Kileak was one of the 12 U.S. launch titles for the original PlayStation, and the only first person shooter. I had it, and I hated it. I mean real, grudge-holding hatred, even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t get past the fifth level. I’m equally sure I haven’t played it since 1995 – instead, preferring to cart around the belief that this game was absolute trash. It was slow. It felt equal parts difficult and boring. As a launch title, there was a certain scoffing at “THIS is what the PlayStation can do?” Plus, I think it was mostly because I really wanted Alien Trilogy – not released yet – so Kileak was going to have to do. It very much did not.
Some 28 years later, I have just finished playing through to the end. I’m now ready to affirm that Kileak: The DNA Imperative is not… absolute trash. Solid two stars. Thanks for reading this review.
Through some good ol’ early CG cutscenes, Kileak sets you up as the ace leader of the White Lighting special forces team. A polar research base has gone silent, so you and your squad pilot state-of-the-art mech suits to check it out. After a surface to air missile downs your transport and kills all but two, you and your teammate Carlos enter different areas of the facility to locate head researcher Dr. Kim.
I think most of the contemporary dismissal (including my own) comes from assuming, in a post-Doom world, that any first person shooter was going to play like Doom. Kileak is barely an FPS, though its marketing somewhat implies that it is. Instead, it’s much more of a dungeon crawler. There are no RPG stats to speak of, but there is a significant focus on exploration over slaying enemies. Your primary goal is just to fill out the map and find the level exit – any combat you engage in is purely defensive.
This means the pace is much slower. Think creeping through long industrial hallways, while wondering if the room ahead is going to have an enemy jump out at you. Lots of peering through dark fog, hoping to get a drop on any creature before they start shooting. Lots of remembering where you left repair parts and scampering back to grab them after taking damage. It’s more about tension and less about run-and-gun – mostly because your suit means you can’t run, while limited ammo means you can’t gun.
Levels are 90-degree mazes with a fairly simplistic design, even by Wolfenstein 3D standards. Your suit automaps where you’ve been, with a miniature display running in the upper right, or a larger version on the Select screen. You’ll never truly get lost, but you will have initial moments of wondering where to go. T-junctions or 4-exit rooms are common, where you just have to pick a direction and see where you end up.
To my knowledge, there are no secret areas or hidden rooms. This just isn’t that kind of game. The best you’ll get are two switch puzzles in the early levels. Both guard weapons that are nice to have, but that you absolutely do not need to finish the game. As you descend into the cavern levels, you’ll never see anything like these puzzles again. The mild creativity seen in the initial levels fades to pure exploration and shooting by the 4th or 5th map.
Every level has you looking for the exit elevator. Every level also invariably holds a computer terminal and an energy station somewhere in its twisting passages. The terminal scans cards found in the levels – IDs for a completed map, or media discs for backstory/plot recordings. Doors are occasionally locked by keycards or switches. You’ll see doors marked on your map, but you’ll get no indication of what key matches it. You’ll have to lope back to each door to try your new key on it.
The energy station is the most important object on each level. Your mech suit slowly drains a baseline amount energy, while your weapons are split between ones that use their own ammo and ones that pull energy from the suit. Ammo is rare and scattered around the levels, making the energy weapons an ideal choice. However, you can’t use them if you run below 25% total energy, while the game ends if your suit runs completely dry. Energy is not recharged between levels, so I don’t think it’s possible to speedrun to the elevator, even if you wanted to.
This means you start every level with no idea where to go and a timer ticking slowly down. You’re sticking to physical ammo, and so picking your battles, until you find that energy station. Once you do, now you can switch to energy weapons and go hog wild – fighting everything you see, exploring every corner, grabbing every pickup. You can recharge at the energy station as many times as you like, so you now have unlimited ammo and time, at the cost of frequent backtracking.
In fact, backtracking is going to be Kileak’s real modus operandi. You’re backtracking for energy, backtracking to check what key works, backtracking to check discs at the computer terminal, backtracking when the path you randomly picked winds up at a dead end. Elevators between levels are one way only, so you won’t be doing that kind of backtracking, but you will be plodding across a level for quite a while. Your slow, mechanical pace does you no favors here, with no official way to run. You can angle yourself to strafe and move forward at the same time for a slight boost (similar to a strafe-jump in Doom) but you’re still going to be spending long, dull minutes watching walls scroll by.
