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bigsocrates

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After platinuming the Klonoa Phantasy Reverie Collection Klonoa 1 holds up well but Klonoa 2 seems overrated

Klonoa is one of those series that has always been on my “to play” list but I never got around to. I remember liking a demo for the first game on PS1 but I don’t think I ever picked it up because the price was never right. I knew the remake and sequel both got good reviews on the PS2/Wii but like a lot of people I just wasn’t that into the idea of a short 2.5D platformer during those generations. Paying full price for even a very good 4 hour 2D platformer seemed like a bad value when the likes of Jak & Daxter or Ratchet & Clank offered so much more to do and see, let alone games like the Grand Theft Auto series or Metal Gear Solid 2/3.

I did pick up the PS1 version of Klonoa as a PS3 digital game and played through some of it, finding it mostly enjoyable, but other than that I didn’t go further with the series until the Phantasy Reverie collection released. I waited for a price drop and dove in, and over the last few months I played through both games and collected enough to get the platinum trophy in the collection (which doesn’t require doing absolutely everything in the games, like getting all gems or beating them in hard mode.)

I won't lie, this font and that beautiful landscape does tickle my nostalgia nerve pretty hard even if I never played the full game back in the day. That demo was so good!
I won't lie, this font and that beautiful landscape does tickle my nostalgia nerve pretty hard even if I never played the full game back in the day. That demo was so good!

Before I start talking about the games themselves I’d like to note, as I often do, that I pretty regularly play games from around the era they were released in. I recently finished Ape Escape for the first time and I’ve played Sly Cooper and some PS2 Ratchet & Clank games (albeit on PS3) somewhat recently, so I’m going to be trying to think about the games in the context where they came out instead of comparing them to modern releases. Even something like Kirby: Star Allies (which is not as good as either Klonoa game) has a lot of quality of life features and bonus stuff that didn’t exist in Klonoa’s time and it’s not fair to ding the games for lacking that stuff. If there were a modern Klonoa game, even another 2D platformer, it would be very different in a lot of ways, so I’m trying to view them as products of their time.

It’s also worth noting that the remakes on PS5 look way worse than the PS2/Wii versions, which had thick black outlines and much better lighting that made the games look cartoony. The new versions have some background elements and additional texture details in some places, but they look blown out and very badly lighted in comparison and lose a large degree of the graphical charm that the earlier games had. I’m not sure why Namco didn’t put in the time to recreate the lighting but I feel like this is about as bad a visual butchering as the “definitive” versions of the PS2 GTA games, though Klonoa doesn’t have the bugs and other issues those games do.

The first Klonoa game: Door to Phantomile, then, is a new port of a remake of a PS1 game, which is a lot of layers to dig through. The Wii game is very faithful in level design and mechanics to the PS1 game (which I have played somewhat recently) but swaps the kind of unique 2D characters in 3D levels look for an entirely polygonal graphics style that tries to stay cartoony. Whether you like it or not is, of course, a matter of personal preference. I think that the PS1 version has held up better just because it is more stylized and unusual but the Wii version at least attempted to preserve some of that, which the version I played does not.

The Phantasy Reverie series doesn't look terrible but it lacks the cartoonish charm of prior versions.
The Phantasy Reverie series doesn't look terrible but it lacks the cartoonish charm of prior versions.

Klonoa’s gameplay is built around 2.5D platforming with the gimmick being that Klonoa can grab and throw enemies or use them to double jump. This superficially resembles Super Mario Bros 2, but Klonoa leans even further in, with areas requiring you to use enemies to double jump to higher platforms or hit switches or items in the foreground and background. There are also some specialized enemies that allow you to float for a short time while holding them or have other effects, and armored enemies that you can’t grab until you’ve knocked their armor off with another enemy. In later levels Klonoa often requires you to grab and jump off a succession of enemies to get across gaps, especially if you’re trying to pick up optional collectables. Klonoa, who is some kind of cat-like creature, can also flutter with his long ears, allowing you to hover in place for a bit or glide for a little more length on a jump.

