The impossible Klonoa Review
The current consensus of Klonoa: Phantasy Reverie series is split into two distinct camps.
If you look at modern game critics, Klonoa Phantasy Reverie Series is a good – if not great – collection of two side scrollers that serves as a time capsule of the mascot platformer craze of the last 90s and early 2000s. Yet ask fans about this release, and you’ll hear nothing but profound enthusiasm for the two titles included in Phantasy Reverie Series. Sporting the widely sought-after “Overwhelming Positive” user score on Steam, many people go as far as to say Klonoa 2 is not just a fantastic title, but their favorite game of all time. Klonoa even begun trending on Twitter during Phantasy Reverie Series’ release with the hashtag #klonoasweep, a grassroots effort from Klonoa fans to promote this release and encourage people to buy it. This isn’t any mascot platformer, people love Klonoa.
I, myself, am one of those vocal fans that considers Klonoa 2 one of my favorite games of all time. While Phantasie Reverie Series does have a few blemishes, replaying these titles only reminded me of just how profoundly impactful these games continue to be in my life, even two decades later. Yet to convey just how important Klonoa is, I can’t just review Phantasie Reverie Series; I need to take you all the way back to when I first discovered these games when I was 12 years old.
Klonoa: Cute on the outside
Believe it or not, I actively resisted playing Klonoa 2 when I first saw it.
Having completely missed the first game, I remember being in a game store that had footage of Klonoa 2 playing on a kiosk. My dad asked me if I was interested in the game, saying he’d read great reviews for it in a magazine. Like many preteens at that age, I didn’t want anything to do with “cute” games anymore. I wanted gritty RPGs with heavy themes, shooters like Halo, or anything that seemed more mature or cool to play. I told my dad that I had no interest.
It wasn’t until months later that I was with a friend in a Movie Gallery (remember those?) looking for a game to rent for the weekend. He, for whatever reason, really liked Klonoa, even though I don’t think he had ever actually owned a copy of the first game. He actively convinced me to give Klonoa 2 a shot, which I begrudgingly accepted. “I’ve certainly rented worse looking games” I thought.
He must have saw the countenance on my face change once we took the game back to my place and I booted it up. The somber piano of the opening made way for a dark, moody atmosphere. The titular Klonoa, lost in the provocatively named “Sea of Tears,” as onlooking sky pirates alluding to grand plans. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all. And once the game started, I was surprised that Klonoa wasn’t an action game like I first thought. Instead of attacking or killing enemies, Klonoa picked up enemies to either throw at others or vault off to double-jump to tall ledges or out of reach items. It was immediately clever and fun, and the unique level design of the first stages had me in a trance.
“See! I told you this game would be good!” my friend told me as I played. Even after he went back to his house, I kept playing. There was something special about this game.
Unlike anything I ever played.
The further I went, the more Klonoa surprised me.
Games of this era typically involved collecting several elemental-themed MacGuffins that generally involved water, fire, and the usual cliches. Klonoa 2 seemed to use this typical trope, but the MacGuffins in question were based on Joy, Tranquility, Discord, and Indecision. “Huh… that’s weird” I thought to myself.
This led to level design that I had never seen before in a game. For example, one level begins in a carnival that starts with a few innocuous carnival games, only to morph into a haunted house halfway through with a complete change in music and aesthetic. Another level alternates between an underground industrial factory and a war-torn city on the surface. Even the more ordinary levels are elevated by spectacular music, ranging from bombastic big bands to calm serene tunes to energetic waltzes.
The gameplay mechanics continued to evolve in ways that exceeded my expectations. Levels began introducing new enemy types that turned many rooms into creative puzzles. Other levels pushed Klonoa’s double jump abilities to the limit by introducing wide chasms that Klonoa could only clear by grabbing and chaining several jumps together. In Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken, she describes a feeling video games give you called fiero, which occurs when you overcome a fair challenge. Klonoa 2 had me in a constant state of fiero.
As someone who had never been into puzzle games prior to this, Klonoa helped me ease into a genre of games that I love a lot to this day. Yet even that is not why I love Klonoa 2 so much. That comes from the game’s final act.
The Bell of Sorrow
I’m worried I won’t be able to describe how much I love the final act of Klonoa 2’s story.
