Reviewed by: Joe Wilcock
If your idea of Zen is tracing shapes whilst avoiding slug-like Daemons, Kanso is the winner's choice for you. If not, then at least the soothing, original score will relax you. "Inspired by the Zen calligraphy practice of Ensô", Kanso offffers a tranquil line drawing experience. The task is simple, draw around a shape in one smooth motion to complete the picture. It's as simple as it is elegant. Throughout the course of Kanso's whopping 320 levels, the mystery of equilibrium will reveal itself: It's not about the destination, it's about the journey. The end goal is peace, and Kanso hopes to guide you to this state of being.
The path to calmness isn't without its obstacles though. Daemons will restart your progress if touched so they must be avoided to complete the shape. They function similarly to Pac-Man ghosts, all with their own behaviour and patterns. Green slugs will follow your touch whilst blue slugs avoid it, for example. As progression is made on the drawing, time will advance depending on the speed of movement. So, the puzzles require you to learn the slug's patterns and manipulate time to manoeuvre your cursor from start to fifinish. It's the weirdest Pac-Man, SuperHot crossover I've ever played. Although, the similarities end with the aforementioned traits due to the linearity of the game.
Ensô might be a cathartic physical activity but it does not translate into a digital interactive medium. Instead, it puts a creative limitation on what could have been an interesting puzzle game. As Ensô is exclusively concerned with circles, Kanso's shapes are mostly circular and always point to point. I was expecting at least to see one branching path that would award me with a strategic advantage but it maintains its circular bias. I understand that the more complex Kanso is, the more of a game it becomes and I'm not sure if it wants to identify as such. Nevertheless, I am reviewing it as a game and I would have liked to have seen a Pretzel-like level even if it is blasphemous to Ensô enthusiasts.
With that said, Kanso perfectly and stylishly executes everything it sets out to accomplish. Without ever deviating from its format signifificantly, it genuinely captures a meditative rhythm and in doing so it manages to conjure up a pretty fun game too. The game's core is based on an extremely repetitive art form, thus Kanso can feel just as repetitive. Despite this, it somehow manages to avoid becoming mundane or tedious. For every level completed in one attempt, there will be another that will force you to engage and concentrate to beat it. Although the more complex puzzles seem difficult at first, brute forcing it through trial and error is usually a lot quicker than meticulously learning the Daemon's patterns.
It tries to mix things up with breathing exercises in the fifinal act of the game to no avail though as they serve as nothing more than a progression blockade. When you're in the zone the last thing you want is a level that forces you to stop playing and practice breathing. The only other annoying aspect is the fact that your fifinger will block your field of view. This is circumventable by bringing up a virtual touchpad below the shape, but this didn't feel in the spirit of Enso, nor is it a possibility in landscape mode. Aside from these small flaws, Kanso's gameplay fulfils all aspirations that a shape tracing, Zen experience could ever hope for.
Despite this, the gameplay is but a means to an end. Kanso truly excels in its graphics, UI and sound design as this is a bonafifide multi-sensory experience. Headphones are essential, and so too is the right frame of mind. I wasn't prepared to have a newfound love for heavily ink drawn circles upon completing this game, but I do now. It's no exaggeration to call this game beautiful, the art and animation collaborate perfectly to make for an extremely appealing visual adventure. In addition, there is over an hour of original music to be heard here which, when coupled with the sound effffects, are quite reminiscent of Journey. It works as ambient, soothing music but it isn't as memorable or catchy as Journey's, but maybe it was never trying to be.
For what Kanso is trying to be its execution is nearly flflawless. However, what Kanso is trying to be is a niche, quasi game that aims to relax you rather than entertain you. If transcendence isn't your modus operandi then Kanso will most likely bore you to tears. But, if you submit yourself to it, there can be some genuine meditative properties to be found within this title as well as an inadvertently fun puzzle game too.