It's worth taking a moment to talk about Klonoa’s story, which is not something I say often about a platformer. Klonoa definitely took advantage of the PlayStation’s storage capacity with an FMV intro and a lot of story sequences and cut scenes. While the actual story itself is just Japanese fantasy nonsense, much more about vibe than telling some kind of coherent story, the character relationships are fairly affecting. Klonoa has a famously melancholy ending and though I knew it was coming I still felt some of the impact. I don’t know if the choice to use nonsense language for the voices really did it for me but I understand why the story had so much impact at a time when most pure platformers were still sparse and simplistic in their storytelling. It at least manages to give Klonoa a real sense of atmosphere and adventure.

The first Klonoa holds up reasonably well even after all this time. It’s not a top tier platformer, but the appealing and whimsical visuals, excellent music, reasonably good level design, and fun bosses make for a pretty good package. The 2.5D game design, which comes through especially in the boss fights, which often incorporate elements of 3D such as running around a platform in the shape of a ring, or flinging enemies into the screen at the boss, was also somewhat novel upon release. The biggest downside, which I think is present both in the original and the remake, is a little bit of a lack of precision, especially in using your wind bullet (Klonoa’s short range projectile that he uses to grab enemies or hold on to grapple points) that can make some parts feel frustrating. Overall the game feels like it has a little bit too much momentum, which comes through especially strongly when you are grabbing an enemy to double jump off of while falling and often lose too much height between the grab and jump animations. The ear flutter mechanic covers for this somewhat and overall the game isn’t difficult (both games also reward you with extra lives if you die multiple times in the same place so I only got a couple game overs; and you can try the level again with 3 lives or go back to your last save if that happens) but it can be frustrating. Still it’s a charming adventure that shows how primarily 2D gameplay could still feel fresh and relevant on the PlayStation.

The beautiful stage selection screen shows that Klonoa 1 is something of a fairytale and it still works well.
The beautiful stage selection screen shows that Klonoa 1 is something of a fairytale and it still works well.

Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil has not aged nearly so well. This was a very well regarded game when it came out with a high Metacritic score. Giant Bomb’s own dearly missed Ryan Davis gave it an 89 on Gamespot and while I don’t always agree with Ryan he is one of the reviewers who I tended to find pretty reliable.

Klonoa 2 is very similar to Klonoa 1, especially the remake, so my issues with it are not really with the base gameplay mechanics but with two major differences between it and the first game. There’s a lot more story and a lot more puzzles.

Klonoa 1’s story was substantial for a 2D platformer but not overly obtrusive. It really focused on the relationship between Klonoa and Huepow, the spirit who lived in his ring, and while they met some other characters along the way it was a sweet and simple tale that didn’t get in the way. Klonoa 2 has a lot more story, with Klonoa’s sidekick Lolo having her own annoying sidekick dog, and Klonoa having a rival with her own annoying sidekick, and none of it is any good. The cut scenes are all very static and chatty, again with subtitled nonsense voices that are even more grating, and while they’re skippable that’s just not how I engage with games. The cut scenes really hurt the pacing (there are even entire locations that are only used for cut scenes) and I just did not care about the silly story at all. There’s also a last-minute twist that comes out of nowhere and had zero narrative impact. It’s just annoying.

But while the story can be skipped the puzzles can’t, and there are a lot of them. Klonoa 1 definitely had some puzzles, especially in the back third of the game, but it was primarily an action platformer. Klonoa 2 is more evenly balanced, and not to its benefit. There are several types of specialized puzzle enemies in the game including a special enemy that changes color and returns to you when it’s thrown into another enemy (and must be matched to a colored crystal to destroy it) and bomb type enemies that start a fuse after you throw them and then detonate after a set period of time (or if thrown into another enemy.) Puzzles primarily revolve around figuring out how to hit enough enemies to get the right color on the color changing enemy or throwing the bomb around and into the screen to either use it to double jump or blow up an obstruction.

Even when the puzzles are simple (wait on the elevator for the 'boomie' in the background to blow up and trigger the switch so you can carry the other one up) they can really kill the pacing of the game, especially if you mess up and have to do them over. There's a lot of waiting around in Klonoa 2.
Even when the puzzles are simple (wait on the elevator for the 'boomie' in the background to blow up and trigger the switch so you can carry the other one up) they can really kill the pacing of the game, especially if you mess up and have to do them over. There's a lot of waiting around in Klonoa 2.

