The long-forgotten platforming mascot’s debut adventure is a treat in the story and world-building departments, but the gameplay lacks a little to make it a classic.
World-building & Story
Klonoa has one of the most surprising and bizarre stories I’ve seen in a videogame – but in a good way, as it surpassed nearly all my expectations to tell a tale that is at times cute, at times emotional but always charming and unique.
You play as the titular character – a floppy-eared rabbit-like creature who lives in the wind village with his grandfather and an adorable floating ball of fluff named Huepow. After a nightmare where he sees an airship crash into a nearby mountain, he awakens to find this very event occurring – so heads on an adventure with Huepow which rapidly escalates into a plot to save the land itself.
What Door to Phantomile does well is effectively hide its true narrative beats until the end, allowing some of the final reveals to be completely surprising yet heart-wrenching at the same time. Without giving too much away, what first comes across as a traditional cutesy 2D platformer eventually gives way to something much deeper, that leaves you thinking about its true meaning long after you’ve finished playing – which is a very good thing.
Part of the way it achieves this is through its characters – despite its brief running time and relatively few cutscene, you really grow attached to the cast with Huepow in particular being one of my favourites and even side characters like Granny being likeable. Conversely, the bad guys are easy to hate – Joka constantly taunts you and commits some horrible acts, while Ghadius is suitably mysterious and menacing enough that you’ll want to take him down.
The world is brilliantly developed as well which helps add to the title’s enchanting nature – you’ll run through the treetops of Forlock and through the mysterious corridors of the moon Kingdom, each feeling bespoke and memorable featuring tonnes of interesting background elements. It feels coherent (yet at the same time, mysterious and trippy) and the kind of place you can get swept up in, which is absolutely what developers should be aiming for with a fantasy world.
Truly, Door to Phantomile shines brightest in the narrative and world department – for a 2D platformer it went far beyond what I’d come to expect but even not held up to this metric, it’s a fascinating story that’s well worth experiencing.
Presentation & Sound
Presenting its graphics in 2.5D style – a novelty at the time that has since become much more widely adopted – Door to Phantomile is a visually impressive title that has stood the test of time well thanks to smart character design and some gorgeous environments.
Klonoa’s design is probably my favourite thing of all – he’s a cute anthropomorphic cat-rabbit who comes across as the perfect platformer mascot, looking both adorable and cool at the same time. In general all the models from Kirby-esque enemies to his companion Huepow fall into the cutesy category which is no bad thing, especially since you can use Klonoa’s wind bullet to inflate the enemies making them humorously full of air too.
The main thing you’ll need to get used to with the presentation is the perspective – 2.5D allows things like background elements to be seen while Klonoa goes around each level, which provides a fascinating level of immersion as you view enemy patrols or areas you’ll head to later on. It can also cause some problems too – the camera often struggles to keep up and can sometimes obscure your view of upcoming jumps discouraging you from running through and encouraging you to slowly tiptoe around, which may be a purposeful choice but seems more like an oversight.
Environments are universally gorgeous, filled with minute details and colour that makes them pop off the screen, assisted by some brilliantly creative designs. The whole of the moon kingdom was a joy to look around thanks to its disappearing platforms, bizarre enemy types and star-filled backgrounds – a similar amount of joy can be found from looking around an earlier temple with its fire pits and secret hidden rooms. This is unbridled creativity at its finest, which makes Door to Phantomile quite the unique proposition.
Sound is tight too – Klonoa and his friends speak in a made-up gibberish, but it’s fun to listen to and extremely expressive. Meanwhile the soundtrack is sublime – a brilliant example of 90’s platformer music full of ambience and addictive themes.
Gameplay & Content
More challenging than I expected, Klonoa‘s cute exterior masks an intricate adventure platformer with plenty of unique ideas to make it stand out in a crowded genre.
Despite its 3D perspective, Door to Phantomile is undoubtedly a 2D game – you’ll either be jumping up, dropping down or running left and right. Klonoa himself has a decent moveset at his disposal – he can wiggle his little arm-ears to glide slightly (nothing close to what Spyro can do) and his main attack is a grab move that inflates enemies and allows you to throw them either down to get extra distance in a jump, or forwards to hit other enemies and switches.
It’s in these extra abilities that Klonoa gains much of its platforming identity – you might be tasked with glide-jumping across platforms only for them to disappear and enemies appear, requiring you to grab and throw them mid-air to keep moving. There’s an element of puzzle solving in much of the movement here, tasking you with thinking before you act otherwise you’ll quickly find yourself losing lives.
However, this is also where the game runs into its first problems. Much of the jumping is momentum-based but this also means Klonoa skids when he lands and I can’t count the number of times I fell off platforms to my death because of this. The physics here were never something I quite got used to and given the title runs a lives system which means you’re back at the start of the level if you mess up, it can be pretty frustrating. There are checkpoints of course and the game is fairly generous with lives, but this isn’t really enough to offset it.
The 2.5D perspective also wreaks havoc with the platforming at times – take for example running around the perimeter of a cylinder, which the game does often to show off its impressive graphics. In this example, the camera cannot keep up with where Klonoa is which means that upcoming pits (of which there are plenty) won’t be visible, meaning you have to tiptoe around these sections for fear of dying from something you can’t reasonably react to. It’s hardly a deal-breaker, but is poorly thought out all the same.
If you can look past these issues though, there is a genuinely enjoyable and unique platformer here that has a solid amount of challenge and clever ideas. Often the game uses its perspective well – intetactive elements such as switches can be hidden in the foreground and background meaning you always have to pay attention to your surroundings and even mundane quests like finding keys to open doors have a certain charm to them.
At the end of each ‘vision’ (level) you’ll face off against a boss and these are easily my favourite part of Door to Phantomile. Generally you’ll be running round the outside of a ring with the boss in the middle and you have to follow their patterns until you get an opportunity to strike by throwing a projectile – standard stuff, but executed so well. I’ve seen this idea done poorly in the past (Sonic Rivals) so it’s nice to see it done properly here, although the difficulty can feel slightly punishing at times – hurt further by the fact it’s back to the start of the level if you run out of lives.
Door to Phantomile isn’t a long game, although possibly my biggest peeve is that each level had collectible villagers you can save but there’s no way to go back and replay a completed level to get the ones you’ve missed. As such you can expect to be done in 5 or so hours, possibly more depending how much you struggle and have to restart levels.
With some tweaks, the gameplay in Klonoa could be something special – as it stands it’s still very good, just some frustrating elements hold it back and cause unnecessary frustrations along the way.
An absolute triumph in presentation with a surprisingly deep and emotional story to boot, Door to Phantomile is a much different beast than it first appears. The game is let down by gameplay that isn’t as tight as the rest of the package – it’s never bad enough to make the title not worth checking out, only stops it from being regarded as one of the all-time greats.