Kimball O’Hara is a poor boy living in Lahore, in the Colonialist India of the 19th century. He’s the orphan of an Irish soldier and an Indian woman that just tries to make by on a day by day basis by begging food and sometimes making small tasks for the local horse trader/friend/British spy. One day, a Tibetan Lama comes to Lahore during his quest for enlightenment. Kim decides to join the man in his research of the Arrow River and becomes his disciple. During the path, Kim will discover much about his roots, about India at large and will find himself involved in conspiracies and schemes.
This is, in few words, the plot of Kim, a novel written by the Nobel Prize-winning English author Rudyard Kipling. Even considering the espionage aspects of the story, it is hard to imagine how a book about a poor kid following a priest in a religious pilgrimage would make a good game. Apparently, the guys at Secret Games Company had none of that because they made Kim into a video game that, despite its flaws, works brilliantly.
Kim is a charming and beautiful love letter to India and its countless cultures. It plays as an over the head procedurally generated open world survival sandbox game with RPG elements. There is no fixed goal to the game, which starts with the coming of the Lama to Lahore. From that moment, you have 999 days to explore India, talk to people and complete missions to your heart’s content. After that amount of time, Kim comes to age and leaves his life of wandering behind. That’s when the game presents you your final score.
Three years may seem a lot, but time flies fast in 19th century India. Just moving from one city to the next can require a month or so of walking depending on how you decide to travel. In colonialist India, you can either travel by foot or by train. Traveling by train is much faster but, of course, costs money. Traveling by foot is cheaper but it also is much slower and dangerous.
Kim has to manage both Health and Happiness. You’ll have to try to keep Kim’s health at an acceptable level or he’ll get sick and gain debuffs. You’ll also keep him well fed and that means that you’ll have to find food. The easiest way to get some food is to beg some from the merchants but not all of them are collaborative. If you’re with the Lama, begging becomes much easier because many people in India don’t want to cross a priest, even from a different religion. You can also buy food, of course, but money is something that is hard to obtain in Kim. Occasions to work for a month at a road construction or managing print machines for a newspaper will arise from time to time, but otherwise, you’ll have to be careful on what you spend your rupees on. In dire circumstances, you may be forced to steal from homes.
The other counter you’ll have to keep an eye on is Kim’s happiness. Kim’s horse trader friend calls him “Friend of all the World” for a reason. Kim adores talking with people, learning about everything in sight and seeing new places. Failing to do so, will make Kim depressed and will net him negative effects. In short, the best way to keep Kim happy is to be very curious about the world he is wandering.
Luckily, there are many NPCs Kim can talk with, and every one of them is different. Every NPC has a list of traits that will determine to an extent how the interaction with them will unfold. For example, a Hindu merchant with the “Zealot” trait will have a higher opinion of you if you’re wearing a Hindu attire. A higher opinion will net you better prices for his wares. At the same time, you may want to avoid buying from merchants with the “Greedy” trait unless you can’t do otherwise. NPC traits will not only determine their interactions with Kim but many other things. For example, if an NPC has the “Shortsighted” trait, he will be much easier to sneak past while people with the “Robust” trait will be harder to take down in a fight.
The world of Kim feels alive and interesting despite the fixed screen and over the head camera doesn’t allow you to see all that much. In almost every city you’ll find something to do and missions to complete. Some of those are straight from the novel (the aforementioned espionage and intrigues for example) and you will rarely find yourself with nothing to do. The other side of the coin is that many of said missions and quests tend to repeat, especially across multiple playthroughs. This is not to say that the game doesn’t have a good longevity. The procedural nature of the world ensures that it very much does. At the same time, even playing the second or third time you’ll start to notice the same lines of dialogue and missions as before. This may hinder replayability in the long run but at the same time, there are enough quests and places to make you always find something new.
We mentioned before that at the end of the given 999 days, the game will end and your score will be calculated. This score depends on your “Merit”. Merit points will be given to you by doing worthwhile activities like studying religious scriptures, completing a quest, acquiring information and, more in general, by being virtuous. Some merit, instead, will be taken away from you if you steal, assault and, in general, if you act in a detrimental way. There’s no impactful consequence of having a lot of merit aside from the end score and that’s a bit of a shame.
This is actually the thing that left some bitter in my mouth regarding Kim. The game has a lot of moving parts but most of them never seem to interact with each other. Completing missions rarely seem a big accomplishment. You complete your quest, obtain some merit and go on your merry way. It would be good to see some change in the world in response to Kim’s actions or decisions but this never seems to be the case. Even when Kim operates as a spy in some quests, you never manage to see the consequences of his actions. Kim mostly casts the player into the role of a mere observer.
Aesthetically, the world of Kim is wonderfully hand painted, with an old-timey style that really works with the overall atmosphere of the game. Sometimes you may encounter an NPC with a weirdly grainy portrait or some textures that overlap but it happened rarely in my playthrough. Given the vertical camera, it may appear hard to distinguish between characters and places. The palette and the sprites, though, make a great job of making obvious which is which. You will be able to distinguish a priest from a soldier at glance despite viewing little more than their heads.
The sound design beautifully contributes in creating the overall atmosphere of the game. The music is what you would expect from a game set in India and it’s overall enjoyable. The only problem is that the number of tracks is very limited. You’ll find yourself often listening to the same two or three tracks over and over, especially if you stay a lot of time in the same zone and it’s a shame.
At the end of the day, Kim is far from a perfect experience, but it does manage to successfully convey the sensations of Kipling’s novel. It’s a bit of a hit and miss situation. If it fails to meet your interest right away, there’s nothing that will make you change mind. If the game clicks with you, it will keep you hooked for hours with its simple charm and interesting storytelling.
Kim was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
Kim is a charming and enjoyable experience that successfully conveys the overall feeling and atmosphere of Kipling's novel. Despite being a little rough around the edges, the overall package that results is both interesting and fun to play.
- Aesthetically Pleasing
- Interesting Core Gameplay
- Verbose Dialogues
- Sometimes Repetitive