It’s always good to share a journey with a friend or a loved one. Having someone by your side to share the load just helps, y’know? Knowing that together you can overcome any obstacle is the essence of love and trust. That feeling is at the core of Pode — a bright and cutesy puzzle platformer from Norwegian indie studio Henchman and Goon.
Working together to reach the summit of a great mountain, a little rock sets out to make sure a fallen star can make its way home. The story is minimal but, through little gestures and beautifully drawn artwork shown at the end of each level, the bond between the two characters is quickly cemented.
A real life bond can be well utilised here too. Sure, you can play both roles yourself in this two-part production, but I always felt that a shared experience was better. That’s not to say that single-player isn’t a good idea, but everything about this gamemakes it feel like it’s best played as a duo. Exploring each puzzle room, searching for hidden collectables, and working through each area as a team requires full cooperation. The feeling of utilising all of your powers — both inside and outside of the game — to solve a puzzle was satisfying and induced many a high-five. However, you’ll also have to cope with the frustration too.
Pode starts very simply, with both characters exploring the world and using their powers to change it. Each new area is like a fresh canvas, and holding R2 as you wander through is like painting new details onto the world. Foliage and geodes explode colour into each environment, erupting from barren corners or unassuming splodges on the walls and floor. It’s a fantastic feeling to see each new area come to life and the game’s perspective allows for pieces to appear in the foreground from the corners of your screen, in the background to brighten up an area, as well as directly in front of characters for interaction. Perhaps you’ll grow a platform to climb on or discover a secret to unlock.
As you continue through the levels new mechanics are introduced and puzzles quickly become more complicated. It’s here too that Pode starts to suffer from a case of style over substance. With new abilities dealt quickly, it gave very little time for them to click. Prompts appeared once and then never again, only for the game to present me with a puzzle and expect me to remember precisely how this new ability could be utilised. Sometimes a cue wouldn’t be offered at all and my girlfriend and I would sit there trying everything before a solution accidentally presented itself. Trial and error is one thing, but trial and error without knowing the rules is something else entirely.
Punishing platforming and an erratic camera is also detrimental to the heartwarming and gratifying experience that Pode attempts to offer. All too often I’d find myself unable to traverse the most simple of areas as I wasn’t landing on the exact point the game wanted me to or the camera decided something else was more interesting. It’s infuriating to have an entire room of puzzles click for you, to see an area blossom as you walk through, to feel like you’re on a roll, only to be stopped in your tracks by a simple-looking platform section that demands far too much precision from the floaty controls. That need to be precise often extends to puzzles too, with mechanics simply not working due to placement being ever so slightly off. Ultimately, it turns a charming game with a positive challenge into an absolute slog, and completely destroys the pacing of the game.
The only silver lining to this constant repetition is the game’s soundtrack. A delicate and simple accompaniment from Austin Wintory (Journey and The Banner Sagaseries), it accentuates Pode’s most fulfilling story beats and is a calming presence when the irritation of another battle between me and the game’s controls began to surface.
At its best however, Pode offers up some incredibly unique, carefully executed puzzles that feel satisfying to complete and are visually stunning. Watching an area take shape in this game — rocks climbing the walls, melting ice uncovering hidden secrets and flowers blooming — was wonderful. Unfortunately, Pode would deal me a good hand and then two bad ones time and time again.
As we reached the summit, feelings were mixed. I’d genuinely grown attached to the two little characters and seeing their story was heartwarming, albeit very straightforward. In the place of glowing triumph at completing the game’s puzzles though, was more a sense of relief. I was glad to be finished; a cruel irony considering the game’s core themes of togetherness and love.
Pode is a beautiful-looking game — something that can’t be stated enough — with a joyful, minimalist narrative, a superb score and a great concept at its core. When it’s good, it’s exactly what a co-op game should be. However, those moments are severely outweighed by a myriad of frustrations that left me with my head in my hands on far too many occasions.
There’s a famous saying — “it’s about the journey, not the destination”. Unfortunately, my journey through Pode often felt like wading through quicksand. As stunning as it looks, as much as the chibi characters and their tale made me smile, and as good as it shows it can be at times, walking Pode’s path is not something I can wholly recommend.
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