The impact of drug and alcohol addiction, as well as the dysfunctional environments they often create, are increasingly finding their way into the stories independent games tell. While some developers tend to hide these themes under layers of abstraction, others choose to tackle the subject head-on. Anate Studio's Little Kite takes the more straightforward approach, other than a few scenes that momentarily transport one of its main characters into a decaying world that's just as dark and depressing as the reality he faces on a daily basis. It's difficult to say that I enjoyed the game in a traditional sense, especially since it deals with this traumatic set of circumstances in such a stark and unrelenting fashion, but I certainly appreciated my time helping a woman named Mary and her son escape their abusive environment.
A completely revamped commercial update to the 2012 freeware release called The Kite, Little Kite kicks things off with a very quick, extremely bleak opener: a framed photograph of a husband and wife and their adorable little boy. Unfortunately, this heartwarming image soon shatters – literally – accompanied by the sound of a car crash. The husband dies as a result of the accident, leaving Mary and her son all alone. Although she eventually falls in love with another man, Oliver, it's clear from the get-go that the conflict in their relationship runs very deep. Not only does he spend most of his time drinking and watching television, he also owes quite a bit of money to some extremely shady characters. Mary's home life is far from perfect, to the point that she uses pills as a means of escape from this harsh existence.
Instead of burying the game in symbolism or transforming the tale into some sort of unnecessarily confusing allegory, Anate largely chose to present the story as candidly as possible. For example, the very first puzzle requires Mary to make a sandwich for her son Andrew. After learning his favorite ingredients, she begins searching the small apartment for the food required, as well as a few tools necessary to put the dish together. It doesn't sound like much on paper, but Mary's interactions with her surroundings, which give players insight into her life following her husband's death, make these menial tasks seem important. Above all else, Mary cares deeply for her son, and if that means using unconventional methods to make a sandwich, then so be it.
Unfortunately, Mary's day with Andrew turns exceptionally dark when her new spouse, fuming about his miserable life, returns home from work. They quickly engage in a heated argument, which ultimately turns violent. Andrew, desperate to escape the horrors taking place in his home, takes refuge inside a closet, where he briefly escapes to a dark, depressing fantasy world. There Andrew is guided by his late father to retrieve a kite they once flew together long ago. At the advice of his father, the boy heads to the roof of the apartment building with his long-lost toy, without letting his mother know where he's going. Upon discovering that he’s missing, Mary immediately begins her quest to locate her missing child and, possibly, escape the clutches of her abusive husband in the process.
Although it will only take about 3-4 hours to complete, Little Kite packs a lot of content into its slim playtime. For the vast majority of the game, you'll control Mary as she searches for her son while avoiding Oliver and navigating the cruel hardships of her daily life. Mary, who frequently seems defeated and resigned to her fate, dedicates her entire existence to her son, but it's clear the poor woman is fighting an uphill battle. For anyone who's experienced such a disturbing domestic scenario in real life, these travails are horrifyingly accurate.
The dark tale sports some seriously impressive hard-drawn artwork, bringing Mary's rundown tenement and Andrew's fantasy version to life. While the real world is rather drab and boring, Andrew’s imagined one resembles something out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare, complete with crumbling buildings and broken machinery. The muted color scheme is suitably gloomy in each, but particularly in Andrew's, which adds a sense of hopelessness. The animation, meanwhile, is simple but fitting; Mary and Andrew move around fluidly enough, but it’s nothing overly elaborate. Cutscenes are mostly comprised of static images that resemble motion comics in their presentation. Outside of a hiccup or two (especially during one moment in Andrew’s world), screen tearing and choppiness is kept to a bare minimum.
Navigating is relatively simple: just click on an interactive item or person to perform the predetermined action. Examining objects helps bring this sad story to life, as Mary will often reflect on an item and how it fits into this tale. Most of these observations are distressing and show just how far she's fallen since the death of her first husband, but they'll help you develop a bond with Mary as she attempts to escape a situation that's primed to explode. To make sure you don't miss anything, the game includes a handy eyeball icon that will show you every hotspot in the room, ensuring that you're never overlooking important stuff.
The puzzles themselves are fairly straightforward. In most cases the protagonist will point you in the right direction, which helps cut down on confusion and aimless wandering. For instance, when you can't find something to slice the bread for Andrew's sandwich, Mary offers up a not-so-subtle clue that should, in theory, steer you to the solution. With the exception of one moment when I couldn't figure out how to distract an old woman, I didn't spend too much time pondering how to overcome Little Kite's obstacles. So long as you explore thoroughly, the solutions are fun, mostly logical, and give you a sense of accomplishment once completed.
Outside of the typical "combine object A with item B" scenarios, Little Kite also offers up some unique tasks that require a bit more effort, including shuffling around boxes inside a pantry, reconnecting wires in a fuse box, and searching for hidden codes to a combination lock. Granted, these aren't anything you haven't seen before in countless other adventure games, but players who need a break from the combo item puzzles will no doubt welcome the slight change of pace. There's a nice variety of things to do in the game, which prevents it from getting stale by the time the story wraps up. These objectives likely won't cause much problem for seasoned gamers, but they're challenging enough to make you continually earn your progress.
Unfortunately, Little Kite stumbles in two areas: localization and sound design. I'm not sure how the game reads in other languages, but the English translation suffers from numerous misspellings, missing punctuation, and several grammatical issues. It doesn't completely ruin the overall experience, but there are enough issues that it occasionally pulls you out of the game. And while the sound isn't necessarily a failing, it doesn't do anything to enhance the atmosphere. There is no voice acting, while neither the repetitive piano-heavy score nor the sound effects are noteworthy, which is a shame given how easily they could have helped bring Mary and Andrew's broken realities to life. It's nothing that will ultimately ruin the experience, but when it comes to world-building, a little effective sound design can go a long way.
There's certainly a lot to admire about Little Kite. The story about a dysfunctional family and one character's hope for escape doesn't reinvent the wheel, but the developer’s decision not to sugarcoat troubling themes makes this narrative particularly poignant and deserving of high praise despite the minor drawbacks. That said, much as I appreciated my time helping Mary rescue her son and confront her abusive husband, saying I was entertained by such an inherently depressing scenario is more of a reach. However, if you can embrace the game's unapologetically bleak exploration of weighty themes, while overlooking some obvious localization issues that rob certain moments of their emotional impact, Little Kite provides a tight, compact, deeply moving experience for gamers looking for a title that doesn't pull any punches.