I don’t think there’s any video game genre quite as timeless as the platformer. They’ve been around for more than 30 years, and the basic ideas have been iterated on heavily in that time, but a simple, well-made, classically-styled platformer is still a wonderful thing.
…Wait. This is sounding eerily familiar – perhaps because it’s exactly how I opened my review of Pankapu earlier this month. Still, it’s a fitting introduction to a review of Coatsink’s Shu as well, because, like Pankapu, it’s a simple, elegant platformer that gets the fundamentals spot on. (Also, I gave up trying to find a different way to say the same thing, and I figure I’m allowed to plagiarise my own work.)
Like so many platformers, Shu has you running and leaping your way from left to right, navigating jumping puzzles and other environmental obstacles along the way, until you get to the end of the level. Like far fewer platformers, Shu’s controls are near flawless, making that process an exhilarating rush rather odious case of fighting against a player character who never quite seems to do what you want them to.
This is important for any platformer, but especially for one that’s all about momentum. Shu’s level design is such that, when you’re playing well, you never really need to stop moving. In fact, for half of the game’s levels or so, stopping isn’t even an option, lest you get caught by a big storm of darkness that’s chasing you down. When you time all your jumps just right and hit all the best arcs, you become like a leaf on the wind, breezing through the level unhindered.
Shu’s eponymous hero may not be a leaf, but that doesn’t stop him from riding the gusts, armed as they are with sort of primitive wingsuit. Shu can glide freely across gaps and also take flight along wind currents, both of which are vital for overcoming the various obstacles the game throws at you. There are moments when you’ll go for what feels like hours (in reality, it’s a matter of seconds) without touching the ground, as you hop from current to current.
Beyond their wingsuit and the uncanny athleticism typical of platformer heroes, Shu’s abilities are somewhat limited. Luckily, they’re not alone; in each level, you’ll find a couple of friends extend your repertoire of tools with the likes of double jumps, waterwalking, wall-jumping, and plenty of others. It’s not a continually growing arsenal like a Metroid game, but rather, each world – consisting of two to four individual levels – has two friends that you meet early on, giving you the abilities you need to get through the rest of that part of the game.
The way those abilities are imparted is absolutely adorable, too: they all hold hands. You still only ever control Shu directly, but they’re followed by an entourage of friends, all holding hands and overcoming the difficulties they face through cooperation, teamwork, and friendship. Cheesy? Sure, but I loved it, and thought that it was a cute little touch that injected a lot of humanity into the game.
On a more practical note, it adds to the rush of racing through a level when you’re not just jumping and gliding, but chaining these other abilities together. You might run across a body of water to reach a wall of flowers that you can climb by wall-jumping, and then catch a wind current at the top. You might glide across a gap, then slow down time so that you can air-dash throw a glass window without being instantly crushed by a piston on the other side. Again, Shu is a game all about momentum, so it’s not so much about complex puzzle solving as stringing these abilities together without interrupting your flow.
That said, I do wish that Shu wasn’t limited to bringing just two friends at a time. The clever designs of the friend abilities are just begging for bigger collaborations than; even a group of Shu and three buds, just one more than the current setup, would have allowed some wonderfully creative, interesting puzzles over and above what’s already present.
This limitation almost certainly to do with scope – this being a game from a relatively small team – and it does keep the game from getting bogged down with mechanics and overly complicated. I appreciate that, but I still can’t help but wonder what glorious platforming could be done if, for instance, Shu could glide, double jump, smash through windows, and wall hop, all in sequence.
There’s a simple plot framing all of this: after a great storm destroys their village, Shu sets off to rescue the stranded villagers and find a way to fight back against the encroaching darkness. It’s minimalist to a fault, but gorgeous, wordless motion comic cutscenes make it poignant despite this simplicity. In fact, there’s a real beauty pervading the whole game that makes even fairly typical fantasy locations – a lush forest, a desert, and evil castle – feel vibrant and exciting. Expressive animations give each villager a strong sense of personality despite the lack of any overt textual characterisation, and this is all wrapped up in a soundtrack that carefully treads a line between soothing and exciting.
As lovely as it is to look at, the real beauty of Shu – as I’ve already said – is the graceful, momentum-based platforming. It calls to mind the old Sonic the Hedgehog games and more recent Rayman titles, and that’s certainly good company to keep.
Shu is developed by Coatsink and Secret Lunch and published by Coatsink. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 and Steam.
A PS4 press copy was supplied by Coatsink for this review.