With a skip and a hop, she's one cool Kaze!
It's not often that a new game can teleport you back to your childhood, when waking up early on a Saturday was the highlight of your week because it meant a few extra hours with your favorite game or TV show. I booted up Kaze and the Wild Masks after recently moving to a new apartment. Things were admittedly still somewhat chaotic in my life; living in and out of boxes had me dealing with unneeded stress and the walls surrounding me weren't feeling like home. Starting the first level gave me a sense of comfort and familiarity I hadn't experienced from a video game in a long time and immediately grounded me in warm nostalgia.
Platformers that make the jump to 3D while keeping the gameplay of their 2D entry before it often don't have the same tactile feeling as their predecessors. Similar to New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical freeze felt this way to me and I could never fully get into it. Kaze and the Wild Masks developed by PixelHive and published by Soedesco apes (pun intended) much of what the 2D Donkey Kong Country games had done in the past and I'm entirely thankful for it.
Kaze and the Wild Masks is structured much like these ‘90s platforming classics. There are a total of four worlds that have six to nine levels in each. Within them, you'll be collecting a series of items: red gems, green gems, as well as letters. You might have guessed it but you'll be picking up the letters K-A-Z-E much like the K-O-N-G letters from the DKC games. You collect green gems by finding secret levels twice per stage, some of which are very well hidden. Collecting 100 red gems in any stage gives you a completion gem for your efforts.
More often than not in collection-heavy games, the reward is in the completionist mentality. That never sits well in my opinion, and thankfully PixelHive has cleverly tied unlockables to each of the different gem types. The Yellow gem (which you receive after collecting K-A-Z-E) unlocks a different piece of art that details the origin of the masks as well as the game's main antagonist. Green gems unlock a (painfully difficult) bonus stage in each world. And the Red supposedly unlocks more content beyond the last boss should you collect every red gem in the game. To put that into perspective, I finished the game with only 7/31 red gems. No easy feat.
As mentioned, if you've played any game in the Donkey Kong Country series, you'll immediately recognize the control scheme. Kaze herself controls very similarly to Dixie Kong. She has a spin attack move that can be done on the ground, a ground pound from mid-air, a jump, a and glide where Kaze spins her bunny ears to extend the distance of the jump with additional flight control. She can even grab pots similarly to the Kong kin and throw them at enemies to break them. Don't let familiar controls lull you into a false sense of security during the opening levels as it did me, though. Warner Brothers, if you're ever looking for additional reference material for a strong anthropomorphic rabbit, here it is: Kaze and the Wild Masks is no pushover. You have a two-hit maximum, checkpoints are spread within each level, but often far apart. Thankfully death doesn't carry much weight other than that of your own failure as you get teleported back to your previous checkpoint. Additionally, should you take a hit there are heart pickups to refill that extra hit buffer scattered throughout the stage.
As you attempt to survive the onslaught of evil, transformed vegetables that make up your primary opposition, you'll eventually come across one of the title's aforementioned masks. Mimicking the feeling of finding animal buddies in the Donkey Kong titles, these consist of Eagle, Shark, Reptile, and Tiger, each of them bestowing additional animalistic powers to Kaze. Most function as you would assume. The Eagle Mask gives you the ability to fly through the air by flapping your wings with the jump button as well as arming you with an arcing projectile. The Shark mask gives you additional abilities in the game's water sections, allowing you to torpedo yourself through the water as well as giving you the ability to swim. The more unique masks are the Tiger and Reptile; The Tiger mask gives you a dash attack and the ability to climb walls. The Reptile mask is bestowed for on rails portions of the game. Similar to the mine cart levels of DKC, you continuously move forward but gain the ability to perform a double jump as well as a dive technique. These four masks do a great job to provide means of level traversal that instantly feels familiar and offers a nice mix up to the level pacing, with the Tiger mask being my personal favorite thanks to the additional platforming challenge it gave to many levels. I do wish that Kaze and the Wild Masks went the extra mile to differentiate itself in its level design, however. Each stage often acts as a wonderful clone to past games, but it does suffer from playing too close to those inspirations. At times it felt lacking in too many unique ideas of its own.
At the end of each world, you'll be presented with some very traditional and fun challenges to be found with the game's boss battles. All are three-hits-to-kill affairs, but here is when the game's movement (and sometimes mask) mechanics shine. Dodging sometimes close to bullet-hell levels of screen clutter is just one obstacle. It's a shame that there are only four boss battles in the main game as taking one down is an incredibly rewarding experience.
Presentation is a strong suit for Kaze and the Wild Masks, a veritable cornucopia for the eyes and ears. The animated intro sets the stage well when a friend sacrifices themself to save Kaze and small animatics bookend each world. Stage environments are varied if not a little cliche, ranging from your jungle, ice, poison, and lava aesthetics, but the enemy designs are hilarious. Evil vegetables are after you and their designs are some of the most fun I've seen. I found myself delighted to jump on the head of the vacant looking eggplant or projectile corn and hearing the death cries of my fallen foe. There were a few instances where some of the game's art direction, specifically in its lighting made for some frustration, where the glow of toxins or lava would muddle what sections of the stage I could interact with. While this did cause a few headaches, thankfully it was a rare occurrence. Overall it's a strong package visually, and the only knock against it is that there are sections of the game with very noticeable slow-down. Particularly in the underwater sections and most obviously in the game's final battle. Fortunately, it was noticeable but not game-breaking. The game's music also does a fantastic job of evoking the era and fits with the game's overall aesthetic perfectly.
When all is said and done and you've cleared the main story, which altogether should take you 8-10 hours depending on your skill level, online time trial leaderboards present another way to tackle each stage. With that and unearthing the game's secret levels, there's a lot of content to be found in Kaze and the Wild Masks. It’s a wonderful homage to games I loved in the past and came at a perfect time in my life, helping me get used to my new surroundings. I won't soon be forgetting my time spent with Kaze. If you're in the market for a new 2D platformer, you can't go wrong with harvesting the fruits of PixelHive and Soedesco’s labor, but maybe avoid the sinister-looking carrots.