With each level you complete in Kalimba, another face is added to the totem pole on the level select screen, raising a towering record of your progress. Your monument may be one of shame, crude logs declaring to the world how you’ve scraped through, or of glory, shimmering decorations and even gold-plated visages telegraphing your triumph.
It’s the game’s motive force, a challenge that goads you to return to Kalimba’s offbeat platforming gauntlets, which in singleplayer are a bit like the videogame equivalent of trying to rub your abdomen and pat your head. Instead of messing with your proprioception, this game toys with your spatial awareness, asking you to guide two pieces of living totem to the goal in tandem. When one jumps, the other jumps too. When one runs right, both move right. Levels frequently split both the pair and your focus, while coloured zones allow only the corresponding piece to pass through intact, with taps of X swapping the pair in space. To play Kalimba is to ride the fine line between challenged and overwhelmed as your brain scrabbles to stay on top of two games at once, and Press Play does a fine job of prising your hemispheres progressively farther apart without the edifice clattering down in a mind-melting disaster.
You can’t afford to be a perfectionist, though. Gold trophies are reserved for those able to snatch every last collectible without a single death, yet Kalimba can feel too imprecise to impose such a demand. Several levels introduce inverted gravity, for instance, where one orientation of pieces causes your totems to fall towards centre screen and the other to its edges. But there’s a lag before the new force takes effect, a tiresome layer of uncertainty to master before you can perfect runs. The brain-bending nature of these challenges also has implications for the flow – you’re often better slowing down and planning than plunging ahead and reacting.
Being predicated on collaboration, it’s no surprise that the game comes together in co-op mode. Each player gets their own set of two like-coloured totems, and the need to talk introduces a syncopated rhythm to each level’s challenges. It also frees the designers to create large-scale puzzles of devastating ingenuity – creating a four-piece-tall tower that can wade safely through a coloured pool and then leap sequentially off each other to get the uppermost piece to new heights requires forethought, teamwork and timing.
If Kalimba’s pairing of single- and multiplayer doesn’t quite work in the same harmony, that isn’t to say that either is redundant. It’s just that there’s less motivation to persevere in erecting a monument to your skill when there’s no one around to see it.
Stacking totems reduces your mental workload and also lets you bounce the higher piece into the air. You soon have to learn how to land jumps on top of totems standing in coloured zones, a dicey feat of coordination