Review: Legend of Kay Anniversary

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Even in this day and age of frequent definitive, enhanced, and HD re-releases–many for titles that really aren’t even old or technologically dated enough to warrant such treatment–it’s rare to see past games of middling success at best get a second shot. If publishers are going to bring back an old game, usually it’s going to be for a former big-seller or a classic that everyone has at least heard of, even if they never actually played the original. Nordic Games has eschewed this thinking by resurrecting the long lost PlayStation 2 game Legend of Kay.

Legend of Kay? Who’s a what now? Yeah, I can’t blame you if you’ve never heard of it before. By the time Capcom brought this little sleeper that could to market back in 2005, the PS2 already had its 3D action platformer lineup locked down tight with Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, and Sly Cooper. Although not quite up to the same level as those genre trendsetters, for a small, unheralded game Legend of Kay was every bit as charming and fun to play. And so it remains a whole decade later.

Legend of Kay Anniversary is an honest to goodness remastered edition. I still happen to have a copy of the original proudly stashed away in my retro game collection, so naturally the first thing I did was set up my PS2 running the old game on a TV side by side with the anniversary edition booted up on my PC via Steam. The immense jump in quality made my jaw drop and slam off of the desktop below. Maybe the difference is so staggering due to the fact that the new version updates a game from two console generations ago, whereas most modern enhanced editions are for last-gen games that still look really good. Nevertheless, the graphical improvement may just be the most impressive I’ve seen in an HD remaster. Not that the game now is suddenly cutting edge–I’d say it compares favorably to an average PS3 or Xbox 360 game. Everything just looks brighter, crisper, and more well defined, the color palette and lighting more vibrant. Kay’s whiskers, for example, are clearly visible, not jagged, aliased lines protruding from his face. Background NPCs which look like pixelated masses of polygons on the PS2 are now just as detailed and expressive as Kay. The lushly vegetated forests, murky swamps, foggy caves, rocky canyons, and ancient tombs you’ll be traipsing through are all gorgeously brought to life through flame and torchlight special effects, shiny reflective surfaces, and ambient flourishes like bees swarming over flower patches and cattails swaying to and fro in the breeze. Even today the PS2 game holds up reasonably well, but this new version makes it look like an eyesore.

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Graphical update aside, the core makeup of the game remains intact. Some of the UI and HUD elements have been cleaned up and tweaked around just a bit–and the faster, more consistent framerate equates to a smoother experience overall–but functionally the controls and menus are the same.

So, for those out there who never played the game back in the day, you’re probably wondering just what the hell is Legend of Kay? Well, it is a lighthearted action-platformer starring the eponymous Kay, an orphaned cat and martial arts apprentice in training to become a great warrior of prophecy on the serene island of Yenching, a land where cats and other anthropomorphic critters live together in peace and harmony. Until one day Yenching is thrown into chaos when Shun, the mighty Lord of the Gorillas, teams with Tak, King of the Rats and a powerful rodent alchemist, to unleash their collective armies on the island and enslave all of its inhabitants. Not one to back down from anyone, Kay must put his training to use for the first time to save the village and all of Yenching from these unbearable dictators. Unfortunately, while the cast is certainly cute and endearing, and the animated comic book cutscenes are pretty slick, the story itself falls a bit flat due to its poor Saturday morning cartoon acting, dialogue, and scriptwriting. Expect to hear Kay gratingly call bad guys names like bananabrain and scumsucking cheesebreath, and spew forth choice one-liners like “Holy kitty litter!” What is this, the kindergarten playground?

What Legend of Kay lacks in riveting narrative it more than makes up for with its energetic atmosphere and diverse gameplay. Like any good action-platform hero, Kay has all the requisite skills needed to pounce through the game’s many beautiful environments, such as double jumping, climbing walls, swinging from poles, sliding down zip lines, and even swimming for short durations. (What’s this? A platformer where the player character doesn’t insta-die on first contact with water? How novel.) As an agile cat, Kay is also capable of greater acrobatics like somersaulting, wall hopping, and traversing balance beams. Amidst the game’s linear yet quite large stages, you’ll need to utilize each and every one of these abilities to avoid the various environmental pitfalls and obstacles Kay comes across, from whirlpools to spiked floors, swamp mud to crumbling platforms. There is plenty of reflex-intensive platforming to keep those analog stick thumbs a’ burning, along with an array of puzzles of the simple block and switch variety. The only downside is the game’s manual 3D camera, which does like to get hung up on the surroundings when attempting to pan the angle around Kay, thus causing occasional frustrations during the more challenging jumping sequences and combat encounters.

