Kalimba (formerly Project Totem) review

Posted on January 24, 2015 by Cam

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Mind-bending thinking (and frustration)

Co-op is always something fun to enjoy in a game – I’ve had endless fun with friends, whether it’s blowing up random cars in GTA Online, or using weird and wonderful weapons in Saints Row, each moment is hilarious and action-packed. Usually me and puzzle games don’t mix, but Kalimba is different. A stylish (exclusive to the Xbox One) puzzle-platformer created by the excellent minds behind Max: The Curse of Brotherhood, Kalimba falls under the category of angering but incredible.

Kalimba offers a co-op campaign as well as it’s vibrant, colourful and somewhat frustrating (in a good way, if that’s a thing) single-player campaign. In the co-op mode, teamwork is key, and you must work together to even pass the level. It’s a show of what co-op campaigns should be, where you’ll learn who your true friends are if they haven’t thrown an Xbox One controller at you 45 minutes into your game session. Although Max: The Curse of Brotherhood is created by Press Play, the same people who created Kalimba, they’re two very different games – Max being more narrative-driven where as Kalimba is about fun and frustration, and straight-forward gameplay, where your aim is to reach the end of the level by surpassing various different obstacles – and although the levels may seem short at first, as you get further and further into the game, levels feel like a lifetime as you attempt to get past incredibly hard puzzles, which have your brain thinking for a while until you can eventually understand it completely.

In the single-player campaign (titled “Spiritual Journey”), you control both characters, with the “X” button on your controller swapping your characters around to pass the colour-coded puzzles. Aside from that, the controls are quite basic, with the left analogue stick being to move, and “A” being to jump. Every time you complete a level in the single-player campaign, you get a “totem” with the idea being that you need to build a large totem pole to be able to get to the next area. The better you do in the level, such as collecting all the coins and/or not dying, the better totem you will get, with Log Totems being the worst and Golden Totems being the best. (I bet you can guess which totems I get all the time.) Controlling both characters is sometimes tricky, as Kalimba requires you to complete some platforming puzzles simultaneously and triggering mechanisms so you can pass to the next level segment.

In addition to this, the stacking mechanic also adds a lot of depth to the game and will be required many times throughout the wide variety of distinct levels Kalimba has to offer. This means that whenever the two totems are stacked on one another, it allows for your partner to make another leap after you have completed yours, essentially a double jump. Some parts in a level require the totems to be stacked in a specific way, such as the bottom totem (being green, for example) being able to walk through a green colour-coded puzzle while the purple totem is still on, protected.

As for the synchronization between the two totems moving at the same time, this does make the pace of the game suffer in itself, because of all the deaths you will receive because you were solely focused on one totem and didn’t notice the other purple totem was heading right towards that green colour-coded puzzle. Death, however, is your real companion in Kalimba, as you slowly but surely learn from your mistakes. But, pacing takes a real talk from death, because Press Play want you to keep trying at a puzzle until you understand it, and because of this, sometimes you’ll repeat level segments more than you want to.

As the game progresses, things start to get a little more trickier, as one power-up allows for you to switch up the gravity of your totems, meaning one of your totems will be attached to the ceiling, again making you reconsider Kalimba’s synchronization approach. That’s what makes Kalimba so wonderful and cruel. Just as you start to get into the flow, it makes you take a different approach, and it’s soul-crushing – exactly what a puzzle game needs. This adds more irritation to the game and makes you approach mechanical conventions differently, and in some ways, that’s exactly what Kalimba needed.


Kalimba really starts to get difficult nearer to the end of the game, and that’s where it requires some mind-bending thinking. In the final levels of the game, for example, you’ll have to use a large totem to assist it’s smaller counterpart, and stay clear of instant kill areas. One of your totems will gain the ability to float and carry your partner to safety. It’s what makes Kalimba unique among many puzzle games, something which is difficult to pull off.

The couch co-op campaign (unfortunately the game doesn’t feature a online co-op) is a different thing entirely – it makes each player control a different set of a pair of totems, adding to the challenge once more. Painful deaths are added to the death counter, and if your friend hasn’t hit you with a Xbox One controller after completing one of the levels close to the end, then your friendship must be a one of a kind. Kalimba does have a generous checkpointing system, making the game a little easier, but it’s still a challenge. While Kalimba’s single-player campaign feels triumphant every time you complete one of Kalimba’s lengthy levels, the co-op campaign just doesn’t feel worth the frustration.

Kalimba is a lot more unforgiving than other platforming games on the Xbox One, such as Never Alone and Chariot, and those games are a lot more gentle. But in some ways, I love Kalimba for the exact reason that it provides a challenge, which most games aren’t providing currently. Kalimba is a polished and a game full of hilarious/fun moments, but most of the game you’ll find yourself tearing your hair out in frustration, asking yourself why you continue to play. Kalimba’s co-op campaign provides fun, but the real question is – is it worth and all the frustration? Likely not.

Download the game on Xbox One:



Available on: Xbox One [EXCLUSIVE]

Developed by: Press Play

Published by: Microsoft Studios (Press Play are an MS owned studio.)

Released: 17th December 2014. (Xbox One only.)

Price: £7.99/$11.99/€11.99


  • Affordable price tag with a fun single-player/co-op campaign.
  • Amazing mechanics that make you reconsider your strategy
  • In-depth game full of twists
  • Great/humorous dialogue


  • Sometimes not worth the frustration
  • A difficulty that can sometimes be questionable
  • Game suffers from slow pacing because of the deaths it wants you to have




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