For a game about discovering clarity, Kenshō takes a confusing approach. The sliding block puzzle game from Russian developer FIFTYTWO is now available on Steam after a mobile release late 2017. It is equal parts tranquil and so infuriating it left me shouting at the screen.

Screenshot of the level select screen in Kensho

Your robot pal beckons you to push more blocks around

Intrigue surrounds the serene yet dystopian setting. Each of the 11 doors leads to a different world and a new set of levels. The goal is to break the blocks containing key fragments, by matching it with two or more blocks of the same colour. Each level introduces a new mechanic to slow your progression and tease your brain.

It’s an Initial Insight or Awakening…

The visuals and the sound of Kenshō are stunning, and truly this is where the game shines. The most relaxing part of the game is simply sitting back and admiring the design. Each world has been thoroughly crafted, from the depths of the ocean through dense jungles.  Even the level selection space has been given a lot of attention and feels like a world in itself.

Kensho screenshot of blocks being broken on the forest level

The key is in the middle, but it’s not as easy as it seems to break it free

After the opening credits, a message appears saying “Oscar [Rydelius, sound designer] asks you to use headphones”. It’s a fair request as the music has incredible depth and range that it is really worth listening to. Each track crescendos in time with your progression through a level, and ‘Forgotten Jungle’ had an especially uplifting song accompanying it.

The game manages to achieve a surprising amount of depth and empathy towards its characters despite a lack of dialogue. For want of a better term, the main character is a floating cuboid robot, who experiences joy, sadness and everything in between as he discovers new creatures in the world. Each door will zap your robot friend for unknown reasons, and the empathetic response it invoked from me was very strong. “This must be a for a reason”, I thought. Alas, the further I got into the game the more disappointed I became.

…Not full Buddhahood

The first few levels of the game were fairly simple. I found it easy enough to play the odds on which space would randomly generate a new block. Each new mechanic had a clear and understandable set of rules, “this block only moves in one direction, this one doesn’t move at all” etc. But then all the elements that I would ascribe to a puzzle game fell away when the new mechanics started being random too. A block that randomly decides to stop moving, one that moves to a totally random square every now and again. These are the tropes of endless match-3 games and are infuriating when you’ve just worked out the perfect set of moves to finish a level to then have your fate decided by odds that you can’t sufficiently influence.

Kensho screenshot from a cutscene

#Philosophy #Meaningful #Deep

At this point my mindset had completely shifted. I went from idly enjoying the game to being enraged. Whether or not I could complete a level seemed completely random. Resetting an early level results in every coloured block will taking on a new colour and position. However, later ones have a set start position. Clearly the developers realised that if your key starts away from the end position the level is impossible. However, this didn’t stop them from loading future keys in random, equally impossible positions. Hence I found myself resetting the level each time I got a key as this was the quickest, most reliable way to advance through the game.

Still Seeking Enlightenment

One thing I noticed was in the small details, and it probably the thing that best sums up the game. When you break a block, it fractures and explodes, interacting with the other blocks as the pieces exit the screen. In a game obsessed with its visuals, it’s a nice detail.

The counterpart to this is the blocks themselves reflect the light of the level and can become very difficult to tell apart. I realised there was a colourblind mode in the options, so decided to try it out. Each block gained an embossed shape to help tell them apart…but they were inconsistent and didn’t match up. Hardly a useful feature. Points are offered for each block chain broken, but are utterly meaningless. 

Kensho screenshot demonstrating that the colour blind mode in the game shows inconsistent shapes

Don’t match diamonds with diamonds, match them with squares…

Kenshō seeks to offer a parable for the path to enlightenment, and it certainly makes it look enticing. There’s a lot here to find beautiful and moving, but scratch the surface and all is not as it seems. The gameplay needed more attention to it, because without it the game becomes close to broken. Maybe this should have been obvious to me from the outset when a third of the menu and the biggest icon in the game is given to a merchandise advertisement. All in all Kenshō feels unfinished, a good concept that doesn’t manager to deliver what it promises.