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On his grand quest, Kay must also complete various item fetch quests for NPC critters indigenous to the current environment in order to advance to the next — look forward to meeting all sorts of cute talking animals like adorable bunnies, panda bears, other cats, and even Rastafarian frogs, all who have fallen under the oppression of Shun and Tak’s rule. Along the way you’ll need to loot treasure chests and bust open pots and crates to collect heart containers and coins to buy various quick-use items (bombs, potions, etc) from a traveling merchant. The game even throws in boar, wolf, dragon, and boat racing mini-games, now with online leaderboards so you can compare your top completion times with other players.

The platforming and questing elements are on point, but in Legend of Kay it is the fluid and delightfully challenging combat system that reigns supreme. From armored bears, crocodiles, gorillas, and rats to spiders, bats, man-eating plants, and sai-wielding turtles, Kay is up against formidable foes every step of the way. Taking these enemies to task is where Legend of Kay truly shines. Kay has a basic arsenal of three upgradeable weapons to acquire over the course of the game–a sword, hammer, and pair of claws–and with them he can bust combos, rolling thrusts, somersault attacks, throw maneuvers, uppercuts, 360-degree sweeping attacks, and special magical powers. Each of the three weapons has its advantages and disadvantages to consider. With good speed, range, and base damage, the sword is the all-around weapon of choice you’ll use more often than not. The claws can be used while swimming and are deadly against unarmored foes (but useless against those that are armored). And the hammer, while slow to charge up for a swing, smashes cracked flooring to reveal hidden passages and is great at breaking enemy armor down to scrap metal.

Every weapon and tactic in Kay’s arsenal is important to learn, as even on Normal the game is more difficult than its cutesy appearance might suggest–and it only gets tougher if the difficulty is bumped up to Hard or Nightmare. Blocking and evading are crucial actions to master, primarily when it comes to keeping an all-important combo alive. As enemies are defeated a combo counter begins to increase, and as it grows by killing other enemies in quick succession Kay’s attacks actually grow increasingly powerful. When Combo Mode is activated, Kay is able to quickly whip back and forth between surrounding enemies, almost like Batman from the Arkham games. Aerial foes can be taken out without Kay having to touch the ground a single time. Chain striking airborne Zhongs (they’re like floating bells) allows Kay to zip through the air to reach high ledges or floating items. Some treasure chests even have locks that can only be cracked after the combo multiplier is elevated to a certain number. Unlike a lot of combat-oriented games where stringing attacks together is simply a means to increase a high score or battle ranking, this game’s combo mechanic has a direct impact on gameplay, while also lending combat an acrobatic flair that controls with smooth response and fits right at home with the Kung Fu martial arts theme.

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The combo mechanic does also tie in with a persistent scoring system by which points are earned as items are collected and enemies are defeated. By gathering colored crystals found throughout the game world, a score multiplier begins to build for every five crystals of one color you collect. By collecting a stockpile of like-colored crystals immediately before engaging the enemy, the increased multiplier will result in a higher point total once the opposition has been slain. Achieving certain score milestones in each stage unlocks bonus content in the Extras menu, including galleries for viewing concept art, animated cutscenes, and 3D character renders, as well as a music player and access to replay the racing mini-games. Not everyone will be compelled to go back and hunt all of this stuff down, but when combined with the game’s 10 to 15 hour campaign (depending on how much of the side quests and collectibles is completed), there is substantial content and replay value.

Marrying a lot of different elements from hack and slash combat, 3D platformers, and action-adventure games like The Legend of Zelda, Legend of Kay is a joyful, long-lasting experience that not only withstands the test of time but also, thanks to an extensive visual revamp, elevates its stature as an underrated sleeper classic. Nordic Games and Kaiko have done splendid work bringing Legend of Kay back from obscurity, polishing a game that was great (and greatly underappreciated) 10 years ago into a true gem that hopefully won’t become immediately forgotten all over again.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Beautifully enhanced graphics breath new life into a 10-year-old game
+ Sizeable campaign plus a lot of side quests and unlockable extras
+ Everyone was Cat Fu fighting, those paws were fast as lightning (in other words the combat/combo system is a blast)

Cons:
– Kindergarten-quality acting and writing is tough to stomach
– Camera system goes a bit screwy sometimes

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PS4 and Wii U
Publisher: Nordic Games (originally published by Capcom)
Developer: Kaiko (originally developed by Neon Studios)
Release Date: 7/27/2015
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!