The Kids We Were, the review



Here is our review of The Kids We Were, an amazing narrative experience coming from the mobile world, made by the Japanese Gagex

Do not be misled by the vote that you find at the bottom of our review of The Kids We Were, developed by Gagex, released on Nintendo Switch on December 2: despite the quality, this is not a game that we recommend to everyone. Perhaps, to tell the truth, it is not even a “game”: we will continue, however, for convenience, to use this word. Also because there are few alternatives: The Kids We Were has nothing to do with the “cinematic experience”, is basically a novel in the guise of a video game, a video game in which the main activity is to move the protagonist from one point to another, talk to other characters, read dialogue.

An important detail to understand is that the player, in The Kids We Were, has very little “narrative potential”; just like in a novel, the story is read and lived, not influenced. Almost everyone, downloading The Kids We Were, will experience the same moments in the same order; the exception is the collection of some hidden objects, which is completely secondary. On an interactive level, the player’s task is limited to moving the character, pressing a button to talk and collect coins/objects, consulting the menu, the map, and… that’s it. What is there, however, is not badly done. The controls are precise and clean: it is much more consistent and brave The Kids We Were in surrendering to its narrative vocation, than many other titles that force playfulness in a superficial way, out of habit, even where it would not be necessary.

The Kids We Were comes from the mobile world, where it was released just before Pandemic in February 2020. The developers have adapted the experience well on Nintendo Switch, and it was not obvious, both for the different controls, and – above all – for the horizontal screen. Unfortunately, the game is available, as well as in various Eastern languages (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) only in English: therefore, to enjoy The Kids We Were, it is essential to know quite well the Bard’s idiom.

Well, now that we’ve tried to scare you, that we’ve told you all the reasons why you might not like The Kids We Were, let’s continue our review by telling you why, on the contrary, you might love it.

Setting and graphics

The Kids We Were: the village of Kagami, where most of the story takes place, at sunset

Take 100 grams of Back to the Future, add a teaspoon of Haruki Murakami and some spice from Ganbare Goemon, blend with Stranger Things and, at the end, season with Earthbound. The result will be The Kids We Were. Precisely because it is a primarily narrative experience, we warn you: in this paragraph we will talk about the title in general, introducing in a summary way the plot. In the next one, we will discuss – without inserting major spoilers – in more detail, if you want to avoid any kind of anticipation, you know what to do.

The story begins when Minato, an eleven-year-old boy, takes the train to Kagami, a small village (where almost all of the adventure takes place) where his parents grew up. Minato accompanies his mother, who must travel to Kagami to attend a memorial service; also with them is Mirai, his younger sister, who is sick with leukemia. Neither Minato nor his mother are able to help her, as they don’t have a bone marrow compatible with hers; Minato’s father abandoned them many years ago, but the boy has discovered that until recently he still lived in Kagami, and he intends to find him. Not to meet him, but to save his little sister from certain death.

The Kids We Were: the setting is proudly Japanese

Minato is not like all the other children, because he has paranormal powers; he is able to predict the future. Not the distant one, but he perceives what will happen within a day, and is able, thanks to this power, to alter the nefarious events that could happen. Underlying the experience is also another sci-fi twist: Minato, through the future self, will be able to go back in time. To fix things, to avoid certain events, to get his family back on track. The game is set in 2020, but most of the adventure takes place thirty-three years earlier, in 1987: the nostalgic references to the period – as in Stranger Things – are many and powerful, but never forced. It is very nice to taste the architectural differences, and costumes, between the Kagami of 1987 and that of 2020.

Graphically, The Kids We Were relies on a voxel-based look; vulgarly put, “three-dimensional pixels” (and cubic). The framing is not editable, and the characters are very simple, unrealistic (much less than the objects, or houses), as well as the animations: visually it is powerful, pleasant and distinctive. The child protagonist with backpack and hat, as well as the everyday and city setting, added to the stylized appearance, make it comparable to Earthbound (and, let’s be clear, it’s a compliment). The music is beautiful, mainly melancholic, but also distressing and pressing at the right time: unfortunately, while valuable, in our opinion are few in number.

Unfolding

The Kids We Were: the comet that passes every three years

As we anticipated, from here on we will give you some more details about the rest of the story: no central junctions, but so far we have only talked about the narrative context and the incipit, so we are forced to deepen a little ‘speech. After all, story and game in this case are not the same thing, but they have many traits in common.

The adventure takes place in chapters, each with its own theme, but not independent from the others. As already written, almost all the events take place in the heart of the small village of Kagami: between stores, spas, schools, swimming pools, cemeteries, temples. Minato has a notebook that should guide him in his adventure (in the past), given to him (in the present) by a Buddhist priest: we don’t know who the author is, but it came to him by the will of his father. The child can remain in the past only for three days, in conjunction with the passage of a comet that passes over Kagami every thirty-three years: at the end of 72 hours he will be forced to return to 2020, when he will discover if his actions have had a positive outcome in the present.

The Kids We Were: the main character Minato, with his four friends in the background

In this notebook there are various notes of mysteries to solve, which form the backbone of the experience: but more than the events themselves, what makes The Kids We Were special are the dialogues, the friendship relationships Minato weaves with the children of the 1980s. Four children, in particular. Without going into further detail, the main theme of the work is the relationship between parents and children, the children’s frustration at not being heard, the rejection of violence, the desire not to become like their fathers (and mothers, as well). The science fiction component of the story, as it should be in any good story, is only a pretext to deal better, and more “mimetically”, with this main topic.

The Kids We Were, towards the conclusion, makes a very brave choice, and “tells” in a metanarrative way: maybe some of you won’t even see it, the real ending (and it will be your fault, because the work will do its best to tempt you). The conclusion is cathartic and moving, touching; it achieves this with delicacy, without giving in to patheticism.

The Kids We Were: in this game there is so much everyday life, which is rare for a video game

The bonus chapter added on Nintendo Switch is separate from the main story, and is a less successful appendix, in which the perfect balance falls apart, the time jumps are too frequent, the paradoxical plots as well, the melodramatic events excessive. Proof of how difficult it is to write a good story, and how special The Kids We Were: one of the best indie games of the year.

Comment

The Kids We Were is not a game for everyone, and perhaps not even properly a “game”: it is a narrative experience, in which the freedom of choice is essentially zero, and the challenge non-existent. The little interaction that grants, consisting in the movement of the character, collecting items and talking to other inhabitants of Kagami, however, is well done: you will not find things “annoying”, from this point of view. Accepting that, The Kids We Were turns out to be excellent, and very distinctive-looking: it has time travel and premonitions, but the heart of its narrative lies in family relationships, particularly between parents and children. The urban, Japanese, everyday setting evokes an odd mix of Murakami and Ganbare Goemon. The 80’s context, and the children protagonists, make it a sort of Strangers Things in Japanese version, at least for the nostalgic references (magazines, objects, architecture). It is a touching and delicate story, excellently narrated.

PRO

  • Excellent narration
  • Lovely setting: everyday, urban and nipponese
  • Visually charismatic
  • Delicate and moving plot and dialogues
  • Not for everyone
  • The bonus chapter is not up to the rest
  • Music few numerous
  • Have you noticed any errors?
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