Oh look, here comes Piku, from the game Pikuniku. You know, that red blob looking creature with the legs that move seemingly independently of his (I think?) body, so non-threatening that the inhabitants of his island trust him after taking one look at his face. The main character in the latest puzzle-explorer from Sectordub and Devolver Digital? Yeah, that guy.
Within the opening moments of Pikuniku, you are woken by a ghost in a cave and complete a Mega Man X inspired tutorial, introducing you to and getting you familiar with kicking, rolling and jumping your way to the exit in order to gain access to the world at large. From here, the plot takes familiar, exaggerated twists in a wink-and-nod parodic manner.
You and Piku will together end up proving your innocence, joining a resistance movement and escaping abduction. None of these beats are of much importance, with the main driving force of the game being its moment to moment script, which is genuinely funny, plus the completely optional predicaments you can get yourself in; from playing hide and seek with a rock to discovering boogying 8-bit insects.
From the second that you boot up the game, you are struck by a wave of color and sound, as the title clearly takes pride in its presentation. The game in its completion takes place over the width of a small island, with a unique feel and character to each of its progressing environments. After leaving your cave you will explore a location fully, helping out residents in both a story-driven or optional objective capacity, before moving on to the next, which greets you with a color palette change and another whimsical piece of music.
This really helps your mind distinguish between each location and collection of natives you encounter along your journey, with unique color schemes and tonally appropriate music breathing life into the intentionally simplistic world. Militant tones dominate mechanical settings and underground sections feel noticeably gloomier than their above-ground counterparts; helping your ability to empathize within this bizarre world.
The truly standout aspect of Pikuniku though is the aforementioned script. With a sense of humor that walks the line between mature and juvenile, portraying a pessimism that betrays its colorful aesthetic. Characters exit the screen in deadpan ways, akin to a Wes Anderson animation, making you wait and just observe their strange movements as they stare straight out the screen at you. They also hold impeccable comedic timing, coming to dispassionate realizations after just enough of a pause, or keeping conversations going well after making their point.
Little touches in the script and world design (ears of corn pop as if in a microwave when exposed to heat) are easily the most memorable parts of the whole experience.
Sadly, things aren’t as remarkable in the gameplay area. Everything here is competent enough, jumping between simple platforming, puzzles, hub exploring, mini-games and boss battles. Clearly, Pikuniku is a jack of all trades, being serviceable enough in every department, yet excelling at none. Piku controls well, having a clearly defined jump arc and a definitive elasticity that gives the game accessibility that will appeal to younger gamers specifically.
But, aside from a satisfying ‘bomp’ sound effect that accompanies a leap, our lead character just doesn’t have the weight or distinctive personality you identify when controlling platforming royalty like Mario, Meat Boy, or Celeste’s Madeline.
The issue comes when you inevitably get over the initial charm and quirkiness that Pikuniku hits you with. Whilst its appearance and script keep you marginally engaged, this simply isn’t a game that’s going to set the world alight. It is littered with moments you want to text your friends about (I actually did upon being trapped in a sentient, demonic toaster), but these moments just don’t add up to an experience that you’re compelled to recommend. More, “hey look at this crazy scenario they came up with” as opposed to, “you have to play this for yourself”. This follows into the game’s replayability, since the collectibles on offer do not create much of an incentive to explore every inch of Piku’s island. Trophies and hats are aesthetically pleasing but do little other than serve as mementos to where you’ve already been, or open up a few minutes more of gameplay respectively.
The single player story took me a little over 5 hours to complete, which will probably be somewhat higher for younger gamers, due to the exploratory nature Pikuniku adopts. Multiplayer extends this lifespan by another good couple of hours, with 9 more traditional co-operative puzzles to progress challenges, where player 2 controls Piku’s clone, Niku. When playing on the Nintendo Switch, controlling either blob transfers well from using both Joy-Cons to just one. Again, this accessibility goes a long way towards not confusing players unfamiliar with the game, which is ideal for a parent/child combination to enjoy together, whilst allowing the child to take the lead in figuring out these basic puzzles. This fits into what I believe is the best way to play Pikuniku; in short bursts on the go.
These co-op levels take between 10 to 15 minutes to complete, running as smoothly in handheld mode as they do when docked, and deploy gimmicks every so often (such as tethering the two characters together, or giving each player an individual little car) to keep gameplay fresh. Despite the challenge never really reaching a high standard, making me miss the witty script from the single-player experience, it is undeniably entertaining experimenting with the physics of Pikuniku.
Watching someone else being involuntarily flung about on various catapults, or through a swift kick from the other player, is undeniably good fun, as is messing around interacting with objects found within the world, or the satisfying ‘a-ha!’ moments had upon completing a puzzle.
Ultimately, Pikuniku is a great introduction to the puzzle-explorer genre; a polished game that will entertain pretty much anyone who comes into even fleeting contact with it. Beyond that though, it brings very little to the table. A good script and unique aesthetic elevate it above being a mediocre title, but only just. By the game’s conclusion, I was sat with a smile on my face. Not through a sense of pride in my ability to overcome the challenges placed before me, but because of the ridiculousness and awareness the game was effortlessly showing me.
As soon as I put it down though, I probably would never have thought of Pikuniku again, if not for this review. I can almost definitely say this would be different for a younger gamer (how could this not stand out in a developing mind?), but this inability to truly bridge the gap between experienced and novice players ends up being more than a little disappointing for the rest of us.