In an era of fully voiced adventure games, it seems bizarre to play one where the bulk of the experience is wordless. And it isn’t just character voices that take a back seat in Tsioque: dialogue in general is subbed out for object puzzles, which makes sense given the titular protagonist is little more than a child.
But Princess Tsioque’s short stature contains a wilful, relentless intent, one which the evil mage of the castle she resides in underestimates entirely. When Tsioque’s mother leaves for a far-off battle, the mage takes control and imprisons the feisty youngster in the dungeon. From there your job is to escape and reclaim the castle from the magic-wielding monster and his assorted goons.
Fantasy is an easy genre to parody, and it’s to Tsioque’s credit that it doesn’t rely on lazy cliches to get its laughs or inspire its story. The entire game plays out within the confines of the castle’s various rooms, populated by grunting goblins and mythical beasts. Yet Tsioque (pronounced something like Tchee-OCK) is a pragmatic girl with a vicious streak, animated superbly —- along with everything else in the game — to ensure the player knows exactly what she’s feeling at any given moment. And that feeling is usually anger. Her face depicts almost as much as words could, but it’s still a shame that she’s unable to vocalise her fear or frustration.
The 2D hand-drawn backgrounds and animations may evoke Dragon’s Lair but the gameplay is far more forgiving. A wrong turn or the fatally incorrect use of an item results in a very brief end cutscene before returning you to moments before your attempt. Furthermore, the complete absence of combining items in your inventory to come up with something else entirely is refreshing, and allows puzzles revolving around the environment to take centre stage. In many respects, combined with the two- to three-hour running time, you may think Tsioque is aimed at a younger audience. However, though the content itself is suitable for children, they are likely to struggle with a number of dated gameplay elements which are just as frustrating for adults.
Chief among these is a lack of discernible hotspots. While old-school gamers loved poring over every pixel in a new location to find something to interact with, the attention span of the modern player is much shorter, in part due to the advances made in developing the genre. Puzzles have evolved to focus on how you use the items you encounter rather than trying to work out whether something is clickable or collectible. The cartoon-like environments are very well drawn — almost too well, since items you can pick up and the objects you can use them on often blend together. An optional method of highlighting these things is the norm now (usually the TAB button or similar), but Tsioque doesn’t play ball in this regard. The result is likely to be frustration as you scour the castle for a missing teddy bear’s eye only to discover it in an area of a room which yielded nothing when you visited it earlier in the game.
Puzzles, as is so often the case with point-and-clicks, are hit-and-miss. Some require a keen memory of symbols written in books or on scrolls in order to tackle locks later on, while the more comedic ones are often a highlight as you repeatedly pull one over on the inept guards. Again though, a lack of clear clickable areas stymies progress at times. It’s a shame as there are some delightful moments scattered across Tsioque, from the manipulation of a pouncing cat to a squelchy sequence in a dragon’s belly, and a wonderful puzzle callback near the finale utilising a series of animals you previously encountered. However, there are also some duds, such as bizarre timed challenges like a dull archery contest, or an overlong rhythm sequence during a chase down some stairs. The excellent orchestral score helps in this latter regard, as it does throughout the game.
But while there are lots of nice touches they are usually overshadowed by keener issues, such as an inability to free roam around locations and the painfully slow traversal of the castle’s rooms. Later puzzles also fail the common sense test: why would you deliberately summon the evil mage to your location? Yet here it’s necessary, and only used to reveal the location of another item. It feels like the sequence was added because the character wasn’t receiving enough screen time, but if anything that’s down to some rather flimsy writing which rarely gives you any motivation other than to get through the next locked door.
In context of the final twenty minutes this makes sense, but only because Princess Tsioque’s true purpose turns out to be a rug-pull so meta and so completely bananas that it threatens to make Tsioque disappear in a puff of pointlessness. Some gamers may enjoy the narrative about-face (all of which is bookended by a fairytale-style narrator rhyming disjointed couplets in rare moments of voice acting), but others might find the wink to the audience a little too much to bear.
Tsioque is a sweet adventure which brings plenty of amiability to the genre alongside a lovely animated style but it rarely feels like it has any heft, and the sharp twist in its later stages feel like something of a cop out in lieu of a real ending. Point-and-click fans will be diverted for a couple of hours, but this fairytale is unlikely to linger on your shelf or in your memory afterwards.
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