Review: Tengami

By Sean Clancy 24 Feb 2014 0
So. It would seem this lighthouse is important. Probably. So. It would seem this lighthouse is important. Probably.

Playing Tengami makes one realize just how seldom it is that a game shoots for tone above anything else. Sure, other titles might evoke certain moods in turn, favoring one particular vibe over another in the course of a six-to-eight-hour experience; horror games come to mind. But few are as consistent, and as unwilling to sideline the "feel" of a place in exchange for "game-ness," as this digital pop-up-book themed around traditional Japanese artwork. It's a calm, introspective game, and one that's less concerned with stumping the player than it is with imparting itself to them. Many of Tengami's “puzzles” could just as easily be called “attractions”, and the game's cleverness stems out of a holistic desire to have its storybook world fully realized by a curious hand.

All things to keep in mind when you're dropping f-bombs at a magical floating cherry blossom, and at all things—animate or otherwise—that would keep you from obtaining such magical floating cherry blossoms. So okay, there are a few real stumpers here.

But first, to drive the point home: the thing's just beautiful. Pictures don't do it justice. Beyond the static artwork—all watercolors and sharp lines, simple background elements contrasting with detailed, elegant architecture—there's an obvious commitment to the idea that your character is truly inside a pop-up book. Things have a papery crinkle when they move, and everything from the smallest interactive object all the way up to entire buildings and new screens fold up and down with a swipe of your finger, with all the moving parts and intermediate bits rendered for you to see.

The neat thing is, that's how you move from scene to scene (usually). Double-tap on over to a glowy bit on the ground, swipe from the edge of the screen in and, just like a picture book, you're somewhere else, either in a new outdoor space or inside a building. It's odd how satisfying these simple transitions are, almost every time. It makes Tengami's separate areas feel more connected than the spaces in a point-and-click style adventure game usually do. Technically, these spaces are connected—by interlocking “paper” mechanisms.

I... think this symbolizes time? Yeah yeah, time. It's usually "time" or "impermanence" in poetry, right? [That's what it was in Freddie The Leaf. --ed.]
That's where Tengami gets its best puzzles across. Much of the challenge here, to be fair, amounts to little more than realizing what things can be interacted with and then... interacting with them. Doors can be opened, bells rung, fires kindled, and so on. But, when Tengami asks you to think strictly in terms of its pop-up book conceit, things really click.

Turning a “page” goes from a simple, extra bit of immersion to a key mechanic, as the solution to a puzzle might be hidden in the interstitial zone between two screens. Getting to a higher portion of a level can require juggling a page split into three separate flippable segments, each containing three or so different sets of walkways and stairs, with your avatar literally jumping into the puzzle so as to navigate these impossible, interchangeable loops. Tengami might ask you to consider the most basic limitation of any game—the size of your screen—and challenge you to arrange its pop-up world so that the right components are visible to you at the right time.

This last sort of challenge is the most obviously contrived one. Without spoiling too much, in this particular example Tengami concedes that you can drag fire just, you know, through the air—but only to objects on screen, hence the rearranging of... things. Rather than a knock against, though, this comes off more as a wink on the game's part. Tengami is plainly obsessed with the artifice and physicality of something like a pop-up book, and, similarly, with the artifice and physical limitations of something like a touch-screen. In a way, you're not just tasked with out-thinking some omnipresent puzzle architect, but with thinking around the actual medium(s) you're engaging with. (Or... maybe the devs just thought it'd be awkward to drag fire and double-tap to move your character at the same time. Just... lots of art stuff here. Heady stuff.)

If you swipe fast enough, you can make your little dude fall down the stairs perpetually. (But no, not really.) If you swipe fast enough, you can make your little dude fall down the stairs perpetually. (But no, not really.)

The standout puzzles are great, then. And their greatness almost makes me wish there were more of them, or at least more like them. As the game stands you might see a puzzle of a certain “type” once or twice. The first time around it's shockingly clever, the next... well, possibly tedious for its familiarity. And then that's it.

Tengami is fairly short, make no mistake. That shortness is both a strength and a weakness. It's a game that's brief yet curiously, lastingly beautiful, much like the haiku it bookends chapters with. At the same time, though, a large portion of its brief running time is filled with tedious backtracking between puzzle-points you can't simply flip between. This back-and-forth isn't simply a byproduct of not “getting” a challenge the first time, but, rather, an intentional component of many puzzles which necessitate you search areas for [SOME THINGS], then record [THOSE THINGS] in a central location, and then go back to search for [MORE THINGS] to count up and record. There's much of deliberate trial-and-error here and, as gorgeous as Tengami's worlds are, it's hard to view them quite so rosily when you're trekking back and forth across the same stretch of land in order to solve a puzzle you already understand.

Ring for service. Ring for service.

Tengami isn't always as bright as it thinks it is. One feels the game could have gone just a bit further with its pop-up book theme, especially when it comes to incorporating that theme into puzzles and navigating the world. And, there's at least one infuriating non-puzzle near the beginning which frustrates with the fact that it seems like it's asking for a solution—a pattern, or trick—when it really only takes speed to “solve” it. Sure, one could argue Tengami is being clever again, poking fun at the player's tendency to over-think things (but I wouldn't).

Still, originality counts, and Tengami has originality in excess. For the most part, describing the aesthetic of the game is to also describe the mechanics which drive it; art and play are meant to be one here, and while the union certainly isn't perfect, it's also far removed from much of what you'll see in point-and-click-style adventure gaming. Tengami is something unique: a relaxing, intuitive challenge.

The game was played on a 3rd generation iPad for this review.

Review: Tengami

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