Roughly five years ago, Kao the Kangaroo first appeared in his own 3D adventure game on Sega's ill-fated Dreamcast console. It wasn't a groundbreaking effort by any stretch, but the easygoing run-and-jump design and charming characters made Kao (pronounced "K-O") a worthwhile pickup for anyone seeking a weekend of lighthearted fun. The same holds true of the boxing marsupial's latest adventure, a budget-priced disc that's available for the GameCube, Xbox, and PlayStation 2 consoles, as well as for Sony's PlayStation Portable handheld.
On consoles, Kao's latest is called Kao the Kangaroo Round 2. On the PSP, it's called Kao Challengers. The difference in the titles primarily reflects the fact that the PSP disc contains multiplayer combat and race modes that aren't found in the console versions of the game, although there are also four additional levels tacked onto its single-player mode as well. Those extras notwithstanding, all four versions of the game offer roughly the same single-player experience, which spans 20-some-odd levels spread throughout six worlds.
As the story goes, the evil hunter Barnaba, whom Kao defeated in the previous game, has returned once again with his henchmen to imprison the planet's animals and suck the Earth dry of its resources. Kao is one of the first critters rounded up by the pirates in Barnaba's service, but, thanks to some timely help from a clumsy parrot, he's also the first one set free. After stepping off the boat, Kao finds himself in the dark docks, which act as a hub for the six worlds that he must visit. Each world follows the typical adventure game layout, consisting of three or four large levels followed by a boss battle at the end.
There's nothing particularly special or noteworthy about how the game works. It's enjoyable, but it sticks fairly close to the typical 3D platforming formula. The main goal in each level is simply to reach the end, which usually involves jumping between numerous platforms, triggering a few switches, and getting rid of any enemies you encounter using Kao's attacks. Kao has a good arsenal of moves. At the touch of a button, you can make him jump, punch, roll, tail-whip, butt-stomp, or toss a boomerang. Furthermore, each of his moves can be upgraded by collecting the stars that are scattered generously throughout each level. Interactive objects, like springboards and overhead rope bridges, also give you something else to do besides running and jumping. Certain portions of the game are tricky, especially the chase sequences where you only have a split second to jump over the obstacles that appear, but, on the whole, the difficulty is rather lenient. Enemies are never too plentiful and the jumps are never too cruel. Should Kao fall into deep water or run out of health, the worst that'll happen is you'll have to restart from the last checkpoint you passed.
Thankfully, there's much more to do in Kao 2 besides jumping and punching. Scripted story scenes happen frequently to set up environmental calamities, chase sequences, and boss battles. Each level usually includes one or two interactive spots, where you can do things like knock down trees or resituate frozen blocks in order to create new walkways. Some levels contain weapons, such as heavy nuts or the flamethrower, which you can use to trigger switches or mow down enemies. Many levels also put Kao behind the controls of a vehicle for a portion of the stage. Early in the game, this involves solo excursions in a pontoon boat or atop a snowboard. Eventually, you'll find yourself racing against enemies, first in a speedboat and later strapped to a rocket. Although Kao's latest adventure doesn't break any new ground, it definitely manages to stay lively.
Backgrounds and characters are lively and vibrant too, although they're also rather generic and don't tax the graphical horsepower of any of the systems the game has been published for. You've got your stereotypical jungle, arctic, volcanic, aquatic, and pirate ship settings, along with an equally stereotypical selection of enemies, such as bees, cannibalistic plants, hunters, demons, Vikings, and so on. The graphics are sufficiently sharp, however, and there is a good amount of activity in the environment, between the various weather effects and all of the breakable objects that can be smashed. Draw distance is also excellent, to the extent that you can usually spot any hazards far off in the distance long before you encounter them up close. The camera doesn't always choose the best vantage point, but that generally isn't a problem, since you can usually position the view anyway you like using the right analog stick, or, in the PSP's case, the directional pad. During chase sequences, though, the camera is fixed, which means you may miss a jump here and there because an unforeseen surprise has snuck up on you. While initially frustrating, the infinite number of continues makes those infrequent camera-caused deaths easy to tolerate.
Audio, as well, is lively yet generic. There is a wealth of different animal noises, comical sound effects, and environmental background noises, though nothing stands out as particularly unique or memorable. The spoken voice acting during dialogue scenes is charming and mildly amusing, and the voice actors deliver their lines with reasonable flair. Background music consists mainly of upbeat rhythms and circus tracks that suit the game's personality.
The game's biggest shortcoming is its lasting value, or lack thereof. Most players, no matter how young, will complete the story mode in five hours, tops. Once finished, there's really no incentive to continue playing or to restart, because, even though the game is solidly put together, there's nothing about it that's interesting enough to warrant a return trip. Some people may be able to squeeze some extra play time out of the PSP version by taking advantage of its deathmatch combat and vehicle-race multiplayer modes. These modes are suitably raucous, but they're limited to local Wi-Fi play only, which means, practically speaking, you'll have to convince three friends to buy the game just so you'll have people to play with. Good luck with that.
All told, Kao's latest quest is a solid entry into the 3D adventure genre, even if it's not especially innovative or time-consuming. Younger players will get the most out of it, partly because of all the silly situations Kao gets into, but primarily because the game really isn't all that challenging. Nonetheless, players of all ages should be able to squeeze a satisfying weekend out of their purchase, which is roughly in line with expectations given the game's budget-friendly price.