STAFF REVIEW of Kombinera (Xbox One)

Monday, May 2, 2022.
by Peggy Doyle

Kombinera Box art As a gamer of a certain age, Atari was my first console - the Atari 2600 to be exact. I remember playing many games like Space Invaders, Asteroid, Pac Man, and my personal favourite, Pitfall. When I saw Kombinera pop up on the review list and it had Atari as the publisher, it put a huge smile to the face of this ‘classic’ gamer. Kombinera, from developer Graphite Lab, is a classic and straight forward puzzle platformer, a genre that is quickly becoming a favourite of mine. Describing itself as a brain bending puzzle platformer, let’s see if it delivered.

There is a story with Kombinera, but since I’m still not exactly sure what that story is (something about a king has fallen and you need to lead him back to get his kingdom in order) we will just ignore that and treat it like the puzzle game it looks like on the surface. The story really has very little to do with the gameplay and is only shown through brief, cute cutscenes between levels.

As you begin Kombinera there is a large screen warning about the potential to cause seizures, etc. This was a full screen in large print and required you to press a button to pass it. As someone who experiences sensitivity and headaches at times from games that have flashing lights, I started hesitantly, changed settings that I could and adjusted lighting in my room as I normally do to buffer any of these affects. I am happy to report that I had no sensitivity issues with the game. From the beginning of Kombinera it was obvious why this warning was there though, flashing retro lighting that Atari is famous for, also with lots of quick movement and bright colours in the game could definitely be an issue and I was happy to see they had the warning and took it seriously.

In Kombinera you control multiple balls simultaneously, finding a way to make them merge together is how you compete the levels. Seems simple enough, however, there are several obstacles and hazards you must navigate to make this happen. Simultaneous movement isn’t as easy as it seems either. Trying to determine how to get two balls on opposite sides of a screen to come together when they both move in the same direction means using the environment to your advantage. Now add in additional balls, hazards, blocks, spikes, lasers and anti gravity - it can become a bit mind boggling.

The controls are very easy to use and remember. The last thing you want in a puzzle game is super complicated controls when you’re trying to bend your brain as well. Left and Right on the D-Pad to move the balls. The 'A' button for a small jump and 'B' for a larger jump. Nice and simple, except when you forget that you have two different types of jumps and consistently die over and over and can’t figure out what you’re doing wrong. Maybe that’s just me though.

There are also multiple colours of balls in the game, each with their own ability. Red can roll over spikes without dying, yellow can break the yellow bricks and walls, green is invincible to the lasers and the white ones need to be protected from everything and anything, like fragile eggs. As you combine the coloured balls, their powers will also combine. This means that a red and yellow ball can now break yellow bricks and also be immune to spikes. Thankfully it maintains both colours, like a yellow ball with red outer ring, instead of turning to orange, so you can still see at a glance what the abilities are. Each ball is introduced in its own level, one additional colour at a time, so that you’re not overwhelmed and get to learn their abilities. They then become incorporated into some of the future puzzles. Slowly increasing the difficulty of the game kept the levels from getting immediately overwhelming.

The slow build of complexity also gave a nice feeling of accomplishment. The levels were mostly small, and while some were very easy, others gave a huge feeling of satisfaction when you managed to finally make that finicky dash or jump and passed the level after dying many times. Anti gravity throws another dynamic at you with balls on the ceiling and floor moving together. If you jump with these above one another, they can combine mid air if close enough. You really need to think what you are doing. Along with the combining of balls to complete the levels, there are also crowns to collect in some of them. They provide an extra level of difficulty. In the upper left corner of the screen you can see the amount of time you spent in a level, along with the target time to beat. There are achievements tied to beating times and collecting crowns for those that want a true challenge.

There are 300 levels in Kombinera and an undisclosed number of secret levels. I couldn’t even guess an average time to complete the game, as this will vary depending on your skill level. Atari has a discord where you can find help from other players if you are stuck though. I was stuck quite a few times, stopped, walked away, and came back to just happen to complete it on my first try after restarting. That seems to be common with puzzle games for me. You get frustrated because you make mistakes and then make more mistakes because you’re frustrated. Walk away, take a breather and come back to it.

There is no way to skip levels, so be patient and enjoy the ride (even if that ride is 30 minutes on one level). While some people will enjoy the intense difficulty of the game, it can be incredibly frustrating to others, like myself. I would have appreciated a hint system or the ability to skip a level after failing a certain number of times. Let me skip that level and come back to it. I am currently stuck on a level and not sure if I will get past it anytime soon. I have been looking for hints but haven’t found something yet. This likely means I am making it overly complicated for myself, but that’s the way puzzle games are sometimes.

Kombinera is pure retro magic, undeniably Atari, and every bit feeling like the games of my ‘good old days’. Bright colours on black and white backgrounds, the classic retro music, I instantly felt like I was back playing the old school games of the 80's with my little brother. The difficulty was not consistent however, and at times really frustrating. The controls often felt too ‘floaty’ when they really needed crisp reaction to navigate some of the puzzle levels. I’ve often heard the term ‘rage platformer’ used for some old school games, and I think Kombinera could absolutely fit the bill. If you like puzzles and platformers, and don’t mind a bit of frustration while working towards your rewards, pick up this retro feeling gem.

**Kombinera was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 7.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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