Klonoa 2: Lunatea's Veil

Format: PlayStation 2
Published by: Namco
Based on: A billion other platformers, plus NiGHTS

Genre: 2.5D Platformer
Media: 1 DVD
Date: July 25, 2001

Ba daddi doo, Kloa.

Namco has it lucky. Due to their enormously successful cash cows such as Tekken, Ridge Racer and of course Pac-Man, they can afford to indulge themselves by catering to niche markets every once in a while. And it doesn't get much more niche than Klonoa, 1998's 2D/3D PlayStation platformer which starred a bizarre Warner Brothers-esque creature wearing a Pac-Man hat. Underproduced, undermarketed and undersold at a time when gamers tended to turn a jaundiced eye to any adventure that didn't fall under the auspices of "free-roaming 3D," the only thing that kept Klonoa from qualifying for "failure" status was the fact that it garnered surprisingly high marks from reviewers and positive word-of-mouth from the rare gamer who wasn't repulsed by the Ages 3-6 Only cover imagery. So as much as I can't stand the Tekken games, I owe them a debt of gratitude - without them, I'd never be playing Klonoa 2, a game which more or less follows in the footsteps of its predecessor - with a few significant differences, of course.

The first and most obvious change is that the graphics in Klonoa 2 are now completely polygonal and gloriously 3D. The gameplay is still effectively confined to a 2D plane and maneuvering our furry hero requires a mere two buttons and a D-pad, but the action is rife with sweeping camera pans and dramatic scenes to fool the less perceptive audience members into thinking that this is a completely modern adventure rather than the impressive-looking throwback to an era of simpler gaming that it is. Jet Grind Radio introduced the cel-shading style used here about a year ago; despite the fact that it's already a lame, tacky cliché thanks to dozens of lazy developers adopting the gimmick to save themselves some brainwork, Klonoa 2 manages to breathe a little integrity back into the cel-shading concept by being nothing short of breathtaking. I'm very happy to say that at long last, someone has rendered bitmap sprites obsolete - or at least as close as it will come to obsolete until Capcom manages to make a polygonal Street Fighter that looks as good as the hand-drawn graphics in Third Strike.

There are some other elements which distinguish Klonoa 2 from its predecessor as well, although sadly they're not quite as inspiring or positive as the graphical upgrade. First of all, the game possesses several ski/snow board levels. It's admittedly a personal bias, but I hate auto-scrolling minecart-style stages even more than I hate slippery ice levels. The original Klonoa did a nice job of circumventing or ignoring altogether the usual cliches of platform gaming, so it's disheartening to be forced to wade through a gimmick that was tiresome during the 16-bit era in the follow-up. These rapidly-paced levels also kill the dreamy, casual atmosphere the first game offered, which was one of its most appealing features. Although several of the levels (most notably the Mira-Mira stages) retain the surreal ambience of the first game, entirely too many areas abandon it in favor of clamorous rock/orchestra music and uninspired visual design. Most of the stages which stray from the original Klonoa's atmosphere also forego the brilliant, intricate level design that game was noted for, which is far more grievous an offense than simple visual monotony.

At this point I run the risk of derailing this review with that dour "It's not exactly like the first game!" attitude that sensible gamers everywhere hate, but bear with me. I'm annoyed not by Klonoa 2's failure to ape the original (never a good thing) but rather by the fact that it often eschews the spirit of its predecessor in favor of falling back on territory seen a million times in a million other games in the past decade and a half. Klonoa did its own thing (with a few nods to NiGHTS, of course) and it pains me to see the sequel settle for Donkey Kong Country levels of unoriginality glossed over by stellar visuals.

Perhaps the biggest failing in Klonoa 2 is that the game seems to be targeting a specific audience and loses a little integrity in the process. The first game was childlike, a bittersweet dream with a nightmarish villain and a youthful protagonist, whereas the sequel seems to be geared toward teens with its more ambiguous enemy, its misplaced moments of hesitant romance, and its hints of "extreme dood" attitude (Klonoa rides a snowboard and wears his hat rebelliously backwards now). But like Dr. Seuss' kid-oriented stories which possess a universal charm that endears them to adults as well, the first Klonoa was a game that cut across age demographics with faerie-tale-like earnestness. Klonoa 2? It comes off more as a Sweet Valley High sort of thing - it works for its target age, but no one else will find it quite as appealing as they would, say, a Star-Bellied Sneech.

Speaking of the ambiguous enemy, I personally had great difficulty getting worked up about someone who from the start was apparently hoping to accomplish something positive but simply didn't have much common sense about it. Compared to the enigmatic menace exuded by Phantomile's foe Ghadius, Leorina seems more like a single-minded simpleton whose problems could be solved with a vigorous slap and stern talking-to. The story does pick up towards the end (another similarity between sequel and original is that the later bits of the game are vastly more interesting than the early sections), but you'll be getting there not out of a personal desire to confront the terrible foe who must be defeated for the sake of the world but rather because it's a video game and getting to the end is what you're supposed to do. It should be noted that the trip is much longer and more challenging than most reviews might lead you to believe - while a few of the sixteen stages are retreads of earlier levels with a Scary Palette Swap, the areas are enormous and ultimately provide nearly twice as much play time as Klonoa did. The later levels are at times downright vicious in terms of difficulty - leading me to believe that anyone complaining about lack of length or challenge in this game either was playing the demo or has made the sadly common mistake of expecting a 2D platform to offer the longevity of an RPG.

The game really isn't as bad as my hyper-critical comments are making it sound. Klonoa 2 is easily one of the best, and best-looking, games on PlayStation 2, and the game is worth the price of admission for the phenomenal boss battles alone. Obviously it won't be outgunning Metal Gear Solid 2 for realism and attention to detail, and thank god for that. It's simple, fun and beautiful, which are traits often lacking in more complex or intricate games; while it lacks a bit in detail and length it's perfectly enjoyable while it lasts.

In light of the upcoming GBA chapter of the series, I can't help but get the impression that Namco would really like to turn Klonoa into a franchise, and I have to hope and pray that doesn't happen. What made the original game work so well - and an important element that shines through from time to time in this sequel as well - was the way the simple play mechanics were so cleverly manipulated to provide numerous challenging (yet logical and surmountable) puzzles. Unfortunately there's a finite limit on how much even Klonoa's near-genius designers can do with two-button commands, and some of the gimmicks start to seem a little stale towards the end of Klonoa 2. Nintendo keeps Mario fresh by trotting him out for a franchise update only once or twice per hardware generation, and if Namco really respects this particular creation they'll do the same. I'd be a very sad old geezer indeed if Klonoa turns into the next Tomb Raider or Army Men franchise.

But it's appallingly stupid to rate a game based on how its sequels may or may not be treated, so based on what Namco has given us with Klonoa 2 I'll give it a free pass.

It may not be as charming as the original, but growing pains are natural for any maturing young man (er, cat-thing). And I have to admit, the visual overhaul really does a great deal to ameliorate the story and gameplay shortcomings this one time - although I realize that in saying so I've permanently doomed myself to be forever remembered as a shallow graphics whore. Ah well. Just give me a copy of this game and for a few hours at least I really couldn't give a wet slap about what the world at large thinks of me - and since escapism is what gaming is all about, I'd have to call Klonoa 2 a success.