Full of charm and personality, Kine is a musically-inspired puzzler from primary developer Gwen Frey, who previously worked on franchises like Bioshock and The Flame in the Flood. It’s out now for Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC – we tested it on a PS4.
With a story about a dream to make it big in the music business, Kine focuses on a trio of musicians who also happen to be instruments themselves. There’s Roo, an accordion, who we meet first. Then there’s Quat, a drum, and after a while we meet Euler, a trombone. It could have been a setup for a comedy-filled classic adventure from the likes of Double Fine, but Kine is actually a puzzle game that just happens to have a narrative tucked in there somewhere. It’s mostly delivered through speed bubbles that let the characters speak out and converse with one another, and the banter is fun and light-hearted as the trio sets out for fame, find temp jobs to help survive, etc.
The actual gameplay is a grid-based puzzler though, in which your task in each level is to reach the objective grid with one of your instruments. In later levels, after they meet up, you’ll alternate between them – but only one has to reach the finish in order to beat the level. That’s easier said than done though, because Kine is one of the trickiest puzzlers I’ve played in quite a while. The main reason for that is that instruments, by their very nature, don’t move as easily as you’d expect….
Whether you’re playing as Roo, Quat or Euler, moving about isn’t as easy as just moving or rolling around the level. In addition to their main bodies, which are the size of an individual grid, all of our protagonists have their own ‘appendages’ as well. For Euler and Quat these involve their telescope-like sliding arms that slide from side to side, and Roo has her bellows and handles. All of these can be moved to help them transform and get around obstacles, but of course they also get in the way of fluid movement and can get them stuck as well. It’s hard to explain, but a trailer of the game is probably enough to get the point across.
Completing levels doesn’t just move you further into the (main) story, it also unlocks a lot of side quests. This isn’t just for narrative purposes (with the characters straying from the quest to head to the big stage for a little bit), but it also helps in making sure the game doesn’t come to a grinding halt too quickly. For at least quite a while, there’s always another level to play when you get stuck – and you will.
A big part of the challenge in Kine comes from how difficult it is to truly “grasp” how the characters move with any sort of fluidity. While playing, you have to constantly stop and think about what a move will do to your character. Rotating Roo will change the direction of her bellows, deflating the bellow will push out her handles. Extending one of Quat’s arms might push a block out of the way, blocking your path to the exit. It’s excellent from the perspective of a complex puzzler, but always feels a little counter-intuitive when the upbeat jazz soundtrack makes you want to keep moving along.
Kine’s visuals are fully realized in 3D, with a unique cell-shaded look to them that makes the game lovely to look at. You can also rotate the view around (either in 90 degree increments or freely) for a better view, though this is rarely needed until you hit the later levels in which careful planning becomes mandatory. The sound effects and soundtrack is surprisingly sparse when you consider the core theme behind the game, but the music does bop away nicely in the background – perhaps like what a small jazz band would provide during a dinner.
Although full of charm and definitely unique, Kine is perhaps a tad too quirky for its own good. I’ve been playing puzzlers for more than three decades and enjoyed Kine’s fresh take on the genre, but I could see others getting frustrated with how these characters are controlled. It may look like an arcade-like puzzler, but it’s more slow-paced and very much a thinking gamer’s kind of challenge. I still haven’t completed every single puzzle in the game, but will definitely go back to it.