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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Some More Indie 3D Platformer Recommendations, Part 1: Tasomachi and Here Comes Niko!

I’ve mentioned it here repeatedly in the past, but I am a pretty big fan of 3D platformers, and I’m willing to give a decent variety of games a try just to see how they are. A few months ago, I did a round-up of smaller 3D platformers that I had found through this willingness to try new things, and it was a lot of fun! I didn’t necessarily have a ton of deep design insights or anything, but it is fun to recommend smaller titles.

And since I’ve found a few more fun 3D platformers in the interim, why not run another small game round-up? Technically, all of them are games I’ve briefly mentioned here in the past, but usually in passing on another article (two of them in the last round-up, and one in my most recent playlist). I’ve enjoyed all of them a ton, so I figure it’s time to give them their own full highlights!

One big difference from the last time I did a round-up, though: the last time, I was as much trying to break down the different components of the genre, and looking at games that did some things well and other things maybe less good. This time, though, there’s a lot more polish to the games I’m mentioning. If you’re also a big fan of 3D platformers and always on the lookout for more, honestly I don’t think you can’t go wrong with any of these. If it’s more a genre you occasionally dig into, though, you still might find something that’s your speed, and hopefully breaking down what I like about these games can help you make a decision.

This was intended to be a bit of a shorter piece, but things wound up spiraling a little out of control, length-wise. And so, today will be the first of two parts; look for the follow-up sometime in the next week or so!

Tasomachi: Behind the Twilight (Orbital Express)

Like all of the games here, I’ve mentioned Tasomachi here before as something I was looking forward to. Unlike the other entries here, though, it didn’t come in a video game article; rather, it came during my Summer 2021 playlist. Snail’s House, an artist who’s now a regular feature in my Playlist articles, provided the soundtrack here (albeit under his other pseudonym, Ujico*), which is part of what made me first take notice of it. And sure enough, as expected, I really did like the soundtrack. But the game it’s attached to is also pretty good!

And that game in question is a collectathon 3D platformer made primarily by one person, nocras. You play as Yukumo, a young girl who swoops onto the scene piloting her airship through canyons and across seas. Shortly after that majestic opening, your ship begins experiencing technical difficulties, leading her to set it down in a particularly misty valley. You learn that this fog is a curse that has frozen the area, and driven out most of the people, leaving only a handful of cat-like creatures to explain various things about the area to you. As it turns out, collecting the many lantern-like Sources of Earth scattered about the area should be able to both restore your ship and chase out the perpetual fog.

It’s a pretty standard video game plot, especially for a 3D platformer. But it does also help to set the game’s vibe extremely well, a feeling which is both incredibly well-constructed and maybe the strongest selling point here. The world of Tasomachi is primarily made up of three different levels (plus a few other side areas), each of which is a different port city along the valley that has fallen under the twilight fog. They all come stocked with several dozen Sources of Earth, which can be collected by searching the area, doing tasks, and completing platforming challenges in local shrines; that, in turn, lifts the fog and reveals even more challenges to complete, and once you have enough, you can travel to the next area. You know, the usual stuff for this type of game.

What sets these worlds apart is that they’re just so darn pretty! Each one is a lovingly rendered, intricate town, full of different buildings to climb, alleys to explore, majestic vistas to sightsee, skies to sail (once your airship is fixed)... After exploring for so long, you start to wonder if they’re just recreations of real areas rather than custom creations (or at least, I did). There’s even a day-and-night cycle to contribute to the sense of verisimilitude. Walking around them almost feels like exploring a historic location tucked away in a fjord by the sea and taking in the sights on a pleasant fall day.

And add in Ujico*’s soundtrack, which shifts between mysterious, tense, and laidback earworms for each world as the situation demands, and it’s incredibly easy to get lost just wandering around, enjoying yourself and soaking it all in. And to the extent that it breaks from the “almost the real world” style, it’s to add small touches of the supernatural, like the cat-like Nezo around the world, or the airship, or the mystical fog, all of which only give it more of a dream-like or even fairy tale vibe. It’s a beautiful world to just… exist in for a while.

There are some points that… aren’t issues, per se; I certainly found things to enjoy about them. But things that might make the game come off differently to different players. The locations in the game are kind of devoid of crowds (presumably as a trade-off for the other things the dev invested time in). There’s a handful of living things still, and the story largely leans into the lack of people of course, with the tale of the cursed fog chasing away most people, and the promise that they’ll return soon now that it’s over (individuals could read a variety of interpretations into this, I suppose, ranging from “healing will take time” to “life here will never fully recover”, depending on your outlook).

