Thursday 21 June 2018

Switch Review - Pode

With a focus on friendship and cooperation, this visually stunning puzzle game should appeal to families, but is there enough here for a lone player to enjoy?

Developed by Henchman & Goon
Released in 2018

Cynical mainstream media has always tried to perpetuate the belief that the only emotions Video Games inspire are negative. Tabloid newspapers talk of video game addicts, fuelled by rage and aggression. As players we are portrayed as ruthlessly competitive, introverted and blood thirsty. However, developer Henchman & Goon believe a game should inspire the opposite feelings in a player. It’s a belief that leads to the creation of ‘Pode’ an enchanting artistic platform puzzler that should only be enjoyed with a friend. 

From the very start, game director Yngvill Hopen “wanted to create a positive gaming experience” she says. “I wanted more games I could play with my young son”. Unsurprisingly this has lead to the creation of a game where two players take control of an adventurer each and together you must utilise your character’s unique talents to solve environmental puzzles. 

Glo the brightest of the pair can jump higher and can also float in a way that mimics Yoshi in the majority of his platforming adventures. She can also drift on air currents and doesn’t sink in water. At the touch of a button this “fallen star” radiates light, a technique that activates specific switches and adds paths through a level; primarily by causing plants to grow. This creates platforms and lifts for her companion Bulder to use. This rock like cube is smaller and can pass through tighter spaces. These holes usually lead to Bulder’s own type of switches that manipulate a stage’s rocks; typically adjusting the height of platforms so Glo can reach previously inaccessible parts of a level. Like Kirby, Bulder can also inhale objects and carry them around a level. Glo can even be inhaled and when inside Bulder she becomes a directional light beam used to activate switches out of reach. The two characters can also stand on each other‘s heads and ride to safety should the level demand it. If this wasn’t enough, as the stages pass you’ll be introduced to even more abilities unique to one character or the other. Levels start off simply but quickly become very complicated as more and more environmental hazards and additional abilities are introduced. However death is never really a concern as a misstep will simply see your character transported to the start of a stage, unharmed and free to try the puzzle once again. The only thing that limits the players’ progression is their inability to use the character’s skills to navigate an environment. 

Each stage is a three-dimensional cavern seen from a fixed perspective. A player’s view will move in relation to the character’s position within this environment but this can’t be manipulated manually. The goal is simply to get both characters to the exit where they will walk hand-in-hand to the next stage. Apart from some occasional button prompts and sketchy illustration on rocks, there are no instructions explaining how a level should be completed. While this encourages exploration it does make ‘Pode’ somewhat confusing until you grasp what each character can do. Initially at least, you’ll have no idea if you’re failing a level because your plan is wrong or if you’re simply failing to execute it correctly. Conversely you may even find you complete a stage without ever knowing what you did right. Did you finish it because you flung a cube onto the correct spot or did you succeed because you stacked the characters on a switch? 

According to communications manager Linn Sovig “you definitely don’t have to be a hardcore gamer [...] anyone can get involved and have fun with the game”. It is actually a very good game to play with someone less accustomed to video games, especially as Henchman & Goon have implemented a subtle “help-me” feature. “You can switch the characters seamlessly without having to go through the dramatic gesture of taking a controller away from a player” says Sovig. Anyone who has had to endure the embarrassment of having a control pad taken off them can rejoice at this. “Kids interact very well with ‘Pode’” the developers claim however ‘Pode’ was never intended to be a game that children would play alone. “These puzzles can be pretty challenging even for adults and [this] makes the game too challenging for the smaller children to play by themselves” says designer Hopen. “But with the possibility for asymmetrical difficulty while playing co-op, by swapping characters, it’s a perfect game to spend time in with even the smallest child, as long as they can use a controller.”

Making an inherently two player game work for a singleton was the responsibility of Lead Game Designer, Henrik Haugland. While Sovig is adamant that “he’s done a wonderful job making it an enjoyable single-player game”, when playing alone, it’s hard to escape the feeling that you need a friend by your side. It’s immediately painfully obvious when you’re asked if you want to “turn Co-op on” when you press star with only one controller attached to the Switch. Rubbing more salt into the wound, the game reminds you that “you can turn co-op on at any time” almost as if it’s holding out hope that you’ll one day find a friend. 

The controls are fiddly when played alone as often a lever must be held by one character while the second navigates over the result of this lever press. With two players this wouldn’t be an issue, one holds the lever, the other makes use of the level change that it produced. However when playing alone, you must hold the action button until the desired effect is achieved and then swap to the other character while still holding down the action button. Once you’re in control of the second adventure you can release the action button but then you will probably need to use the same button to take advantage of their unique skill. It would be better if each character had their own designated action button to avoid confusion, better yet, each could use their own analogue stick. It’s easy to lose track of which character you’re in control of. Apart from a brief flash and a noise when you swap between Glo and Bulder there is no visual indicator highlighting who you’re playing as. A simple ring or arrow around the currently active character would have removed all the confusion but if you get distracted from the game I guarantee you’ll forget which of the two you’re controlling. Obviously, again, in two player mode this isn’t an issue as you will probably take a character each. By holding the left trigger you can move Glo and Bulder together, either hand in hand or tethered with a glowing rope. Really it’s just a way to move around the stages faster, but I did find that twice using this ability caused a character to get irretrievably stuck on an environmental object. The only way to free them was to reset, which while not game breaking was frustrating. 