You can only save your game at the exit elevator, making the exploration feel even more dull. No mid-level breaks for you. This also means you can’t blow your supplies of ammo, armor or energy – what you leave with is what you’ll have to start the next level. There were a few times I simply took way too much damage to keep going and needed to replay a level instead. And awkwardly, the game requires a memory card to save. Of course I’m grateful to ditch passwords, but the memory card was sold separately. No big deal now, but I remember it ruffling a few feathers on release.
The other stinker is how surprisingly difficult the game is. Enemies take many shots to destroy, while your ammo supplies are seriously limited. Your first gun holds 999 rounds, but that doesn’t seem so great when mid-game enemies take around 150 of its bullets. The best weapons simply don’t have that much ammo. Your best machine gun, the ZAX, probably has 1000 rounds in the whole game. A homing rocket launcher – exactly as useful as it sounds – can’t have more than 200. The strongest weapon, the Eroder, has exactly 3 shots and no more. I saved it for the final boss, figuring that was the intent. Nope. Those three shots were a good start, but not enough to defeat him. You will always be wishing you had more bullets, as the homing gun, the fastest-firing gun, the most powerful gun, and the gun with the widest auto aim are not energy weapons.
And while ammo is hard to find, health is damn near priceless. There are no stations to recharge your health, only collectable “repair parts” that can restore a maximum of 10 points. Your health maxes at 100 and can drop drastically with each hit you take. Rapid fire projectiles can knock off 20 points of your health in a burst. Since most encounters take place in the long corridors, you don’t have a way to avoid their shots. You’re just expected to soak these hits and hope that whatever your fighting will drop a repair part as a reward.
The alternative is just start throwing ordinance down a dark hallway – it works, and the hits register even if enemies aren’t active and you can’t see them. But, as said, you’ll need to wait until you have an energy station to comfortably rip out shots like this. You’re helped somewhat by “armor ROMs” scattered throughout the levels – your armor version number dictates how much incoming damage is just flatly subtracted – but enemies are going to be getting stronger too, so you’re never completely in the clear.
Worst of all are the stationary turrets – highly damaging, well-armored, a real pain. You can try to “run” past them, but they’re usually guarding precious ammo or repair parts, or just not something you want to keep dealing with during all the backtracking. Fighting them is a real circle-strafing slugfest, while certain weapons are better suited than others. Every weapon has a range in which it will auto-aim. You can hold shoulder buttons to look up and down, but hitting a ceiling turret will still depend on whether your weapon can track within that area. You can’t look up, strafe, and fire at the same time, so you’ve got to make sure you’ve kept ammo for the one or two guns that can do this job.
Graphics look sharp for the time. The basic level designs and limited decoration means those resources can be put toward detailed textures and relatively smooth movement. There’s a surprising variety of polygon enemies, which get more organic and strange the deeper you go. I’d guess maybe 20 different enemy types across the whole show. There’s not a whole lot of detail overall, but some attempt to elevate this beyond simple, flat walls. Steel beams brace walls in early levels, jagged cave walls show up later, both giving some attempt to break up the 90-degree design.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to make up for the minutes backtracking through bland, empty hallways. Enemies don’t respawn. Given how many shots they take to destroy, this is overall more a blessing than a curse. But it does add to the boredom. This is not helped by some ambient music I can best describe as “whooshy,” plus a computer voice that announces “battery low” every four seconds once you hit 25%.
Kileak is over in 15 levels. It was a strange combination of “Hallelujah!” and feeling I’d been ripped off. Early levels promise some puzzles and unique sights, but later levels don’t continue the trend. Rationing ammo and health against enemies that liberally take both starts to get tiring quickly. Kileak was unfairly judged as a Doom clone when I don’t think it was ever trying to be, but it’s also a very by-the-numbers dungeon crawler that doesn’t offer much beyond some impressive-for-1995 graphics.
Smooth framerate, sharp textures. Polygon enemies when that was still kinda new. Plenty of CG-rendered cutscenes for that multimedia cred. Each level does open up once you find its energy station.
Highly damaging enemies with no way to dodge in a hallway. Limited ammo. Then, once you clear out a path, a slow trek through empty hallways as you backtrack for energy or keycards. Also, apparently it’s “ki-LEAK” instead of “kill-E-ak”