Video games have a flair for storytelling that I always have admired. Due to the non-linear requirements and the potential to change gears at any time, you can have a story play out in ways you couldn’t fathom within other mediums. Many people criticize Brutal Legend for suddenly becoming a tower defense game halfway through, but I think it shows the potential that exists in gaming. If you had a romantic comedy suddenly transform into a crime drama halfway through with the same characters but no mention of the tone shift, people would walk out of the theaters. Probably. I would actually love to see that. But the point is, you can often have a bigger and better story just below the surface with a video game, and it’s the prerogative of Pankapu to do exactly this.
It’s a bit convoluted to try and follow the main storyline, and I would go ahead and mark that as one of the small failings of Pankapu right out the gate. In theory, the baseline is simple: a girl awakens from a bad dream, and her father/guardian tells her a bedtime story to help chase away the nightmares. It seems like he invents the idea of Pankapu, a dreamkeeper, who journeys through the land of sleep to defeat an evil force and bright peace and serenity once and for all. But, as the story of Pankapu unfolds, we get flashes, glimpses and views into what exactly created the nightmares in the first place, which is where a dark and tragic storyline evolves on its own. Additionally, in an effort to create something truly unique, Pankapu’s tale is steeped HEAVILY in original names, lands and terminology, which is a double edged blade that hangs above most fantasy writings. It does create a wonderful sense of immersion, but it can be daunting, even exhausting, to remember the difference between Hya-Nagi, Ohiti, Iketomi, Mudjin, and countless others. If you got through the Lord of the Rings, this should be nothing, but it’s still a lot.
Pankapu functions as an adventure platformer, with plenty of places to explore and find on the map. Initially, you find yourself in the guise of a swordsman, who gradually picks up new skills, such as sword throwing, to increase your success and power. There are plenty of blobby bad guys around (the Hya-Nagis I mentioned earlier), but there’s no purpose to killing them unless they are directly in your way. Despite a floating damage meter that appears with each strike, you don’t get XP or any real rewards from slaying minor enemies: rewards come in the form of what you can find and who you can rescue (usually little fairy creatures). After adventuring around a bit, Pankapu will discover a few very useful thing. Firstly, you need to have your views upgraded so you can even see the whimsical sprites, and then you have the almost necessarily choice to backtrack and see if you can collect them all in each level (they were there the whole time!). I quite liked this unlock, because, until that moment, the level designs actually felt oddly pointless with nooks and crannys that seemed to have nothing. Surprise, fairy god parents!
Secondly, Pankapu finds out how to change forms and become both an archer and (much later) a mage. The transformation between these identities is a split second and seamless, which is also a great, cool facet of the game (he’s a dreamkeeper, he doesn’t exactly need to find a changing booth). There are areas and obstacles that can only be conquered by one form or another, but, for the most part, there are plenty of spaces where all three can coast comfortably, and then you have your choice of how you’d like to play the game. Are you a ranged attacker or do you prefer melee? It’s a good bit of variety and gives some definite strategy to be developed as you move forward.
The level design does, on occasion, leave a bit to be desired. Pankapu will fall in battle during his quest: it’s only natural. When he does, he’ll be able to respawn at a save point that gets triggered by simply walking by it in the course of the stage. These points are in a good quantity, but they very quickly become a bit too far spread out. Pankapu doesn’t move at an incredibly fast pace, so it can feel like it takes a while to journey to the next checkpoint, and dying when the oasis is in sight is not a great feeling. The obvious counterargument to this point is to simply “get good” at the game, but I do feel that Pankapu has a lot of potential for minor tweaks to catapult it into an eye catcher for players who haven’t heard of Pankapu before and encounter it on the Switch. Additionally, the PC version of Pankapu is divided into two parts, with a cliffhanger leading into a “part two” DLC that seems hit for miss on people’s sensibilities. The Switch version is complete and, as such, has a lot more appeal overall.
If the lore and the mechanics don’t grab you, the artwork will. I can see the love and attention that Too King Studio invested into this game, and it really comes through in the design overall. Our protagonist is lovable, if faceless, and exhibits power through action and not words. Bad guys are almost stereotypically evil, with dark auras, flames and sharp, wicked edges. The good fairies are soft, bright and really emulate the childlike idea of a “good dream” that we’re attempting to recapture. All gripes about checkpoints aside, the stages are paced and sculpted in a way that makes it feel like we’re moving about a world of it’s own creation, rather than a gaming stage that’s been injected into an environment. It’s a natural and comfortable notion that sits well with a player, makes them feel at home with Pankapu.
And that’s the main takeaway from Pankapu: comfort. This is a game that could have come into existence at any point in gaming history, but chose this moment to take form and birth onto different platforms and consoles. I’m not totally convinced it’s a perfect match for the Switch, but it’s a fantastic fit with Nintendo. Pankapu is a home gaming experience, I don’t recommend playing it on the road unless you have a long stretch of time ahead. This is a game where you’ll want to sit down and drink it in at your leisure, not pound it between phone calls or subway changes. But this is the era of the Switch, and Pankapu is a great parallel with Nintendo itself. A cartoonish exterior that some would dismiss as too immature, but capable of a rich and engrossing storyline when given a chance. Don’t let Pankapu pass you by: consider what may come only in dreams.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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