After exceeding the €40,000 pledge goal on a triumphantly successful Kickstarter campaign, Pankapu originally found its way as a two-part release on Steam. There was a Wii U version in the works, but the team down at Too Kind Studios thought better of it and decided to land the adventure in its entirety on Nintendo’s portable home console instead.
On the surface, this action-platformer looks like a beautifully crafted, laid back and whimsical fairytale, with its gorgeous 2D artwork, orchestrated soundtrack and vivid colour pallet. The whole thing seems fitting enough for a young girl to get lost in as she surrounds herself with My Little Pony teddies, Disney blind bag toys, and a handful of Haribo. However, don’t let the cute and cuddly visuals fool you, because under its bright and colourful surface lies a unforgivingly sinister platformer forged from the bowels of dark nightmares.
We start the tale with a young boy named Djaha’rell, who wakes in a panic from a disturbing dream. His father comforts him by reading a fable passed down throughout generations about the dreamkeeper, Pankapu – who was created by the hands of Iketomi, the god of dreams, in order to rid the evil of the dark prince of nightmares infamously known as Gangreyn. The story is split between two narratives, the one of Pankapu which acts as the game’s main focal point due to you taking the helm of the dreamkeeper. The other is that of Djaha’rell and the traumatic events that stir him from a restless slumber.
Djaha’rell’s story is more abstract than that of Pankapu‘s as it gradually unfolds in tiny increments hidden away within its levels. The main fable is easy enough to follow if not a little convoluted, with the choice of character names thrown about to fit within its fantasy-based lore – in which case you would be forgiven if you find yourself bluffing your way through pronunciations whilst skimming throughout its text. The idea of unfolding Djaha’rell’s background is an interesting one that extends the experience by allowing you to revisit previous stages with newly acquired abilities for the more invested gamer to dig further.
You start off with nothing more than a little sword and shield to defend yourself with. It doesn’t take long until you are laterally swiping your weapon and plunging it down into the inky, orb-like creatures from above as you jump from pillar to post in a floaty arc reminiscent of the Rayman series. It all moves along quite easily at first with a generic underpinning simplicity within its layout. Once you do start to plod on with the belief that the whole thing is going to be a pushover from beginning to end, the difficulty begins to spike – so much so that it drags you by the face out of the mirage of its beauty into a stressful, Joy-Con-launching rage.
The levels are heavily laden with cheap and dirty tricks. Enemies and traps that litter the stages are usually placed in the most awkward way possible with a desperate desire to see you fail. Rarely can you solely rely on any off-the-cuff platforming skills that you may possess as you constantly run into thorn bushes in the dark. The constant low blows can break the momentum at times which can and will lead to frustration on many occasions, especially because your punishment results in an 8-10 second loading screen with each stumbled attempt. Luckily, the game is fully aware of this and fills the environments with a generous amount of checkpoints, making itself clear that the whole process is indeed a learning experience. This becomes even more evident when you begin to gain new abilities.
As the game moves forward, you eventually possess three warrior types in the form of Aegis. You have your default Bravery Aegis for melee and defence, the nimble Ardor armour that gives you the ability of an archer with a double jump to gain extra height, and, last but not least, the Mage Aegis that lets you briefly manipulate time to a standstill within a small radius – along with the added perk of gliding whilst airborne. Each Aegis type is upgradable, offering an extension to your abilities in a somewhat Metroid-esque fashion.
You can conveniently swap between each Aegis type instantly with the L or R Button, which leads to many instances where you must coordinate each ability in combination. One example of this is with a certain boss that you will encounter after claiming all three enchantments in which you will frantically swap between Aegis at the right moments to dodge and attack the beast. By the time you reach the end credits with all your experience gained, you will have the dexterity in your fingers that can even put Dynamo the illusionist to shame.
Whilst the level design can be tough, it doesn’t actually take too long to overcome the obstacles that lie ahead thanks to the many checkpoints in place. However, the boss battles are an absolute force to be reckoned with. They are incredibly tough to the point that you will have to memorise their pattern down to a fine art form. Regardless of how much health that you expand upon throughout the game, each one will knock you for six in just a few hits. The bosses are of a Dark Souls breed of difficulty, some taking a good hour of retries before I could finally take some of them down. Although I did find the boss battles extremely satisfying, and finally beating them is a real punch in the air moment, to say the least. I honestly believe I grew to become a much better and humble human being as a result.
The hand-drawn 2D visuals are gorgeous, with lush environments, crawling with detail in both the back and foregrounds of each level. Every section is visually diverse with nice story illustrations that look effortlessly hand drawn. The colours compliment each other beautifully, without losing value in its vibrancy in handheld mode. Despite Pankapu looking like Marvin the Martian with a broadsword, his design is handled very well and is a likeable protagonist overall despite his lack of personality. The music is also fantastic, with the distant vocals of a choir to accompany the memorable boss encounters. The soothing lullaby tones found in the greener parts of the game are so blissful I actually fell asleep once whilst playing it.
The variety of the enemies feel very slim at first, but this does eventually spread the deeper you delve into the adventure. There were a few bugs that occurred with my time spent with Pankapu, some actually quite nasty. One, in particular, saw the game freeze when I tried to visit the first boss lair but this may have been fixed with the recent patch. However, one that still remains is stuttering visuals at some of the most inconvenient moments possible. Most notably a scrolling boss level that would momentarily freeze the screen, killing your control mid-jump as you plunge to your death as a result. There were also some moments later on in the game where I would reach the end of the stage for it to freeze for about 30 seconds, worrying me that it had crashed. I’m glad that it did eventually sort itself out though, because I was ready to dead arm my teenage son for just sitting next to me.
It’s fair to say that Pankapu was an emotional experience to say the least. Whilst its cheap difficulty curve may be too much for some, Pankapu is a fulfilling experience that gets more interesting the deeper you plough. The controls can feel a bit too floaty at times but despite a few minor glitches you always have a good handle over your character. There are also some great little surprises stuffed in to break the formula from time to time with lots of things to find and discover including the fat little floating mudjins that season the stages for the ‘collectaholics’ out there. Furthermore, the reasonable price point makes it great value for money.
With my time spent on this little platformer, I have developed a bit of a soft spot for Pankapu. We have been through a great deal together. The world of dreams ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there if you let it.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Plug In Digital