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Review: Kandria

13 Jan 2023

Let me start with an anecdote: Kandria, on both its official website and right as the first thing on its Steam page, proudly boasts that the game has zero ability gating and you can go anywhere you want right from the start of the game. The same blurb expresses glee that finally, you will be free of backtracking and wandering around for hours looking for where it is you’re supposed to go. And that, to me, is very funny when I think about how much of my time in this game was spent trying to figure out where my next objective was.

It’s not really ha-ha funny.

That probably does not sound entirely positive, and perhaps puts you off on the wrong foot. This is, perhaps, the best mindset with which to start reading about Kandria, because this is a game that continually makes you think “ah, I know what this is, I’ve played this kind of video game” only for the game to shake its head and say “not so fast” before doing something distinctively different. Does that work?

Well, that’s what we’re going to find out. The game is out now for both PC and Linux, so follow along as you play; the PC version on Steam was played for this review.

Stranger in a Strange Droid

At the start of Kandria, you have very little idea of what’s going on beyond the basics. You are an android, you’ve been discovered and turned on by a girl named Catherine, and also apparently the world got completely blown up between your last shutdown and your current state. That’s not ideal. Also not ideal is that you need some repair and improvement because your memory is currently less than reliable.

Catherine, of course, is overjoyed that you work and doesn’t care about any of that, happily dubbing you “Stranger” while eagerly showing you off to the rest of her group of survivors. Said small group’s main other members are Jack and Fiona, with the former openly distrustful of you and the latter equally suspicious but also unwilling to overlook potential help. It seems that the group is under threat of attack by another scavenging group, looking for another suitable settlement point to no avail, and is dealing with failing crops.

Stranger thus begins helping out, earning trust, and hunting after a missing member of the group… only to find them with yet another settlement, this one much larger, and with their own overall agenda. And even though no one’s saying it, it’s clear to anyone playing with the slightest eye toward the story that everyone is purposely leaving out information because Stranger is useful… even though no one trusts her other than Catherine.

I hesitate to claim that every character in the game is particularly deep or novel, but what the vast majority of them are are interesting. A lot of heavy lifting is done with innuendo and implication; Fiona, for example, pretty clearly shares Jack’s distrust but also feels that Stranger offers her a unique advantage if she can convince the android to stick around. This is all coupled with Stranger’s observations of the ruins she’s exploring, with elements she recognizes well even as she lacks understanding of what brought the world to collapse.

And to my surprise, the game repeatedly throws curveballs in its narrative. You keep expecting to find someone new behaving in a certain way, to see a new group as your enemies, only to find that they are… distrustful, perhaps, but they have not been explained to you accurately and they’re also just trying to survive. The world did not start or stop with your arrival, and you’re trying to catch up on trust at the same time that you’re trying to figure out what’s going on.

Of course, that also means it’s a plot full of vague innuendo like some combination of Elden Ring, NieR: Automata, and Hollow Knight. You are either on board with this or not. I am on board.

Deep Underground

All right, so that introduction above wasn’t a joke. This game looks like a metroidvania title, and it kind of is, but it is also a game that starts you off with the movement abilities needed to get most anywhere right off the bat. This is in part a good thing, because it means that right away you can go wherever you want… and also a bad thing, because the map is large and if you don’t have a clear picture of where you’re supposed to be going, you can quickly find yourself just staring at the map and muttering “what in the actual hell am I supposed to be doing?”

See, Kandria is much more of a side-scrolling action RPG than it is a metroidvania, with a big platforming map to explore. But it also has elements of the latter genre in just its general design and aesthetic. It also has several sections wherein you have to use careful dashing and climbing to evade spikes, and getting hit by spikes is an automatic reset back to the last place where you stood on solid ground.

Stranger starts the game with a fair number of movement tools, though. For one thing, she has an eight-directional dash that allows her to cover a lot of ground quickly, although she needs to touch ground between each use (or break a specific kind of scenery object that recharges her dash in midair). She also can climb up walls with a small stamina bar, slide down them and wall-jump for free, and so forth. And she has an energy sword that reshapes into various other weapons as she attacks with a mixture of light and heavy attacks.

The game has tutorials for this, but they’re quick text popups and the combat tutorial in particular is mostly just a shrug with a suggestion to try different movements and directions held while attacking for different attacks. It feels a bit underexplained. Combat itself, fortunately, is pretty straightforward; enemies have reasonable health bars, your attacks have impact, and while most enemies take a few hits to take down they’re not horrible sponges.

However, there were a number of things that kept just feeling… off. The game has levels, but it’s not clear what each new level does. It was a surprisingly long time before I found out how to switch outfits, and the different outfits are not reflected in Stranger’s portrait while talking. Things perpetually feel underexplained, and that’s not even counting the aforementioned lack of navigational help and such. I constantly found myself wondering if I was supposed to be here or not, if this was the right choice, what was even happening.

But that’s… kind of a nice thing. Most games are, in large part, assembled from very familiar parts. If you’ve played a lot of video games, you know how they work and they either do a better or worse job of being precisely what they are. Kandria feels like it might be using familiar parts, but it’s arranged them in a novel way and the whole thing works. It feels exciting in a way that new games so rarely do. You break through the confusion and you find yourself on the other side unsure of how this is supposed to work but happy for the change just the same.

Pitch-Well Perfect

First and foremost, the music in this game is gorgeous. No qualifiers, this is one of the best video game soundtracks I’ve heard in a long while, at turns mournful and atmospheric, distinctive and comforting even as it drives the action forward. I was happy to just sit around and listen to the ambiance, and that’s very much to the game’s credit. It sounds wonderful.

The pixel art that makes up the game’s graphics, meanwhile, is a bit more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the artwork is astonishingly detailed for the environments, packing loads of character into every bit of environmental detail. I cannot praise the art style enough. And the character portraits in conversations are expressive and lovely. Heck, the animations of the sprites look gorgeous too!

Unfortunately, the way that the art is designed also makes it a bit harder to discern the difference between background objects and interactive ones, which can be a bit of a problem. It’s easy for enemies to be hard to see in gameplay, which just never feels good, and there are places where the foreground and background blend together a bit. Gorgeous graphics, but they don’t always let you pick out what you need to see and pay attention to.

Strange but Lovable

Even now I don’t know exactly how to describe Kandria. It’s not quite what it looks like, but it is perhaps built from those familiar parts in a different configuration. It’s a strange, awkward thing, and in many ways that might be the most appropriate possible feeling about this game; that it’s a game made to be strange and awkward, to try new things that may or may not ultimately work or pay off for players.

And it had a lot of moments of frustration for me, a lot of moments of confusion, times when it was totally unclear what the game wanted me to do, moments of strange behaviors and unclear expectations…

But all of that was tempered by the fact that through each bit of frustration, I wanted to see what was next. I wanted to see where this was going. Yeah, it’s kind of weird and kind of awkward, but all of those things are placed in the game in direct service to being a weird and awkward thing that is uniquely itself. And I cannot help but love the game for that and want it to do well, because darn it, I like games where I don’t feel I know exactly what they are within five minutes of picking up the controller.

So Kandria is a strange game, but there’s a value in the game being confusing, and weird, and gangly, and distinct. It’s unique in a lot of ways, and that uniqueness is well worth seeing for yourself if what I’ve been saying sounds remotely interesting to you.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Shirakumo Games for PC. All screenshots courtesy Shirakumo Games.