Who asked for this?
Whether you’re a fan or not, HD re-releases of games are a thing now, but Legend of Kay Anniversary threw me for some kind of existential loop. I mean, in a world where we have upgrades or complete remakes of Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, Final Fantasy X, Silent Hill, and the upcoming Final Fantasy VII, who exactly was clamoring for this one? I risk poor editorial form here to ask the questions: How did this project get greenlit? What was the budget? What was the intention? Is this a cash grab, or does it have some kind of serious fan base I’ve never met? I’ll admit that I haven’t played or heard of every popular game, but thus far, every remake has registered in my mental video game database. Having now played this elusive gem, I find myself more baffled than before about how it came to be.
The story begins with a long yarn of how all peoples of this land lives together under The Way, some mystical world-regulating force. “Peoples” are defined as cats, rabbits, frogs, and pandas; all other animals are just jerks. In this day and age, The Way has been forgotten, and gorillas have conquered everyone with some help from rats and under the guise of ostensibly uniting the world under one protective banner. Appropriately, few people are happy about this, and it eventually falls on one cat to liberate everyone and restore peace.
It’s strange how lazy and dissonant the narrative is in this game, which had to have been focused towards pre-teens, given its petulant and unnecessarily aggressive main protagonist, the eponymous Kay. With the world united in its dislike of the gorillas and the rats, you’d think the game has a positive message about deriding colonialism. However, both the rabbits and the pandas are voiced with awful, overdone “Asian” accents while the frogs speak as if they are from the Caribbean. The rats sound like terrible Chinese stereotypes as well. So a story featuring an American-sounding cat saving a world of foreigners from other foreigners reasserts tired themes of American exceptionalism and white savior complexes. It’s not even subtle in its subtext.
And then there’s actually playing the game, which ranges from uninspiring to significantly frustrating. When not in combat, Kay is left to explore the levels in a simple platformer. He has a variety of navigation moves, such as double jumping, and all of them are marred by a truly terrible camera, which often decides it cannot be adjusted. Unlike fixed perspective 3D-ish games of old, this game doesn’t seem to make a decision until you need to depend on a reliable camera. Then it shifts as it pleases.
While exploring the fairly bland environments, Kay can smash pots to find absurdly abundant money, collect gems to increase his score, smash open cages to free animals, or find cat statues, which exist in every level and unlock something once all are discovered. Reaching different score thresholds unlocks movies and music but nothing useful in game. I never found myself deeply interested in exploring the world as it often felt empty and uninteresting. But at least doing so staved off the combat sections.
Kay is taught how to fight early on, and his moveset comprises a simple three-hit combo, a jumping smash strike, and a more impressive jumping smash strike. He can also roll around behind enemies to strike them or throw them. If the attack button is held long enough, he can perform a magic attack that’ll strip armor from all nearby foes, but the gang-piling battle tactics of the enemy AI ensures that this attack is absolutely burdensome to pull off in most instances. It could have been assigned to a button or part of a combo, yet that is sadly not the case.
Oddly enough, my use of the word “combo” is not in line with the game’s idea of it. By building a combo counter, Kay can become stronger and fly from enemy to enemy to hit them. Pulling off a combo to increase the counter is not simply a matter of performing a combo; instead, Kay must knock an enemy down and do a smash strike to register. Then, he can bounce from foe to foe, often looking a mess as enemies run around avoiding his hits altogether. It’s not too effective unless he can make some connections and build the counter. Kay also has some overly drawn-out battle animations that leave him vulnerable to being overwhelmed by groups of enemies. The experience is completely dissatisfying.
Thus far, I’ve only touched upon elements of the game which have remained the same since the original, but this being a remake, one might imagine that the graphics and sounds are a different experience. Nope. Having viewed side-by-side comparisons, I can honestly say that both games look functionally similar due to mostly flat textures, awkward animations, and stiff, low-fidelity models. The HD treatment seems to only serve to make textures shinier in a literal sense. Kay is quite reflective at times. Looking at my own cats, who are completely real and as HD as one can get, I realize that “shiny” is not a goal one should shoot for. Pair this with loathsome voice acting and a flat script, we’ve got the makings of a classic!
In order to maintain perspective, and sometimes to provide relief, while reviewing a game, I usually play another one concurrently. Coincidentally, my go-to game during this period was a remake, specifically Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, which was a from-the-ground-up redo of Abe’s Oddysee. I understand it’s completely different from Legend of Kay Anniversary and probably has a different audience entirely (in that is has one at all). But whereas New ‘n’ Tasty feels like a love letter to its origins, Legend of Kay feels confused and restricted by its source. I honestly feel that this game could’ve been actually re-made, brought into modern times, and been successful. As it is, though, it’s just further fodder for the anti-remake resistance.