Norway has created steady buzz in the video game industry with third-party and indie developers displaying their set of talents for the rest of the world to witness. Henchman & Goon is part of that club. Pode for Nintendo Switch is one tale of the universe told in a whimsically touching way without words and it’s adored for doing so. It provides one of the best couch co-op experiences on the Nintendo Switch and implements wonderful ideas with a beautiful presentation all around. It’s also an easy contender for cutest game of 2018. Seeing Pode through its entirety only brought happiness and plenty of it.
Pode’s story mainly involves two entities and is ultimately about a rock (Bulder) helping a fallen star (Glo) return to the cosmos. Their adventure is straight forward and pretty much nothing is explained, but along the way players will be able to have their own interpretation about the interactions between, and the actions performed by, the two characters. The ending can certainly make players (one or two) feel cozy. Pode is a true co-op experience requiring wits from both persons playing to solve puzzles and create the way beyond. Glo and Bulder offer their own unique mechanics so playing solely as one of them for the entirety of the adventure will allow both players to feel like matching opposites. Being able to cooperate with a friendly or loved one offers a fantastic experience, but luckily the game allows for solo play and the experience can be just as good. A player of one is able to switch between characters at any time by pressing X. Over the course of the game players will find the two main characters gravitate closer together due to their particular friendship and on that same note solo players also have a dedicated button to physically bond them closer together simultaneously moving both to the point of holding hands (holding ZL). It’s a magnetic effect that keeps the pace flowing at an adorable rate.
Glo and Bulder compliment each other so well in terms of their abilities to help each other and the rooms are designed with that in mind. As you progress certain tricks or moves will need to be found out on your own as there are no directions or tips along the way except environmental clues pertaining to both characters and murals which provide the blueprint to solve many of the puzzles. At times you may ask yourself “can I do that?” or “should I do that?” and in succeeding with your idea you’ve just learned an action that will serve you well on your progress. Pode’s influences are Norwegian art and culture. Much of Pode relies on elemental behavior and how it makes sense within actual nature. Glo, being a star, glows, because of light. And Glo is light in terms of weight…
NOW… Glo is able to jump with a floaty fall and can float in water due to being buoyant. Glo is just not as strong as Bulder. Bulder, who has the weight of a boulder, sinks in water, but can also manipulate environmental objects such as pressing ground switches or rotating stone switches. Likewise, Glo can interact with plants to create platforms for Bulder. It’s simple, really. Themes in Pode are all about cooperation and the game displays the concept of friendship in the most relaxing way. It’s about getting through tasks together while taking in the beauty of your surroundings and putting positive energy into the universe to create a vibe worth basking in.
The controls begin fairly basic and remain that way for the most part, but at certain sections new abilities are learned. Pressing B allows for characters to jump and they can even jump on each other while one carries them. Pressing ZR will allow either Glo or Bulder to emit an energy field/orb around them allowing them to interact with the environment. This essentially serves as a standard action command. Subtle clues in the environment will hint at which character is able to interact with them. For instance, small hexagonal rocks on the ground or wall calls for Bulder to use Magnetize while bulbous stems or soft fungal pods calls for Glo to use Shine. The duo are like powerful forces of nature practically breathing life into the world as they move along. Each cavernous room seems rather normal. Some light emitting through the crevices and some foliage hanging nearby. It isn’t until the duo interacts with the room that a sense of rejuvenation is taking place all around them.
Carefully crafted, the attention to detail unfolding before your eyes is a visual treat in Pode and it feels like a painting has come alive in real time. Whenever a character interacts with a corresponding object, sections linked to that object evolve and fill the room with life. Grass, leaves, flowers and vines will push through out of the ground and hug on walls. Crystals with dot the walls in specific patterns and a group of large prismatic ones with jut down from the ceiling lined with glowing edges. While much of making this happen is for the sake of platforming portions, a lot of it can be passed by without ever needing to see it. If you are one be obsessive then the urge to completely fill the room will stick with you for the entire game. Still, it’s all worth it.
Navigational markers throughout the world are clearly laid out. Areas are marked by a symbol and within each area are a set of rooms with their own set of puzzles. An area will often will theme itself to a particular style of puzzle spread out through each of its rooms. Puzzles often involve creating platforms for the other to use. At first the solution seems fairly obvious, but later they require additional steps to be completed in a specific order using your abilities. These can get tricky and you’ll need to know when and where each character is needed at a given time. You may be able to open a path for your partner, but you may be blocked off or have no means to catch up in the process. Sometimes puzzles are solved by matching symbols found in the environment.
There are abilities mapped to specific buttons that only 1 of the characters can perform. Pressing Y can place an object in Bulder’s mouth or spit it out. Bulder can even carry Glo and shine a beam of light or spit Glo to a platform unreachable by normal means. Pressing A will place Glo’s light source anywhere in a room while Glo goes dim, but can easily retrieve it back by using Shine + A, or teleport to the light source by using A again. Their abilities are used in creative ways. An example is Glo placing light in a spot that Bulder can’t reach, have Glo meet up with Bulder, then place Glo in Bulder’s mouth and use teleportation back to the light source. Puzzles are the main course of challenge. There are no enemies or bosses. However, once you get through all the puzzles in an area, the end puzzle is the grand master of them all being unique on their own.
What’s great for the completionists are the additional collectibles and secrets for the players to find. There are two types which is naturally fitting since there are two characters. Glo can use Shine on specific walls to unveil secret murals and Bulder can use Magnetize on rock-flowers to release a pixie-like creatures as they open. While these can be ignored, extra puzzle solving is required to be performed for those who seek that extra bit of challenge.
Pode is marvelous in every aspect. The creators wanted to let the audiovisual direction speak for itself. Most of the delightful tone is wonderfully presented by nuances and the fact that the attention to detail is done well allows Pode to shine. Glo and Bulder have a definite bond. In fact, you can’t clear a room without both of them at the exit. If one tries to leave while a puzzle still needs solving, the one trying to leave one will turn back and give a sigh. If both are near the exit, but one still isn’t close enough, the one trying to leave will turn back and cheerfully call them. Pode succeeds in making seemingly simple characters in nature – one being a cube and the other being a sphere – full of character despite having no facial expressions except in the eyes. The characters movements and weight feel how they should for how they look. Bulder wobbles around when walking. Glo flutters and tippy-toes adorably across water. Their “voices” or sounds they make use proper tones to depict their emotions as you play. It’s all very charming. And despite being characters with no backstory or development, their journey is one you’re happy to see through. I have run into an issue a couple times regarding characters getting stuck in the scenery that was growing around me, but since you can fast travel to any room you’ve discovered, a simple trip to and from solved the problem. The game runs at 1080p and 30 fps with no drops and can be completed in about 6-10 soothing hours depending on your pace.
There’s been a third to accompany Glo’s & Bulder’s journey all along and his name is Austin Wintory, the composer for Pode’s soundtrack. He’s already made his way to the Nintendo Switch in such games as the Banner Saga series and now he’s created a memorable and soothing Norwegian folk-influenced soundtrack that feels nostalgic hearing it for the first time, making use of strings and winds. The strength of the beautiful title screen song carries into the main game. It’s simply magical.