Review: Klaus

Last year when I was at PAX South, I came across a booth with a visually striking game called Klaus from a little indie developer LaCosa Entertainment. At the time I recall playing and enjoying what felt like a solo ‘co-op’ platformer. Of course, seeing a bunch of indie games at a convention means some titles get lost in the shuffle or pushed to the back burner until the game launches. A year since the last PAX South and LaCosa has delivered the final version of Klaus for PlayStation 4, and the game has blown away all expectations of what was presented last year.

The game opens with block letters saying, “I don’t know who I am. I don’t know where I am. I just woke up in this basement with the word ‘Klaus’ written on my arm.” The screen fades from black to a red room and a little guy with a yellow dress shirt on and a red tie. And the adventure begins, controlling Klaus through the basement of a building. Movement is pretty standard: the left analog stick moves Klaus, X jumps and double jumps, L1 makes Klaus run. The basement has all sorts of platforms that can be manipulated by using the touchpad of the DualShock 4 (a game that actually makes use of the touchpad besides just using it as a big ass button) which acts like a mouse cursor on screen. Yellow platforms, when touched with the touchpad cursor, can be rotated, raised, and lowered, or moved left and right with the right analog stick. Becoming proficient with the touch controls, moving Klaus with the left stick and from time to time also moving the right stick can be a bit of a challenge, but the rewards are worth it.

Seemingly after every major platforming challenge there is a circular arrow checkpoint which keeps the game from becoming too frustrating. Every challenging jump can be conquered by learning the timing of the jump or more effectively using the boost of speed from running. As each level is progressed through a story unfolds by way of block letters appearing on the screen, sort of like a stream of conscious flow of thoughts as Klaus makes his way through the basement. At times the narrative becomes a conversation as Klaus realizes that he is talking to not just himself, but the player controlling him (and the environment).

Every stage introduces something new. Not only does the on-screen narrative provide clues as to who Klaus is and why he is in the basement, but the world chirps and grunts, adding suspense and menace through both the TV speakers as well as the built in speaker of the DualShock 4. (That’s the second underused DualShock 4 feature that this game utilizes very effectively!) Each new level toys with the player. Actually, I wouldn’t necessarily consider it toying, but rather teaching and building up a set of skills for later in the game. One level is very simple; jump and avoid obstacles. The next is a bit of a race to keep ahead of the ever-moving camera. Another level much later in the game reverses the gravity every time Klaus jumps. These changes at each level keep the game feeling exciting and fresh, and very rarely does any single mechanic overstay its welcome.

At the end of the first world (actually floor is a better descriptor since Klaus is making his way through a building) a boss encounter occurs with a big buffoon who looks strangely like Klaus. Once the big guy is defeated, Klaus realizes that K1 (the big guy) just wants to be friends and has his own skills which can help navigate through the various levels and challenges presented. Once the second floor starts, K1 being by Klaus’s side adds a bit more complexity to the controls. Pressing R1 will move both characters together in almost unison. For example K1 will glide through the air if X is held down, whereas Klaus will simply jump and then land. Learning how to best maximize both characters on screen can take a bit of getting used to. Most of the time, though, control can be switched between one or the other by simply pressing the Triangle button. K1 also can pick up and throw Klaus to help give him a boost up to hard to reach places.

Besides learning more about Klaus and K1 from the evolving narrative that displays on screen as they both move through the levels, there are also secret rooms that provide door pieces, which once fully collected open up additional memories. These memories provide a greater context for the overall story presented in each level, painting a story of love and sadness, of separation and greed, that really struck a nerve (in a good way). The narrative conceit in Klaus is that individual cogs in a large corporation can branch out and make their own successful product only to be lost in the success and fall prey to ambition and lose sight of what was once good in their life. Something as deep as that, told in a side-scrolling platformer, is truly masterful in my opinion.

Klaus not only tells a mysterious and compelling story while being challenging and fun, but it looks amazing while doing so. Each floor in the building is a different thematic color. Red, blue, green, purple, and white environments (plus a glorious retro 8-bit glitch hacking world) keep the narrative flowing, while pushing the boundaries of what a traditional platformer should look like. Light and shadow are used to tremendous effect, and similar to how each new level seems to introduce a new environmental mechanic, the visuals also twist convention with size and scope or slanting movement.

The main story doesn’t take too long–the in-game counter says I played for just over 6 hours to 97% completion. Once the main game is completed, Arcade mode unlocks and levels can be revisited for both time trial runs, as well as to go back and collect any missing door pieces, so there is plenty of replay to the game. Replaying levels is a treat as well, because by the time you beat the game the more advanced mechanics that have been drilled into muscle memory make the early stages almost an effortless breeze.

For all my gushing about the game, the one aspect that I haven’t really touched on yet, but deserves just as much attention, is the music. Created by PixKong, the music is haunting and funky and rhythmic, and keeps the pace moving through some of the most challenging and tense platforming puzzles the game throws at you. The music is one of my new favorite soundtracks to listen to while at work (although Volume Two needs to be made available soon please).

Klaus is at times challenging but never impossible, with a mysterious and engaging narrative. Visually and aurally, LaCosa has put together a complete package. Fans of tight, responsive platformers should pick this game up now. At some point a Vita version has been promised (Editor’s Note: along with versions for Steam and Xbox later in the year) and I can say that I would love to replay the game on the go. Klaus is a wonderful take on puzzle-platforming that needs to be played.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Fun and interesting twist on typical platforming genre
+ Mysterious and engaging story
+ Tight, responsive controls
+ Amazing music

Cons:
– Some areas have frustrating challenges

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation 4 (also planned for Steam, Vita, and Xbox)
Publisher: LaCosa Entertainment
Developer: LaCosa Entertainment
Release Date: 1/19/2016
Genre: Puzzle Platformer
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: PlayStation Store, Amazon.com

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.