It’s not the only control frustration. Navigating around the three dimensional levels isn’t as easy as it could be since a level’s depth isn’t always readable. The characters (particularly Bulder) lack prominent shadows and while this may improve the game’s appearance it means it is never completely obvious where the pair will land after a leap. Sometimes it feels like aesthetic design has taken priority over function, with Glo and Bulder often lost in the undergrowth because I couldn’t figure out what’s was a plant that could be stood on and what was simply decoration. If the goal was to create a beautiful game, at least the compromises in gameplay precision are understandable, even if they’re not forgivable.

‘Pode’ is a beautiful and charming, especially when the Switch is docked and the game is running on a larger screen. Considering its set in a drab mountain the caverns that make up the levels are vibrant varied and colourful. The combined abilities of the adventurers literally bring the world to life and it’s certainly an impressive spectacle to witness. Plants and flowers bloom from the shadows punctuated by glistening gems and majestic jewel towers.  

According to Sovig, the undeniably stunning look harks back to the short Norwegian romantic period. “Traditional rose painting is connected to this era and is very prominent in the visual style of ‘Pode’” she notes. “The swirling, colourful flora, as well as the hand painted textures are directly influenced by this.” It’s an aesthetic that’ll be fresh and new to many players and it’s wonderful that Henchman & Goon have made such effort to foreground their own heritage. “We’ve been very inspired by the detailing in the Norwegian national dress, the Bunad, which has very elaborate embroideries based on Norwegian nature and flowers” adds Sovig. Some may draw parallels with films like ‘Frozen’ which too have been coloured by similar influences. However, in ‘Pode’ every facet seems to have been sculpted by Norwegian pride and that certainly includes the main characters Bulder and Glo. From the start Yngvill Hopen, knew she wanted a game that focussed on a light character and a dark character. “I think it just seemed natural to use what was closest to us, which is the Norwegian mountains” claims Linn Sovig. “Norwegian culture pretty much permeates the entire game, although in a very stylized and personalized manner” adds Hopen. “It’s definitely most evident in the visual design and music [with] the hardanger fiddle in the main theme”. The game has a haunting but never distracting score compose by Austin Wintory, best known for his work on ‘Journey’ and more recently in the three ‘Banner Saga’ games. “The art is absolutely stunning” says Wintory. “I love working with games that have a beautiful, universal story to tell. ‘Pode’ definitely aspires to that, with the sort of poetic language we’ve seen emerging in games more and more lately.”

According to game director Hopen, ‘Pode’s narrative emerged whilst they were designing the mechanics of the game, so the story is told through gameplay. “We believe that the puzzles, mechanics and gameplay complement and help carry the story of Bulder and Glo and how their friendship evolves through the game.” It’s certainly subtle but by the games conclusion you’ll likely be very attached to the two main characters with their funny little noises and hand holding. It’s an emotional investment that makes the denouement all the more moving.

The eShop is getting a bit of an ugly reputation for becoming over crowded with ill-fitting mobile and console ports. ‘Pode’ however feels like a game that was specifically designed for the Switch. “We have always considered ‘Pode’ to be a living room friendly game” says Sovig. We started developing the game three years ago, [and] when the Nintendo Switch came out we just went “Hello?!! This is perfect for ‘Pode!”. Like so many of their consoles before it, Nintendo intended the Switch to be a family machine. Unlike other modern consoles it even ships with two simplified controllers in the form of the left and right JoyCons. This makes it a console perfect for families that include non-gamers, as the simplified miniature controller is ideal for little hands. “We adore how co-op friendly it is!” exclaims Sovig. But ultimately that need for a co-op compatible system highlights the weakness of ‘Pode’.

There was no way that Henchman & Goon could have released a “two player only” game, it would immediately drive away too big an audience. But for me ‘Pode’ is frustrating and fiddly and not at all calm and creative when played alone. Given that the game is playable by two people with just the two JoyCons, there are clearly enough face buttons on the Switch to control both characters. I simply can’t understand why the developers haven’t assigned one character the controls on one side of the system leaving the remaining for the other. I even tried to play the game in co-op with a JoyCons in each hand. It would have been a successful exercise if the controllers were orientated in a portrait rather than landscape direction. 

It’s a shame the single player control issues exist because with two people in front of the screen ‘Pode’ is a delightful. It may take a while to understand the game’s grammar and mechanics but once it clicks into place levels fly by and there’s an enormous sense of satisfaction when a tougher challenge is finally solved. As the game progresses you get a real sense of a growing bond between Glo and Bulder and that connection undoubtedly does transfer onto the two players working together. It’s a charming experience ideal for families and one that really does prove that video games aren’t limited to promoting hate and aggression. As Yngvill Hopen elegantly puts it: “On the surface, ‘Pode’ is the story of a little rock helping a fallen star find its way home. But on a deeper level it’s about friendship and cooperation, and finding beauty in unlikely places”. 


A copy of this game was provided by the publishers for review. They have not seen or had any influence on the content of this review prior to publication.

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