Kalimba Review

Richard Walker

Kalimba is a curious beast. Originally known as 'Project Totem', Press Play – the team behind Max: The Curse of Brotherhood – has created a platformer unlike anything you're likely to have played before. Probably. You control two characters that move together in tandem, responding to the same inputs at the same time. It's a mind-bending task to coordinate from the off, and mastery over your diddy totem avatars on screen takes some doing. In all probability you'll die countless times during some of the game's more taxing moments, but you'll still push on through undaunted.

That's because Kalimba is so expertly designed that the old 'one more go' factor slaps you like a big wet fish in the face. Sometimes the checkpointing seems unfair, throwing you back to the beginning of a section you've just completed, but most of the time it just makes sense. Seldom can you fault the game for giving you short shrift. It's at the end of each level that the number of deaths you've accrued really stings, as the tokens you've collected towards the totem heads that act as your reward are reduced in quality, from glittering gold to a humble, yet unremarkable log.

This is the part where it's easy...

Wait. What are we talking about? How about a bit of background on Kalimba's story first? It's simple enough really. You play as a pair of mini animated totem characters each sporting a bold primary colour. A number of levels punctuated by bosses will take you from the Underworld to the Middleworld and ultimately to the Upperworld, and completing each level awards a head for your increasingly vertiginous totem pole. As you climb the totem, you'll get increasingly closer to a final showdown with an evil shaman, as you look to win back Kalimba island for the native Kalimbi tribe.

The colour of your two tiny totem characters is important, as are the various game mechanics that are introduced as you progress, explained at their most basic level by your guide, the laconic Hoebear. Beyond what the funky bear has to offer, there's very little in the way of handholding in Kalimba. You're effectively left to figure things out for yourself, which actually becomes part and parcel of the fun, as you look at the screen with a furrowed brow, before enjoying a super-satisfying 'eureka' moment.

You'll find that there becomes increasingly more of these, as Press Play introduces more and more new gameplay kinks into the platform jumping and problem solving journey you and your buddy embark upon. Things begin simply enough, as you leap over small hazards, but before long, you're switching between top and bottom characters, playing with gravity, changing sizes and being blast out of 'spirit cannons', only able to progress through areas that correspond to your character's colour. It gets very tough very quickly, but you can't beat the sense of gratification that comes with overcoming a particularly testing level.

...but it soon gets a lot harder.

By the time you reach the Upperworld, you'll be floating across huge gaps with little eagle feather wings, employing quick thinking and dexterity to avoid colour-coded enemies and bypassing colour-coded gateways. When some of the game's achievements are awarded for not dying, you'll soon realise that gaining the full 1000G is a feat that's beyond the reach of most mere mortals. Juggling two simultaneously controlled characters at once with the various puzzles and game mechanics that you need to always bear in mind, it's easy to get your brain twisted into knots trying to coordinate exactly what to do.

And ultimately, you'll have no one but yourself to blame for failure. Kalimba's gameplay is pitched perfectly and its puzzles and platforms are never anything but fair. It's your own shortcomings that'll give you cause to shout and swear at the screen when you can't overcome a particular section.

Some parts are exacerbated by the odd nasty checkpoint, as already mentioned, but these are thankfully few and far between. Besides, the real test comes in co-op mode, or rather the 'Companion Journey', where you team up with a friend and stretch your relationship to its limit. Perhaps even its breaking point.

In co-op, you each play as a pair of stackable totem buddies, one blue pair, one red pair. You're then tasked with communicating and working together to make your way through a separate array of co-op only levels. Like the single-player 'Spiritual Journey', the ultimate aim is to finish the entire thing without dying to build an all-golden totem pole, with an achievement for your efforts.

Surely the only way to do this is to have a co-op partner who can tap into your brain to form some sort of hive mind, otherwise it's a fantastically infuriating experience as you strive to stack your characters and defeat the challenges that each level poses. Forget any of the controversial video games out there. If there's anything that's going to result in murder, it's Kalimba's co-op mode.

Warning: co-op may make you want to kill your friends.

The solo campaign, local co-op mode and unlockable Metaspace challenges, Old Skool Mode (three lives, no continues) and Shorthanded Mode give Kalimba its longevity, but it's replaying levels to improve your score and position on the leaderboards that ought to keep you coming back for more. If you can cope with the emphasis on precision, timing and quest for total perfection, that is.

There's a load of lovely “worthless achievements” (as Hoebear calls them) on offer for completing every level without dying and beating every challenge. Yep, even in co-op mode. Good luck with that one. Most of Kalimba's achievements seem entirely unobtainable, with only the most patient and dextrous likely reaping the rewards. It's a fine list with good spread, but likely verging on the impossible for most. At least for ham-fisted players like me anyway.

Yet Kalimba is packed with charm, its unique 'trixelated' art-style (read: the visuals are comprised entirely of triangles) is endearing, and the game is at turns smart, fiendish and filled with innumerable moments of forehead-slapping triumph once you figure out the solution to a section that's been giving you grief. Press Play's latest is a rather short game if you simply rip through it from A to B, but should Kalimba gets its hooks into you, hours will whizz by as you strive towards perfection.

If it's an exacting and unforgiving platform game you seek that's full of clever twists, then Kalimba might just be it.


A bold and smart Xbox One indie platformer, Kalimba takes a simple and clever idea, transforming it into something that's equal parts tough and rewarding. Totem-ally worth a look.

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Plinky-plonky music that's unobtrusive, serving nicely as background to all of the platforming japes. It all sounds perfectly lovely, and Hoebear's a nicely-voiced character with a laconic charisma.


The so-called 'trixelated' art style gives Kalimba a unique look that's angular but aesthetically pleasing. With a palette of bold colours, it's a nice looking indie title.


Incredibly well thought out puzzles and some devilishly challenging stages make Kalimba a game that might look colourful and welcoming, but beneath the sunny veneer beats the heart of a platformer that takes no prisoners. It's hard, but oh-so satisfying to play.


As a straight up solo experience, Kalimba can seem like it comes up a little short. But once you factor in the unlockable modes, co-op stages and inherent replay value that high scores and leaderboards bring, there's a good, solid few hours in here. Plenty for your cash.


A decent list that ticks all of the boxes. The only thing that may turn you off is the almost impossible nature of some of the achievements. Completing the entire game without dying, for instance. Mental.

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