Blanc is nothing if not striking. A cooperative puzzle platformer, it tasks you with controlling a wolf cub and a fawn as they battle through the wintery elements to find their way back to their own kind. Appearing briefly in a Nintendo Indie World Showcase, Blanc features a vivid snowscape, and the image of your black wolf cub trekking through the stark white of the countryside is a beautiful one. But is it a fun one?
Developed by small French studio Casus Ludi and published by Gearbox Publishing, Blanc is a short game with a fairly simple premise. The young wolf cub and fawn are on a mission to return to their families, and must overcome obstacles, avoid danger, and even shepherd other lost animals along the way. There are two options, with the first being to play in single-player by controlling both animals on the left and right analogue sticks simultaneously – ala Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
The second option is the two-player mode, allowing both players to control one of the animals and work together to escape this chilly labyrinth. You must collaborate on your journey, as the small wolf cub can cut objects with its teeth, while the nimble fawn can jump higher and push heavier obstacles. Either way, this touching and gorgeous adventure lasts around three hours, depending on how often you get stuck. And believe me, you will probably get stuck a couple of times along the way.
First of all, Blanc is beautiful. The art direction is fantastic, and the imagery of the animals against the blankets of snow makes me want to tap my screenshot button quicker than a WarioWare minigame. There isn’t much in the way of variety – you’re not about to spin dash out of the Ice Cap Zone of Blanc and land yourself in the bright lights of Casino Night Zone. It’s snow, all the time, so bundle up and strap in.
However, the minimalism of the visual style works effectively, as it draws your eye to the animals, helping them to stand out when solving puzzles or platforming and showcasing the fantastic animations. Seeing the tiny wolf hop up a platform or the fawn slide down a snowy hill are moments that bring a smile to my face. There’s a lot of charm to simply wandering around as the two adorable animals, and if the game did more of that, it might be better off.
The crux of Blanc’s gameplay is cooperation, between both the wolf and the fawn, and the two players. When playing, this can be a deeply frustrating experience on your own. Blanc is clearly designed for two players, and that’s the only way I can recommend playing it. Steering both animals with either analogue stick, and then using the matching shoulder buttons to jump and interact with objects is uncomfortable at best and infuriating at worst. It gets in the way of the fun, so if you plan on playing Blanc, invite a friend.
Now, even when playing two-player, Blanc is sometimes frustrating. This is a puzzle platformer, but you can’t jump whenever you want, and puzzles have one single solution you must discover. So, you can only jump at clearly defined points, like Link jumping off a ledge in Ocarina of Time. It’s restrictive, but it’s clearly in place to point you towards the solution to puzzles. However, it just doesn’t feel satisfying when controlling cute animals that I want to see frolicking around. I’d rather see no jumping, or a game where I can jump whenever I want, with the height of obstacles steering the puzzle instead.
Secondly, the answers to environmental puzzles aren’t obvious. Blanc doesn’t present much in the way of signposting, so you may end up spending a lot of time in one area, staring at the same puzzle. While a few puzzles contain ‘eureka moments’, a few just test your patience, as the game allows you to walk far, far past a couple of crucial elements.
Meanwhile, Blanc contains a few missions that make you chaperone smaller animals, and one section in particular is such a stall in the game’s already frustrating progression that I nearly put it down. It’s a shame because I really enjoy the next chapter. Chapter six of Blanc (of a total ten) feels much closer to what the game should be throughout, instead of so many tedious moments, exacerbated by finicky controls and dumb AI.
That’s not to say none of the puzzles are fun, as a few feel great and are fun to solve. But the controls and the camera often get in the way. Both animals feel awkward to command (solo or two-player) and, as you’re using the analogue sticks to steer them, you’re at the mercy of the game’s chosen camera angles. When the two animals split up, Blanc just zooms out instead of splitting the screen, and the draw distance makes it impossible to spot anything in a world already difficult to see.
Blanc also has a few performance problems, with the occasional stuttering even when playing alone. Perhaps it’s the dense foliage or having to control two characters at once, but it’s disappointing to see a smaller game struggle on Switch. Needless to say, similar issues occur in online co-op, but with the added frustration of occasional lag. It’s not game-breaking, but it’s visible, and another thing getting in the way of fun.
One area that Blanc does excel at is in its sound design, as the whimsical soundtrack perfectly sets the tone of the game. Blanc doesn’t tug on the heartstrings quite as violently as something like Bambi, but a few sombre moments contain ample gravitas thanks to a beautiful score, and the wonderful diegetic sound. The howl of achingly cold wind, the crunch of snow below hooves, and the delighted squeals of animals all bring this world to life wonderfully.
My highlight of the game is one section involving two adorable baby goats, as a strict camera angle means you can’t get lost, and the quickly conveyed puzzle goes on just long enough. It’s here that Blanc feels like the game that the developer wants to show people, but so often the restrictive puzzle solutions, awkward controls, and unreliable camera get in the way. The gorgeous style does a lot of heavy lifting, and with some patience maybe you and a friend are in for a lovely time.
Blanc is something of a disappointment, as the stark contrast between its beautiful visuals and lovely story, and its frustrating puzzles and controls, mirrors the contract between the adorable little black wolf cub and the white fawn. Moments of fun slip through the cracks, and this is mercifully a short and sweet game. However, much of that playtime is battling against the game, instead of enjoying it.
Like a red wine stain on a stark white dress, Blanc spoils its pristine visual style with a combination of frustrating controls, stubborn camera angles, and restrictive puzzle solutions. I love walking through the beautiful wilderness as the adorable animals, but when I try and think of good gameplay, I’m drawing a blank.