In what has been a big year for wholesome, feel-good videogames, Giraffe and Annika is up there with the best of them. Through a classic action-adventure framework with a dose of rhythm game, game and uses that to tell a beautiful, personal story about the ties that bind family together.
At the heart of Giraffe and Annika is Annika, a young cat-girl who wakes up on a mysterious island with no memory of who she is or how she got there. She soon meets Giraffe, a young boy who seems to know Annika well; according to him, she’s the last of the Felycans, and the only person able to enter the dungeons found across the island. If she can recover the star fragments found within, she’ll be able to recover her memories, or so says Giraffe.
So Annika sets about to do just that, Giraffe helping as much as his non-Felycan self can. Getting access to each dungeon is its own hurdle, typically involving helping out the island locals—who all seem to know Annika—with something or other, be it wrangling a bunch of missing bunny children or photographing statues to give inspiration to the resident artist.
It’s all very low-key and calming; there aren’t any monsters to fight or hazards to worry too much about, just a series of straightforward quests and a serene island to explore. There’s the odd moment of frustration if you forget what you’re supposed to do (since there’s no quest log) or can’t find what you’re looking for, but Giraffe and Annika‘s world is small enough that you’re never looking for a needle in a haystack for too long, even when that happens.
Dungeons dial up the tension a little bit, thanks to the presence of hostile ghosts and various platforming and environmental puzzles. Annika has no means to fight back against the ghosts, so each dungeon is mostly a case of trying to avoid them while dealing with whatever unique challenges the particular level in question throws at you—lava pits and mine carts in the fire dungeon, floating rafts and a network of ferries in the water dungeon, and so on.
At the end of each dungeon is a boss, ranging from a giant crab to a steam-powered robot. Rather than fighting directly, though, bosses play out through a simple rhythm-based minigame: the boss throws little balls of light in time to the music, and you have to hit them back. The music is upbeat and catchy, with later levels mixing it up by adding dodging to the mix. Beat the boss, get the star fragment, and Annika will gain a new ability that allows her to venture further afield and, after a bit of a side-quest detour, get to the next dungeon.
It’s all very straightforward, even rudimentary; Giraffe and Annika asks nothing of you that hasn’t been seen in a thousand other games before it. But that’s not a bad thing—this is a game that wants you to just relax and unwind, and there’s comfort in the familiarity of it all.
It also sits nicely with the narrative, which really carries that feel-good nature. Annika is a cheerful girl with an appetite for adventure and a cheeky streak, which balances nicely against Giraffe’s modest, helpful nature and the eccentricities of the rest of the island’s inhabitants. Despite the dungeons and the adventure that comes with them, there’s a real slice-of-life feel to the way Giraffe and Annika plays out, which makes the whole low-key nature of the game design feel appropriate. It’d feel wildly out of place to have Nathan Drake take a break from killing bad guys by the hundreds to help a local find and bring her kids home for dinner, but for Annika, it fits.
Comic-style cutscenes are a particular highlight, bringing a level of emotion and energy to key moments. The in-game animation system isn’t really up to the task of facial expressions—this is a game built by a small team, on a small budget—but the gorgeous, expressive artwork in the cutscenes perfectly captures the tone of each moment.
That all helps lead Giraffe and Annika to a rather powerful conclusion, when you finally get the full picture of who Annika really is. It’s exactly the ending you’d expect (especially since it’s heavily foreshadowed throughout the whole game), but it’s no less meaningful for that fact. It’s heartfelt and thoughtful; a perfect conclusion to a sweet, soothing game that’d put a smile on the face of all but the most cynical players.
If that’s not enough, Giraffe and Annika also has the most wonderful collectibles: “Meowsterpieces”. Hidden throughout the island and its dungeons are 30 different cat-themed artworks from different artists, which can be viewed in an in-world gallery or from the menu. They cover all sorts of different styles, with the unifying theme of being completely adorable. If I could, I’d get prints of every one and put them up in my home.
For all its low-budget charm, a few quality-of-life features wouldn’t go amiss in Giraffe and Annika—specifically, a map and a quest log. Especially early on, it’s easy to get lost even within the game’s relatively small island, and there are a lot of landmarks that you pass by early on that don’t become relevant until later. Having some sort of map you can pull up as a point of reference would be a big help. So would a way of tracking your current quest, or at least a text log—there’s often useful detail that’s mentioned once in dialogue and never revisited again, and it’s easy to lose track of what you’re meant to be doing if you turn the game off for a while and come back later.
But those are minor inconveniences, at worst. Giraffe and Annika is full of heart and charm, a timely reminder that a game doesn’t have to be constantly pushing new boundaries or ultra-polished to be captivating, enjoyable, and worth your time. This is a whimsical, heartwarming adventure that doesn’t ask a lot of you, but gives you a poignant story to discover and a fun way to spend a few hours.
Giraffe and Annika is developed by atelier mimina and published by Playism and NIS America. It’s available now for PC, and is coming to Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PlayStation 4 on 25 August 2020 (NA) / 28 August 2020 (EU/ANZ).
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.