I can see why the lack of bustle in towns could grate on a player? It adds to the “trapped in amber” effect of the mists for sure, at least, but that’s only part of the game. But after those are gone and a few more Nezo return, it was enough for me. I got a sort of wistful melancholy from it, personally, like visiting a normally-crowded place but at the wrong time (say, a college town in the summer, or a vacation spot in the off-season), and it only fed into the mood I was feeling while playing.

Similarly, one might take issue with the Sources of Earth (the main collectables, like Mario 64’s Stars). I saw some criticisms around Super Mario Odyssey and the sheer quantity of missions to do, and how some felt small and insignificant as a result. If you were bugged by that, this might not be the game for you. There are over 240 collectables here, including 60 in each of the three towns, and the game thrives on you noticing small patterns you can interact with across areas, or on similar missions being numbered to give you an idea of what to look for, and more generally turning over every nook and cranny of the city, to help fill out its list. There is a sort of main progression in the form of the six shrines and the gradual de-fogging, but people who get their joy from storylines rather than exploring might be at a loss.

The one actual-complaint I would have is probably the controls. They aren’t bad, but of the games I’m covering in this two-parter, it’s definitely the least-tight. Things can feel a little floaty and imprecise, although the game rarely asks you to perform overly-exacting feats of platforming either, so moving around rarely feels bad, just less good than in other places. It definitely wasn’t enough to ruin my playthrough, at least.

Here Comes Niko! (Frog Vibes)

In 2021, Gears for Breakfast, developers of the wonderful A Hat in Time, moved into the publishing sphere, starting with Here Comes Niko!, a 3D platformer from Frog Vibes. The game sees you play as Niko, a human who has recently (and somewhat suddenly) moved to a chain of islands populated by talking animals, and is looking for a job and some stability. The most promising option appears to be a company of frogs looking to hire the apparent hot, new thing for their world: Professional Friends, a role that mostly entails doing the sorts of tasks common in this genre (explore worlds, meet people, help them with their problems, collect things, etc.)

The game is marketed as “the cozy 3D platformer for tired people”, and that largely tracks, for me. It’s by far the most relaxing and easy-going of the games that I’m covering in this set, for a variety of reasons. Despite being a game that’s technically about auditioning for a job, the overall feeling it instills is much more “lazy afternoon on a summer vacation”, as you explore inviting locales and talking to friendly people mostly just enjoying their day.

The game uses a cartoony art style, with 2D character sprites moving through a 3D world (much like Heaven’s Vault, although to an extremely different effect) of bright pastels and vacation-y spots. The characters are generally fun to look at and fairly varied in design within their style, even if most of them are sort of one-note personality-wise. As far as the settings, it almost reminds me of a much more chilled out Super Mario Sunshine; these levels feel like places people would come to visit and get away from it all, although Niko! uses a variety of smaller getaway spots (a local pool, a hot spring, a mountain forest…) rather than singling in on a tropical island.

Of all the games I’m covering in this article and the next, Niko! might have the best movement, which is always key for a 3D platformer. Or rather, I think it has a lower learning curve and polished results; Blue Fire (to be covered next time) has a wider variety of movement options, and you can pull off cooler things if you practice and get good, but Niko! will probably have you feeling like an expert just by playing around and exploring the levels like normal, as you learn all the tricks of traversal. I’m by no means a master, but by the end of the game, even I was thinking, “Dang, this feels really smooth, I might even be able to learn a speedrun for this or something”.

Again, I’m not sure if this game is going to be for everyone. It’s on the shorter side of what I’m covering in this set, with less to it than Tasomachi and Blue Fire (the Toree games are shorter still, but also priced lower). It’s also the easiest to complete, and probably the most forgiving of failures, which might make some people lose interest. There really aren’t any difficult platforming chunks or tricky discoveries to pull off, it’s mostly just “here’s a level, thoroughly explore it and have fun”.

And if you’re the person that needs a story to really push you along, this might not be for you. That’s not to say there’s no story or stakes; you get little reminders of the life Niko is trying to leave behind on the train rides between levels. In fact, this… might be the best character arc in any of these games today, and these reminders of a life left behind probably reinforce that “summer vacation” vibe I mentioned earlier, reminding you that there is also a “real world”, not just hot springs where you befriend axolotls or whatever.

And it’s certainly the most direct story told, as both Tasomachi and Blue Fire have a tendency to drip feed lore and exposition after challenges. But Here Comes Niko! is ultimately just a story about one person, trying to make it on their own and get a job (rather than lifting a curse or saving the world). And the game doesn’t even really try to play that up for drama; Niko the character certainly worries about getting hired in-story, but the game itself generally indicates that this will happen. This is probably to its overall benefit, since it is going for that “relaxing” feel and that’s not how most people view a job hunt, but it does mean that you’re largely propelled forward by enjoying the game and wanting to see the rest of it. That was more than enough for me, though.

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