When you actually write down the plot to Pikuniku, you realise how bonkers it is. You play as a red blob whose only appendages are 2 rather useful legs (and maybe arms…). After sleeping in a cave for presumably a long time, you’re awoken by a ghost and then set off to explore. It’s not long before you realise that something’s not quite right with the world; A pink, cloud shaped character, the leader of a company called Sunshine Inc, is going around raining money down onto towns and settlements from flying robots in exchange for trash and garbage. But instead of collecting people’s unwanted things, these robots are actually harvesting food, water and resources and most of the world seems oblivious to this fact. It’s up to the player and a band of woke resistance members to fight back. I get the feeling there’s symbolism here, if you go looking for it, but you might be too busy smirking at the weirdness to find it.
That’s just the broad strokes of the plot too. The world of Pikuniku is full of moment to moment absurdity. Playing hide and seek with a sentient rock who’s upset that you broke his tea set. Competing in a bizarre game about kicking a watermelon through a basketball hoop. Having a dance off against a robot that claims to be king of the dance floor. Huge swathes of Pikuniku are like fragments of a fever dream sown together in a tapestry of the peculiar. It takes a little time to get going but it’s oh so enjoyable when it does.
The entirety of Pikuniku is presented in glorious Technicolor 2D. The world is made of bold, full, bright colours that’s part Suprematism mixed with the abstract and comes together like an animated children’s book. It’s a truly beguiling art style that’s complemented by wacky character animations. Just the way Pikuniku walks might be enough to raise a small smile on your face.
If the visual art style is the delicious cheese cake then the soundtrack to Pikuniku is the strawberry, played delicately placed on top to tie the whole dish together (can you tell I’m writing this review over my lunch?). Calum Bowen has created a truly wonderful score to this game that’s as chipper and as pleasant as the rest of Pikuniku. What’s more, it’s not afraid be minimalistic at times, offering up nothing but a few plinks and plonks in some areas before swelling into a full song as the game becomes more complex. There’s some real toe tapping ear worms here.
As for game play, Pikuniku is primarily a platformer without traditional failure conditions and a puzzle game and is often the 2 genres combined. Pikuniku has very few abilities – walking, jumping, hang from a hook with its leg, kicking and shrinking down into a ball to move quicker – and the majority of the game tests the player to overcome obstacles by manipulating those skills. Some self-contained screens in the game focus entirely on puzzles; there’s a series of pipe puzzles at the mid-point that involve pushing buttons to ensure electricity can flow from one end of the screen to another, but the buttons are not easily accessible and you need to move other pipes in order to reach them. Other screens focus entirely on platforming; there’s a section that might as well be a Sonic game, bouncing you from one spring to another through tunnels until you have to perform some jumps. In another section, you have to dodge toast as it flies towards you while you perform tough jumps. There’s boss battles too, although they’re not really battles per se. More like boss puzzles. These all involve some platforming and some quick thinking to overcome. Pikuniku breaks no new ground in terms of games design, but when the game looks and sounds as good as this, you don’t really crave any further innovation.
A number of the puzzles in Pikuniku involve kicking barrels, rocks, acorns or other objects onto switches to keep them pressed down. This can be mildly frustrating because the kick move isn’t quite as intuitive or accurate as the game probably needs. Kicking a ball into a small half-moon indentation on a platform, for example, requires a lot more effort than anyone should be realistically asked to put in. Similarly, there’s one puzzle in a mine that requires using two barrels to press switches – only, if you get a little too kick happy, you can wedge both barrels into a spot which makes the puzzle unsolvable, barring your progress. A quick restart puts the barrels back to their starting positions so not all is lost, but it’s still frustrating.
It’s the cast of characters, the polish and the little touches that make Pikuniku stand out in this crowded genre though. Every person you meet has some dialogue and it’s often like developers Sectordub have liquefied the persona of millennials and pumped them full of it. A master potter whose response to seeing all of his work destroyed is simply “Maybe pottery was made to be destroyed?”. An sentient piece of toast that sends smaller pieces of toast to attack you. The way Pikuniku’s eyes change from simple dots to open white eyes when he falls for a distance. The bird that thanks you for returning her hatchlings, the very same hatchlings you booted out of the nest. It’s a game packed to the wibbly wobbly gills with little touches, charisma, preposterousness and charm.
On top of the single player story mode, there’s also a co-op challenge mode that pits you and a (local) friend against a variety of puzzle platform tests. These all require collaboration to complete, asking one player to stay on a switch while the other player kicks a ball to another switch, for example. While this mode is very fun, it does lack the personality that permeates everything in the story mode.
Some mild frustrations and pacing aside, Pikuniku is disarmingly agreeable, revelling in the random while telling a surreal and well-structured story. Both my kids (they’re the reason this review is so far after release, hogging the Switch to play this) and I have had a tonne of fun with this game, inspiring bemused, furrowed brows and face splitting smiles a plenty.
Pikuniku is available now on Nintendo Switch (review version) and PC.
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we received a code from the publishers. Please see our review policy for more information.
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