest of his world's inhabitants have fled, Tint remains to save the land, as much out of duty to it as an affection for his grandparents, who stay behind. Applied to a platformer, the premise is evocative of the kind of whimsical creativity you see in LittleBigPlanet and from the beginning it does a strong job of earning the comparison. The art direction is solid, although in the grayed-out portions of your world, it can be difficult at first to spot what is a usuable feature and what is simply background environment. The soundtrack is first rate and perfect in tone. The fanciful story is a bit familiar but provides motivation enough.
Three Paths to Success: I was especially impressed with the level design, if not for the challenges it posed, but for the way it housed three paths to discrete objectives while requiring a very credible effort at exploration and memory. In Kaleidoscope, you are tasked with reaching different-shaded pigments (glowing stars, essentially) to restore color to your world. You must capture a certain number to unlock future levels. When you pick up a pigment, you're sent back to the starting map, and if you wish to pick up the remaining one or two pigments on that level, you must start it all over. I very much respect that design decision, for it would be too easy to simply blaze through a board, inspecting all possible corners and collect all three pigments by default. This forced me to remember the complicated paths I had already taken in addition to seeking out and recognizing new ones.
Glitchy: Kaleidoscope, for all its praiseworthy execution, still has a few objectively glaring flaws. Deaths come cheaply due to inscrutable sprite collision that, against enemies, is too forgiving (in their favor) and against the environment, is too harsh (against yours.) Most notably, if you're standing on a "safe" ledge of normal grass next to and beneath a ridge of spiked, hazardous grass, don't push into it, you'll die. Also, several levels involved transiting these hazards atop a rolling apple. The problem is if you die at the end of this course and are transported back to the save point, in some cases there is no way to safely reach the apple, whose position will not reset with yours. This was especially frustrating on the descent levels, where you run out of enough hover-juice to control your fall and safely get you back to where you left off. The path toward the blue pigment in Fallriver Ascent was a great example of all this. You have to logroll three apples over a spiked-grass hazard that increases in height. If you fail at any point, you get sent back to the beginning, and if you've rolled the second or third apple to the end of the course, you have no way to reach it (and the destination) without restarting the level. It's especially nettlesome considering I died on a cheap sprite collision with the edge of the grass while contemplating my next move. I gave up on this mission quickly and it was the only one I did not complete.
Indie games get graded on a curve and I don't wish to damn Kaleidoscope with faint praise or empty atta-boys. Its production values and musical accompaniment are easily first rate among the class, and it makes a strong effort to justify its creators' narrative vision. Extras like the startup prologue and the loading screen cards aren't gameplay essentials but they show a thought and a care for quality design that deserves commendation.
Ultimately, though, Kaleidoscope suffers from a balance issue. In its easiest parts - which constitute most of the game - the biggest obstacle is just the inconvenience of the time it takes to complete them, whether that's waiting on a moving platform to roll into place, or starting over from a save point several screens away. Then, its few truly challenging portions can be a real pain that seem undeserved by comparison. I can't say its level design is derivative - I think the three paths you end up taking within each one are very well conceived. But it didn't throw anything at me I hadn't seen before.
So it's in these circumstances I look to what I am doing in the game to make me want to continue and unfortunately, there's just not a lot of substance in the portion of the narrative you're creating. You lightly smush furry creatures and turn them a color, but you technically don't have to. There's no imperative to free these poor creatures, only prevent them from hindering your progress, and the most complicated maneuver you'll need is a double jump. You can pick up each color ball you encounter, but since your abilities regenerate quickly enough and there's no points system, there's no real benefit or payout to this beyond completionism.
Still, Kaleidoscope is a worthy effort and worth supporting with a full purchase even if you are only mildly interested in the success of independent developers or the quality of their offerings over Xbox Live. For some it may not be the most satisfying game experience at this weight class, but it still is an important advancement in the very young indie console game genre.
Kaleidoscope was developed and published by Morsel over the Xbox Live Arcade Indie games channel for Xbox 360 on Feb. 12. Retails for 240 Microsoft points ($3 US). A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played the game to the conclusion of its story, unlocking and playing all levels in the process.
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