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Klonoa Is Fun, but Both Underdeveloped and Overwrought

Hello all,

I first played Klonoa: Door to Phantomile (henceforth referred to simply as Klonoa) more years ago than I remember. People who have played it will know that I'll say it was fun. More fun than its exterior belied. But even back then, not long past the afterglow, it didn't take long to forget until recently I came across it and decided to play it again. And now, though my general opinion on its funness hasn't changed, I think I can see why it wasn't more successful and, perhaps more importantly for our purposes, why it hasn't endured like many who play it today wonder after their first encounter with it.

Beauty in Simplicity

The best thing about Klonoa is its mechanical simplicity. You run. You jump. You effort-float. You inflate enemies. You throw enemies. The entire game is played with a total of two action buttons, but combining Klonoa's skill set in different combinations yields a genuinely fun means of traversing the stages. Pressing the jump button whilst holding an inflated enemy allows Klonoa to jump again, and pressing the inflate button whilst holding an enemy allows Klonoa to throw that enemy in one of four directions: left, right, into the camera, and away from the camera. This last bit is, in many ways, crucial to Klonoa's level design and charm, at least at first, but more on that later.

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Platformers, perhaps more than any other genre, live and die by their level design. When one is running and jumping, the levels need to accommodate the character's abilities in a way that presents new ways of doing the same thing. Certainly, this is true for all game types, and I would argue that level design is the true unsung hero of the vast majority of classic games. But whereas, say, a shooter can present new challenge simply by means of increasing enemy count on the screen in that the presence of three enemies presents a different challenge than two enemies, a platformer must accommodate variety with a more deeply-designed layout; the presence of three platforms does not, in itself, present any more challenge than two platforms. And in this way, Klonoa understands itself, and, for the most part, succeeds in its vision (pun intended for those in the know).

Half a Dimension Yields Greater Depth

Klonoa, somewhat famously, occupies the so-called "2.5D" sub-genre of platformers. What this means for Klonoa is that while player movement is restricted to the two traditional 2D platformer axes, there are elements of gameplay that alternatingly invite and require the player to interact with stage elements on the Z axis. This is interesting in its own way, but the game eventually goes out of its way to demonstrate that its own best ideas in terms of its own mechanics are not beholden to this gimmick. Where Klonoa really leans on this 2.5D idea, though, is in the level layouts themselves.

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Whereas the depth-centric controls are at best fleetingly amusing and at worst frustratingly clunky, the levels themselves utilise this extra "half-dimension" to create intricate, winding levels that frequently delight with their self-feeding nature. Outside of boss battles, which all go out of their way to exploit the 2.5D gimmick to great effect, in terms of challenge, this extra dimension offers virtually nothing, at least as the game sits published. In this way, and not least because of its short length, the campaign feels undercooked, only revealing its best tricks as something of a "completion bonus". But in terms of atmosphere, it cooks with gas. Sometimes.

Building a Better Sonic (Sort of)

Klonoa is undeniably charming. Though the gameplay loop bears only the vaguest relation to Sonic, it evokes many of the same feelings the original Sonic games did, for better and for worse. Chief among these echoes is the afore-mentioned level design, which works very much to its favor. Less flatteringly, Klonoa also echoes Sonic's (more modern) proclivity for excessive (melo)drama and overwrought graphic design.

Klonoa has a story (gasp and amaze). Actually, it's not a bad story, per se — the villain is genuinely creepy, the heroes are genuinely lovable, the final beats are genuinely surprising and thought-provoking beyond the wiles of its target audience, and the whole thing has a storybook quality befitting its theme — but every aspect of its presentation is drenched in this miasma of subtractive self-importance. But that's nothing compared to the saccharin character design.

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In my opinion, the real reason this game failed to capture audiences (beyond its super short campaign) is its inability to wring a decent character design out of all of its obvious, desperate efforts to do so. The world of Klonoa suffers from a severe lack of identity, from its overcooked main character to the sticker book nature of its locales and denizens thereof. Ironically, this game would have benefited tremendously from having its stars spend considerably less time in the oven. Perhaps, in not having been in such desperate search for an audience, Klonoa might have found one.


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