These puzzles aren’t terrible but a lot of them require split second timing even after you figure them out, which can be frustrating, especially when there are several in one level. They really slow the pace down and amp up the feeling of imprecision. To be fair I was trying to collect all of the “Momet doll” collectables in the game, which requires solving extra puzzles and doing some more challenging platforming, but it still makes Klonoa 2 feel like a slower, more annoying, game than the first one.

On the bright side Klonoa 2 also has some snowboarding levels, which are a nice change of pace and even though they’re nothing special they added some welcome variety to the proceedings. When I got to the last level before the final boss and it turned out to be a snowboarding level I audibly said “oh thank god,” which shows just how tired I was of the later stage puzzle platforming but also how nicely the snowboarding levels changed things up.

Klonoa 2’s bosses are often a downgrade compared to 1, both in visual design and gameplay. While the snowboard stages themselves are pretty fun, some of the boss fights incorporate snowboarding much less successfully. The last boss is especially disappointing compared to Klonoa 1’s final boss fight, which was more complex and epic feeling. Klonoa 2’s final boss just feels like an anticlimactic, sloppy, fight in comparison.

Leptio the Flower Clown is a Klonoa 2 boss who is more similar to a boss from the first one, but most of them are even more straightforward.
Leptio the Flower Clown is a Klonoa 2 boss who is more similar to a boss from the first one, but most of them are even more straightforward.

Overall I just felt like Klonoa 2 was a little tedious. The issue with momentum and the windbullets is even more of an issue in the second game than the first and with a less emotionally affecting story and too many slow puzzle levels I struggled to complete it despite its sub 5 hour run time. In the end I burned out and had to take several lengthy breaks, including a full month between the penultimate boss and the last one. It’s not a bad game and I didn’t come away hating it, but when you’re expecting something special and you end up with something average it can be a serious disappointment.

I’ve spent some time thinking about why Ryan and other reviewers (his view is not an outlier) liked the game so much while I didn’t. Part of it is the mediocre port, which loses some of its charm. Part of it is my playing Klonoa 1 and 2 so close together, when they really would have benefited from at least a few months break between them. But I think a lot of it is the time and context of when it was released. It’s not that it has aged terribly (after all Klonoa 1 is even older) but rather than when Klonoa 2 came out it was on a system and at a time when there were virtually no 2D platformers being released except on handhelds. That made Klonoa 2 feel fresh and special, compared to today when not only are there dozens of high quality indie platformers but major franchises like Mario and Sonic continue to produce major 2D releases. Super Mario Bros. Wonder is one of the most anticipated games of the year and that’s something that would have been hard to imagine in the Gamecube era.

The pure platforming of Klonoa 2 was very rare in the era when it was released.
The pure platforming of Klonoa 2 was very rare in the era when it was released.

I think Klonoa 2 benefited a lot critically from the same circumstances that made it a commercial flop. It was a 2D platformer released for a system where nobody wanted those games. Handheld gaming would keep the 2D platformer alive until Xbox Live Arcade and PSN would provide a way for those games to be commercially viable on consoles again, and then New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Donkey Kong Country Returns would show that you could still make full price hits in the genre.

For me Klonoa 2 is closer to a 75 out of 100 than an 89. It’s not a bad game at all and I enjoyed most of it, but after finishing I wasn’t left with a burning desire for Namco to make a third entry. A release of the handheld games would be nice but we have plenty of platformers both new and old available now. While Klonoa: Door to Phantomile manages to remain a special adventure with a memorable story and ‘feel,’ Lunatea’s Veil outside of its context just feels like an average 2.5D platforming adventure. Klonoa as a character is fine but he’s not up there with the top mascots. I’m glad I played the Klonoa games, though I wish the ports looked more true to the originals. There’s something appropriate to Klonoa having appeared for a brief few years when platforming needed him and then leaving after the danger had passed, fading out of our world and leaving behind only memories.

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