Review / World of Keflings (XBLA)

So you know how in StarCraft you’re building a base and traversing a tech tree for the purpose of creating an army that will destroy your enemies? You know how that’s just one facet of the game and that there’s also the combat element where you have to order troops around and make sure they fight efficiently? Take that out and you have a part of A World of Keflings. Normally, if the StarCraft formula is distilled, it’s the combat and tactics that get elaborated on in oldies like Myth or new ones like Dawn of War II. Rarely does the building part get any focus. Here it does. Also routed out is any sense of urgency or tension. This is a laid back game where you assume the role of a giant who, through fear and awe, gets the small world of Keflings to do whatever you damn well want them to. The game is quite possibly the most laid back power trip you’re bound to encounter in gaming.

Things kick off in an icy realm where you’re frozen in a giant block of ice. The keflings of the town are just chipping away at said block when you burst out in what looks to be a sort of cutely frightening fury. A shot of the keflings themselves shows pure terror, fear, and probably a realization that there’s nowhere to go, because there aren’t many places you can even go as a giant. But anyway, as it turns out you’re an incredibly benevolent giant, and you’ll happily carry whatever crap a guy in an eskimo outfit says you should.

By the way, when I say “you,” that’s exactly what I mean. You’re controlling your avatar in this game. In an odd way, how ridiculous the game is is a direct function of how ridiculous your avatar looks. Having a giant decked out in Ezio’s cown and cloak from Assassin’s Creed II just makes the strange scenario all the more strange.

Anyway, so you’re out of the ice, the people are afraid of you but ask you to do stuff, and you have only two real choices at this point: do what they ask/tell you, or kick them around. If you’re fairly evaluating the situation, it’s unfair to judge those who go on a kicking spree. However, if you want to progress, you will build that fireplace, and then you will build that snow house. You do so by walking to the town’s work shed and marking which parts you want it to build. You then build this parts by placing them in the order as described on a blueprint you receive from the Eskim— er… Kefkimo (expect a lot of this wordplay). For example, the snow house would be an igloo with a porch right below it and some “custom” piece to the right of it, which will likely be the snowman that’s about ten feet away. Of course, for the work shed to make these things it will need resources. You can either chop up the ice and rock yourself, or you can pick up some keflings, drop them next to said resource, and have them start harvesting for you, then have another one pick up what they prepare and bring it to the shed.

This is the gist of the game right here. Pick up keflings and have them do stuff so that you can build stuff. As you build stuff you unlock access to building more and neater stuff. While a dragon pops in suggesting some issues for you to contend with as you slowly get this ice town on its feet, a push of an “emote” button to shoo it away quickly proves that this game has no tension to it whatsoever. No obstacle can ruin your town, and no choice you make will set you back majorly (except maybe where you place buildings being a little less productive than other locations). It’s all progress.

Eventually, you’re going to travel to other realms, like a foresty area, a regular green land where you help a dumb king and his ditzy princess fulfill dreams of having a full on castle and legitimate kingdom, complete with a witch (who is remarkably friendly), and even sandy deserts.

The idea that the game has no major tension working against you may be a downfall to some, but there’s something oddly relaxing about the game as well. There were several occasions where I’d just walk around the kingdom, all atwitter with busy keflings hustling and bustling with the jobs I had arbitrarily forced on them, and felt pretty good about getting it there from its humble beginnings as a work shed and a town hall. And from there I’d just keep going. I didn’t realize how engaged I was until I turned the game off and realized I was late for something or another. The span of the gameplay is like the feeling of hitting a great milestone in a Civilization game, but without the jealousy and envy of rivaling dynasties. I’ve never played it, but it might be the some thing that draws people to play Farmville so damn much.

There are some drawbacks, though. The presentation somewhat misses its mark of humorous and charming whimsy. Some of the keflings themselves, namely the ones who talk to you, have a way of being rather annoying. They speak what I can only guess is some alternate reality’s idea of the language spoken in The Sims, but about four octaves higher, and with a vocabulary spanning about eight different sounds, including the “hee” of their laugh. It can get a little grating, and goes a long way toward making the player not care at all about the thin story that moves you from location to location (Kefling: “Look at how awesome this giant is! Maybe he can help YOUR kingdom out too!”), or guide you toward specific tasks that will unlock other materials, buildings, etc. The payoff helps, but the keflings themselves don’t.

Also, the interface can make you miss the idea of just pointing and clicking on things in a traditional PC strategy game. Having to walk to every building or kefling you want to command gets tedious fast. I got excited when the witch offered me a potion that would speed up my movement, only to hardly notice any improvement. The lands can be pretty large, and when you really start to get a place growing out, getting things done only starts to take longer. As a result, you’ll probably also lose track of particulars like who’s collecting what and how many are doing what you need done. But because there’s no real urgency to anything in this game, it’s more a nuisance than a game breaker like it might be in another setting.

World of Keflings is the kind of game where you have to decide if you want a game with no Game Over screen. I never really got a sense of triumph, and at first that put me off to the game. I didn’t beat a boss, conquer a nation, win a race, or anything. I just kept building and commanding and developing these dumb squealy people into a proud-ish society. I suppose that’s a win in and of itself, but with nothing obstructing the path there, I felt more like the journey and process to get there was the real focus. The pace of that process was just steady enough to keep me playing, and it was rather nice to not worry about defeat and just play around. It’s different and maybe a little too harmless for its own good at times, but you might just get more carried away with it than you’d guess.

+ Power tripping on making people do whatever you want them to do
+ Watching a little town turn into a full on kingdom is surprisingly satisfying
+ Kicking those obnoxious Keflings

– The plot is rather thin, and the “character” keflings are overall annoying
– The slow pace might be off-putting for many
– Awkward “hands-on” interface can get annoying at times