After a fun snowboarding level featuring a bouncy rock song with Klonoa providing vocals in his imaginary language, the plot starts getting darker and more serious. You’re introduced to characters who are addicted to nostalgia and never want to create new memories. Shortcomings and insecurities come to the surface with the main characters. It’s dark, it’s sad, and for a game that looks so cheerful at first, it was totally unexpected.
The thing is, without spoiling the final act of the game, it’s not sad for the sake of being sad. By the end, you realize Klonoa 2 has a very specific message to convey to the player. One that’s typically reserved for teens and adults yet is distilled in such a way to be understandable for a child. For the first time in my life, a game made me cry. Not just some misty eyes, but full-on tears with my head buried in my hands.
Like many kids, my preteen years were hard. I was insecure. I started to have crushes on girls who didn’t like me back. Other kids found it easy to pick on me, calling me “gay” as an insult for not being as outwardly masculine as other boys my age. I remember standing in line to go to the school cafeteria, and a girl wanted me to lose my spot in line so she could be next to her friend. I didn’t want to move, so her and her friend proceeded to tease me and pick on me and call me names until I did. I went all the way to the back of the line with tears in my eyes, trying to make sure other kids didn’t see the look on my face. Those two girls cheered and gave each other a high five.
A new paradigm
Nowadays, phrases like “be a man” are heavily discouraged. But back in 2001, societal norms were much different. It was wrong for boys to have emotions. It was embarrassing that I had to ask my mom for help and talk to my teachers about what I was going through. No matter what anyone could tell me, I still felt so weak and insignificant. My childhood problems surely seem quaint now, but when your world is that small, it truly feels like there’s no hope for the future. Video games were always a welcome distraction, but they never struck at the heart of what I needed to hear at that age.
Klonoa 2 changed all that. It was the first game I ever played that told me it was okay to cry. Being sad doesn’t make you weak and burying your emotions won’t make you stronger. Even the depictions of sorrow rang so true with how I felt at my core. One theme song for a character very late into the game still has such a haunting, sorrowful quality that strikes me to this day. It conveys so much emptiness and sadness while also containing a glimmer of hope, like there’s a hand weakly reaching up to a light that it just can’t quite grasp. I listened to the track again for the first time in a few years when Phantasy Reverie Series was announced, and I told myself “this is what depression feels like.”
Most importantly, Klonoa 2 does not condescend with its moral. It treats its player with absolute respect despite keeping its surface level plot very simple to understand. Klonoa 2 took a risk in discussing the type of subjects that wouldn’t be in vogue for at least another decade, and it legitimately changed my life. My problems didn’t vanish overnight, and I was still riddled with insecurity, but I slowly began to stop doubting who I am so much. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to cry. There’s no need to bury your feelings anymore.
Like any dumb kid, I figured that since I had beaten Klonoa 2 already that there was no need to own my own copy. Remember, at the time, you only bought video games if you knew they would last you at least 20 hours. Even though I was so incredibly moved by the experience, surely I was done with it, right?
Would you believe I rented that same damn copy of Klonoa 2 three more times? Once I barely even played it, I just wanted to listen to the music again. Eventually Klonoa 2 was taken off the shelf, and I was left with talking about it online and downloading the OST to listen to. I had a gif of Klonoa as my avatar on online forums and everything. My love of Klonoa did fade a bit, until I started to reach my late teen years when I rediscovered clips of the game on YouTube. All the sudden, I started noticing details that escaped me as a kid. Themes like how one character is defined by relying on others, while her foil is defined by accepting no help at all, and the way those weaknesses play off each other to convey more depth than I ever could have realized.
Thankfully, I did eventually find a used copy of Klonoa 2 sitting at a GameStop, and replaying it in my early 20s still hit me like it did when I was a kid. Not to mention the Wii remake of the first Klonoa allowed me to see the plot of Klonoa 2 in a new context. Like clockwork, I’m replaying both console Klonoa games thanks to Phantasy Reverie Series, and now in my early 30s, I think I’ve finally grasped all the subtle nuances in Klonoa 2’s story. Something that would easily extend this review by twice its length if I tried to describe in full detail. What an incredibly special game.
What about Phantasy Reverie Series?
Hopefully I’ve conveyed just how special one of the two games in Phantasy Reverie Series is. And make no mistake, the first Klonoa also deserves admiration for what it achieves. But as a remaster, how does Phantasy Reveries Series hold up?
