“Kivi’s Underworld” review

by on Jan.23, 2013, under PC Game Reviews


Game: Kivi’s Underworld
Developer: Soldak Entertainment

2.5 llamas “Hack and Slash” without any addictive side-effects

When Kivi’s Underworld was released back in 2008, it was touted as a casual action RPG that could be experienced in short play sessions without requiring lengthy time commitments. While it is undoubtedly true that each of the thirty levels in this game can be completed in 15-30 minutes, I don’t believe I have ever found any game in this genre that “required” you to spend hours and hours incessantly playing. Even back in the late 90’s, the original Diablo allowed you to teleport back out to the safe haven of Tristan to allow you to execute the mandatory  post-caffeine consumption bio break most gamers require. At the end of the day, the only reason players immersed themselves in hour after hour of Diablo I and II, Fate and Titan Quest (to name but a few) is because those games were inherently designed to be as addictive as amphetamine-laced Tim-Tams. Developers understood that game elements like character building with skill trees and attributes, regular (and incrementally enhanced) loot drops and fast paced game-play was a near-perfect recipe to ensure gamers invested copious hours within these virtual worlds. Unfortunately, Steven Peeler’s (the designer at Soldak Entertainment) “bite sized gaming” solution to this problem was to develop an RPG with none of these addictive features present!

Before you can commence playing through a level, you are treated to a lengthy, disjointed and monotonously voice-acted narrative of Kivi’s world at that point in time. The plot is irrelevant, forgettable and even the level names look like they have been compiled by a random word generator. You can avoid several minutes of idle time by remembering the only two pertinent facts contained within Kivi’s thoughts:

  1. Kivi has a bat fetish (that’s the mammal, not the sporting equipment)
  2. Kivi’s friends are the most trusting and gullible side-kicks ever to be imagined within a fantasy video game.

The aforementioned lore is the primary plot mechanic to unlocking additional characters for replaying levels as you’ll regularly be asked to go rescue your absent minded colleagues from the clutches of your nefarious foes. Each character has only four basic statistics, however as soon as you apply points to an attribute (and there is no undo feature!) that point is applied to the attribute for ALL of the characters in that game. Difficulty is also locked once chosen, so if you want to try the game in a more challenging form, you will need to restart a fresh profile (and unlock all the additional characters once again). With only minimal differences between character classes (a single active and passive skill), there is also little incentive for replaying levels.

The only persistence between levels is in your overall score, gained by looting chests and killing the denizens of each map. Useful collectibles are restricted to power-ups which provide short term bonuses to combat or character skills. As you can only carry three at a time (and they cannot be dropped), management is restricted to triggering ones that you are already carrying in order to make space for a more desirable one. In any event, spamming your standard attacks at normal difficulty is almost guaranteed to deal with the set-pieces you will encounter, relegating power-up acquisition a moot point unless you are playing a hardcore game.

The most noticeable complaint I have with game play is the fact that everything moves just a bit too slowly. Watching ice shards track across the screen as you slowly move out of the line of fire is akin to experiencing “bullet time” moments from a first-person shooter. The timing issues also extend to recording mouse clicks during combat. This isn’t a click-fest by any sense of the word and you are constantly waiting for a sword swing to complete before you chose your next action and target. Perhaps this is another aspect of the “casual” mindset exhibited by the developers, but I strongly suggest that faster pacing within Kivi’s Underworld would have enhanced the core game considerably.

At the end of the day, this endeavour from Soldak Entertainment feels like an experiment; a departure from established RPG norms and a means of determining an appropriate future direction for their RPG franchise. While I couldn’t recommend the game to friends at the time (especially at the $20 price point), I have to remark that from an experimental perspective Kivi’s Underworld did provide the developers with experience and  a successful blueprint for their follow up endeavours. Din’s Curse (2010) and Drox Operative (2012) are undoubtedly two of the most immersive action RPGs currently in the market, and unquestionably Steven Peeler’s finest work to date. Kivi, however, is best left in the Underworld where he belongs.

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