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. Pankapu, from Too Kind Studio, is a fine example of that. It’s a game that doesn’t introduce a lot of new ideas but executes the established formula to near perfection, resulting in a sublime platforming experience.
A good platform game relies on two things: reliable controls and smart level design. Pankapu delivers both in spades. I don’t think I’ve played a platformer with controls this smooth since Ori and the Blind Forest, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the gold standard. Our eponymous hero moves quickly and gracefully, responding instantly to your every input. You always know where he’s going to land, and his airborne maneuverability means you can comfortably take a leap of faith, knowing that you’ll be able to adapt to whatever appears on the other side.
I never once felt like the controls were getting in my way, even as I manically jumped between tiny platforms – some half as big as Pankapu himself – with a huge, angry, mustachioed Royal Jelly bearing down on me. Pankapu’s jumping puzzles demand precision, and the beautifully robust controls make sure that those are demands you can meet.
This game won’t throw anything at you that you won’t have seen before, assuming you’ve ever played a platformer, but that’s to its credit. It takes familiar obstacles like spike traps, disappearing platforms, and so on, and uses them to craft jumping puzzles that are challenging, yet approachable. Some of the obstacles can get quite fiendish, especially later on, but the familiarity of the design elements and excellent use of visual cues mean the goal is always clear. When you fail, you always know why, and can adapt your approach accordingly. Pankapu challenges, but it never feels unfair.
It starts out with your standard jump-over-gaps platforming, but before you know it you’ll be using moving platforms and double jumps to navigate complex mazes of walled with electricity. You’ll be making your way through pitch darkness with the aid of mushrooms that, when touched, briefly light up the platforms ahead. You’ll be sailing down a river, jumping over, through, or around whatever gets in the way, lest the current carry your boat away without you. Level design in Pankapu is creative, clever, and constantly evolving.
It does have one glaring problem, however: there just aren’t enough checkpoints. This is a common issue with platformers, and it frustrates me to no end – you’ll have a series of jumping puzzles, only the last of which is giving you trouble, but you have to aimlessly redo all the ones leading up to it for each new attempt. Otherwise interesting challenges quickly grow tiresome when checkpoint placement means you have to repeat puzzles you’ve already cleared just to get back to the bit that you’re trying to get past.
A challenging puzzle is challenging regardless of how far back failure sets you – being miserly with checkpoints doesn’t make a game harder, just more bothersome. To make matters worse, you respawn with only three segments of your health bar, regardless of how many health upgrades you have. Not only are you sent back annoyingly far upon death, but you get to approach any subsequent efforts in a weakened state.
Checkpoint issues notwithstanding, Pankapu’s growing suite of abilities give you the tools to approach the growing complexity of the level design. He starts out with a simple set of skills – jump, swing a sword, block with a shield – but this is regularly expanded upon with new attacks and new ways to explore. An airborne downward thrust is a handy way to attack an enemy from above, but it also lets our hero smash through certain rocks to get to hidden areas below; an improved sword lets him break through otherwise impassable red crystals.
The real upgrade, though, comes when Pankapu gets his second weapon – or Aegis – which completely changes his look and skill set. When armed with a bow, Pankapu can double jump, shoot distant foes, lay traps, and dodge through obstacles, though all this utility comes at the cost of reduced defensive abilities. You can switch between Aegis’ at will, though, so smart play will see you picking the best tool for the job at hand – and make no mistake, the puzzles will ensure that you do.
All of this is wrapped up in a simple story: when Omnia, the land of dreams, is threatened by an invasion of nightmares, the god Iketomi summons a warrior – Pankapu – to fend of the invasion. Pankapu’s journey takes him across Omnia, with companions he meets along the way aiding him in his quest and, more importantly, breathing a sense of life into what is otherwise a fairly standard plot.
Smart, funny writing and gorgeous comic-style cutscenes are the icing on the cake. In fact, the presentation of the whole game is fantastic. A bright, cartoony look accentuates what is, at heart, a silly, fun adventure story. Beautifully animated sprites inject a sense of personality into not only the heroes and villains, but even the regular monsters that you’ll kill by the dozen – it has the sort of visual characterisation that calls to mind games like Go! Go! Ackman and Shantae. It’s all topped off with a stunning score (some of which is composed by Hiroki Kikuta, of Seiken Densetsu fame) and great voice acting.
This pulpy fantasy romp is the bulk of Pankapu, but there’s also a much more sombre tale that’s used as a framing device. The game opens with a frightened young girl seeking comfort in her father’s arms, before the father begins telling her the story of Pankapu, setting up the central story and also going some way to justifying its simplicity. What exactly has the girl so frightened is unclear, but hidden collectibles throughout the game unlock images that, when pieced together, begin to paint a tragic story of her past.
I say “begin” because Pankapu is being released in two episodes, and only the first is currently available. Despite this, it doesn’t feel like “half a game”, with plenty to see and do, and a story that feels whole even though it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I don’t know that Pankapu has the kind of narrative that necessarily suits an episodic structure in the way that, say, Telltale’s games do, but it doesn’t hurt the experience at all. It also helps keep the game concise – I took a little over four hours from start to end credits – which is always a plus in my book.
As well as a conclusion to the story, the second episode promises new upgrades (including a staff Aegis with healing abilities), more secrets to hunt down, and, of course, more of that delightful platforming. The booming indie scene has brought a surge in platformers, but they rarely come as good as Pankapu. This is a game made by a team of people who clearly love the genre, have studied it, and know what makes it tick. Annoying checkpoints aside, Pankapu is platforming bliss, and I’m very much looking forward to the next part.
Pankapu is developed by Too Kind Studio and published by Plug In Digital. The first episode is available now on Steam.
A press copy was supplied by Plug In Digital for this review.