Kiwanuka Review

Lightning Is Power

Kiwanuka is cute, charming, simple and even a little bit biblical: With nothing but a magical staff and steely determination, you must embark upon a daunting quest to lead your followers to freedom.

The people of Kiwanuka need your help! They’ve somehow managed to trap themselves on floating space rocks, and it’s up to the bearer of the magical lightning staff to lead them to the sacred triangle of freedom! That’s more or less how it goes, anyway. The bottom line is that you have the staff and that means you call the shots.


Your magical staff shoots lightning, but it’s not the sort of lightning you use to smite your enemies. Instead, by touching the staff and dragging left or right, you draw an arc of electricity that your avatar and his flock will follow. Things get really interesting when you drag the arc straight up, because that causes your followers to stand on one another’s shoulders, forming a column of varying height that you can then tip over and use as a bridge.

With those two powers at your disposal – and only those two powers – you must lead your people across barren pieces of bizarrely-shaped rock floating in the sky. Hindering your bid for freedom are bits of color, blue or orange, that cause the immediate dissolution of your “people bridge” should it come into contact with them, or death (or at least the premature end of the level) for your avatar. Falling into the void of space, which is harder to do than you might think but still quite possible, will cause the same.


It makes a lot more sense if you’re actually playing it as opposed to listening to me explain it, but Kiwanuka really is very simple, and it stays that way from start to finish. Levels grow more complicated as you progress through the game, but when you can only perform one trick it’s not too hard to figure out which trick you need to perform to get the job done. The final few areas are a little trickier because they force you to deal with moving obstacles but even then, the challenge is one of timing rather than puzzle-solving.

The controls aren’t pinpoint-precise, but the pinch-to-zoom function makes sliding through tight spaces or building people-towers near forbidden zones a manageable process. The visuals are simple but bright and attractive, ideal for this kind of game, and the music is nice too – there’s even some dubstep for people who like that sort of thing. Even the level-select screen is cute: Successfully completing a level brings a unique Kiwanukan floating down in a twinkling column of light to take her place on the shoulders of the rest, creating a tower of people much like the one in the game. Each person in the tower holds a sign bearing the name of the level, and completed levels may be replayed at any time, although aside from an achievement or two there’s really not much point.


There’s an underlying sense of the philosophical about it as well, reflected in level names like “Free Freedom,” “Protest Is Truth” and “Ecuador Has Honor.” The titles have no bearing on the level designs, at least not that I could pick out, so it’s more of an emotional reaction than anything else, as though the developers are encouraging players to think but leaving it entirely up to them to take it from there. There are 30 levels in all, adding up to no more than a couple hours of gameplay – this is not a game that will hold you up for long.

I enjoyed the Kiwanuka experience – it’s so upbeat and sincere that I couldn’t help but be charmed by it – but the game itself was a little too simple. I went into it expecting a greater variety of mechanics, and a part of me was still expecting something to change or be added right up to the very end. But it doesn’t happen; the whole thing is simply a matter of determining the origin point and size of your arc, then drawing it and moving on. Once you realize that’s all there is to it, and start looking past the sheen of complexity to see the simplicity underneath, it becomes very easy. And maybe that’s the point it’s trying to make: that sometimes, life is complicated only because we make it that way. 

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