I’d say it’s mostly good. As hardcore fans have observed, the physics here are slightly off compared to the original titles. Enemy hitboxes seem smaller, and Klonoa’s wind bullet requires a bit more precision to use. Weirdly, this was a welcome change for someone like me who has played these games multiple times, and I’m not sure how jarring it would be to someone playing these titles for the first time. That said, this only became a problem in a couple sections, and there were no moments like the bridge level issues some people had in the Crash Bandicoot remasters.
The cutscenes could use a little more polish here. Certain tracks that would fade out in the original games instead loop awkwardly during some scenes, and more love could have been placed in some of the animations. Klonoa 2 has some moments that are technically faithful to the PS2 version but come off a bit awkward over 20 years later. The bloom-heavy visual style has also attracted some ire, but I think it’s fine. The bigger issue is that both Klonoa 1 and 2 were visually striking titles for their time periods, but Phantasy Reverie Series looks more like a mid-budget title by today’s standards. Technically it looks better, but it doesn’t convey the same “wow” factor the originals did for their time. And finally, the way textboxes work in Klonoa 2 is a little awkward. Text fades into the textbox in sync with the spoken dialogue in the original, which really drove the illusion that the gibberish being spoken was in fact a real language. Here, text is just pasted line-by-line in the textbox, with the first line being jarringly pushed up when the rest of the dialogue appears. This would occasionally force me to reread certain lines because I had lost my place
Fortunately, I’d consider these nitpicks in the grand scheme of things. The issues here are nothing compared to something like Sonic Origins. I do think there are missed opportunities in Phantasie Reverie Series. A harder difficulty is unlocked upon beating both games, but there seems to be no reward for completing it outside of the challenge for its own sake. I would have loved to see promotional material unlocked for clearing stages in a certain time limit or achieving other set conditions. Even the old terrible magazine ads that make Klonoa sound like an STD would have been acceptable.
Still, the underlying games included are reason alone to purchase Phantasy Reverie Series. Even if you play on easy mode, full clearing both games with 150 gems in each stage and all collectibles should provide enough meat on the bone for any gamer who enjoys sidescrollers. And in case I haven’t made it clear by now, Klonoa is not just any series. It is truly unique and truly special, it’s only a shame that more couldn’t have the same formative experience with these titles as I did when I was younger.
The future of Klonoa
For many fans, Phantasie Reverie Series is a last chance to show Namco that there’s an audience for these games. The only follow-ups Klonoa 2 ever recieved were a small spattering of handheld titles; clearly an effort to keep the series running at a lower budget. In many ways, Klonoa fits the sensibilities of the modern gaming landscape more than it did in the early 2000s, and I would love to see a new audience form for these special games.
At the same time, I can’t begrudge critics for not seeing what makes these games so special either. These stories are incredibly subtle, but they work best if you experienced them at a young age and discovered their deeper themes as you got older. For some critics, Klonoa 2 is a game that you can beat in 6 hours. For me, Klonoa 2 is a game I’ve spent 20 years to fully understand. Selling someone on that kind of an experience is hard, especially when hits like Celeste already exist today that aren’t afraid to discuss mental illness in a compassionate way. The spirit of Klonoa lives on, which ironically makes the games seem less noteworthy.
In the end, despite my profound love for the games in this collection, I can’t say you’ll love them as much as I did. Klonoa 2 changed my life for the better. Like Pedro Pascal describing Paddington 2 in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, it made me want to be a better man. I desperately want to share that experience with as many people as possible, but I understand that the time and place for that may have passed. In a best case scenario, I hope this rerelease helps those who grew up with Klonoa to share the magic with their kids when they’re at the age to hear what Klonoa has to say. It’s the type of story that any preteen deserves to appreciate and love.
If nothing else, just having access to these games again is a gift to me. I cried at the same points I always did, and I loved every minute of replaying these games. Like an old friend, Klonoa was here to lift me up again in a world that looks so bleak and hopeless any time you turn on the news. Depending on the sales of Phantasy Reverie Series, this may be the last time we see anything from this franchise. But if Klonoa has taught me anything, it’s that if I don’t forget the sadness of losing the things I hold dear, then I’ll never truly lose them.
So whatever the future holds, I’ll be okay. I’m just glad Klonoa could return at least one last time.