Do you want to feel like you’ve taken something mildly hallucinogenic and you’re watching foreign-language kids’ TV? I’ve got the game for you.
The new PC and Switch game Pikuniku has been one of the few bright spots for me in what has felt like an overly long January. It’s an imaginative and cheerfully dystopian puzzle-platformer that totally pulls off being quirky and whimsical without being facile and is silly without making its player self-conscious. You play a red blob with wobbly legs that you can extend toward abstract little villagers. They initially think you’re a monster but become much more accommodating after you fix their bridge by kicking a spider across a river. That’s the kind of game this is. The art is minimalist but not simplistic, and the surreal puzzles and laconic writing really tickled my brain.
Playing Pikuniku feels like you’re tripping over yourself constantly, thanks to its gloopy physics and your distressingly flexible legs, but you can fold them up and become a little rolling ball with eyes when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere. (I didn’t actually figure this out until about halfway through the game and it was an extremely welcome discovery.) Bending the obstinate physics to your will is the foundation of most of the puzzles, but it’s forgiving enough to nip frustration in the bud. I found myself rolling happily through Pikuniku like my affable red blob, rarely snagging on the scenery and smirking often at its surreal humor.
Pikuniku reminds me of Hohokum or Noby Noby Boy. It’s just as weird and aesthetically refreshing, but not so directionless. It guides you through a surreal assortment of puzzles, microgames and platformy bits, from dance-offs with robots to obstacle courses to a short tribute to Dig Dug. I can easily imagine its designers at the London-and-Paris-based studio Sectordub spent months on each of these little interludes. They’re brief but perfect, and never once did I anticipate what was about to happen next. I mean, it’s hard to predict that you’re going to end up challenging a magic toaster, or playing basketball with your feet.
There’s a gentle anti-corporate plot going on to tie together the series of surreal escapades. Not really a spoiler: when robots turn up promising free money for everyone, there’s a catch. Talking to people, feeling out the edges of the collage-style world and barging your way into houses reveals hidden areas with meaty bonus puzzles, or bizarre hats for your blob, or in one case a game cartridge that I had to haul all the way from deep inside a mine to a nerd’s treetop abode to play. Exploring and backtracking are optional, but fun. Stick to what you’re supposed to be doing and Pikuniku is over too soon, but treat it like a little capsule world to dip into and it’s a satisfying couple of evenings.
It’s a pleasant surprise how well Pikuniku holds up when you (literally) kick at its boundaries. Pretty much everywhere you go there’s something to find. Villagers squawk when you kick them; acorns and skulls and balls bounce around the place; lamps and bells tinkle when you prod them. Characters have more than a single line of amusing dialogue. Pretty much everywhere you go, there’s something to find; it’s a deceptively robust little world that rewards your curiosity and sense of humor. It’s comedy is two-way, arising from how you interact with it as well as its script’s strange pronouncements.
Pikuniku’s three or four hours of spaced-out adventuring doesn’t demand too much of you, and proffers plenty in return for your attention. It’s like a half-remembered late-night Adult Swim cartoon or children’s book, with more going on under the surface than it seems. Play it now, and spend the rest of the year wondering if anything else will be quite as amusingly peculiar.