Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Gameboy Advance look: Klonoa Empire of Dreams

While there have been no shortage of Klonoa games released for various systems I can't help but feel that Namco doesn't make enough of them. Compared to the likes of Tekken or the Tales of .... franchise Klonoa's offerings seem almost meager. This is a shame cause while we have more than enough fighting games and action-RPGs that all play the same there should never be enough platformers.

Though the gameplay aspects shift ever so slightly between releases Klonoa is a puzzle-platformer series. Though there are enemies wandering around the various stages they are used to assist in the solving of puzzles of both the jumping and "switch-pulling" variety. While the consoles have seen more traditional takes on this genre(with lots of traditional aspects like pits and moving platforms) the handheld titles like Empire of Dreams are more focused on puzzle-solving(though there are a few exceptions).

In Klonoa's travels he arrives at a world where the Emperor won't allow anyone to dream. The ones that do dream turn into monsters and wreck havoc. Naturally it's up Klonoa and his pal to set things right. This is done over five worlds with seven stages each along with five bosses(though another final boss awaits at the end). Twenty-five of these stages play out in the same manner. In order to reach the exit Klonoa must collect three stars. To get to these stars requires a lot of switch-throwing, jumping around, finding various keys for locked doors, and figuring out the best way to use the various enemies wandering about. Five stages involve Klonoa surfing, gathering gems, and avoiding traps while the other five are completely auto-scrolling and require a heavier emphasis on platforming as well as gem-collecting.

Klonoa only has one tool to his name and that is his wind ring. The wind ring shoots a small close-range projectile that has a number of uses. Shooting an enemy with it causes it to inflate like a balloon and appear over Klonoa's head. From here Klonoa can throw it straight forward or use it to double-jump. Solving the levels will require frequent combinations of these two maneuvers. The ring can also flip switches, grab blocks, and even hold onto a few objects to help Klonoa progress. While jumping Klonoa can also hold the jump button a bit to flutter. This can be used for certain longer jumps or to slow falls but if used improperly can be quite dangerous. Klonoa has a health meter that can take three hits though during the auto-scrolling stages there are a couple ways he can die instantly. Extra lives are very frequent however and the stages feature numerous checkpoints so death never really sets the player back that much.

The level design is for the most part very linear. While there's quite a bit of back & forth movement your next step is always clear and there's nothing in the way of alternate paths and little in the way of hidden optional areas. Essentially once you solve the puzzles and gather all of the gems you have little reason to return to these levels(except maybe to complete them faster). The puzzles run the gamut of switch-pulling, block destroying, and object tossing and the game introduces new elements fairly often. It's standard fare as far as game progression but it works well enough.

As mentioned before the enemies do little more than wander around and are used for solving the levels above all else. They respawn infinitely so you can never get stuck and are usually placed where they are necessary. Some have special abilities(like some that can be used as bombs & aren't immediately destroyed when you throw them) but otherwise their usage and purpose is pretty singular. The bosses are about what can be expected. They have a variety of attacks and your goal is to toss regular enemies at them to do damage. Usually these bosses take on aspects you've seen in the levels so it's a good way to reinforce what the player has learned. They are all quite easy though.

One thing I really dislike about Empire of Dreams is that it's very clear there is an optimal path to completing each stage. What I mean is that every power-up location, every spot where an enemy awaits, and every switch, platform, or otherwise has been designed for one particular path. It's one thing to know what to expect when replaying a stage but half the time in Empire it's simply overkill. The way Klonoa and the levels are designed leave no room for variation and there are no special skills or abilities that can make the levels more challenging or enable more ways to play through them. 

Then again it's probably more likely that I simply don't care for the puzzle-platformer genre. I think a great platformer should have a substantial amount of replay value and give players multiple ways to get through each stage. Then again maybe I just haven't found the right game in the puzzle-platformer genre to really appreciate it. While Empire of Dreams has great mechanics and solid level design it's also mostly an easy ride and getting any real challenge out of it requires completing every stage and collecting every gem. Furthermore even if I go back to a previous stage there's nothing I can do to make the stage more interesting. Everything is designed in such a way that there's no variance or thrill to trying different things. Overall for being the only game available to me during a power outage it's not bad, it's just not something I would have bothered with under any other circumstances. 

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