How to prepare Pikuniku: take one Undertale, remove all meaning and depth, and coat with a minimalized Night in the Woods art style. Garnish with nine co-op levels if you feel like it, but it’s not really necessary. This will make for a sweet little puzzle-platforming palette cleanser defined by solid writing and a generally positive atmosphere. Note that due to the lack of challenge or narrative significance, those hoping to get a full meal out of this recipe will leave the table hungry.
I could continue this gimmick, but honestly, it would pale in comparison to the game’s kingly quirkiness. After being woken by an apathetic ghost, the player character emerges from their mountainside cave to find a village that fears them as a mythical beast, despite obviously being a cute little bipedal sphere. It just gets weirder from there, as the plot goes on to feature sentient rocks, explosive pine cones, and buoyant worms. There’s a lovely, pervasive sense of childlike whimsy to it all, reinforced by the innocent visuals and soundtrack. It’s the combination of that vibrance with hilariously deadpan dialogue that really makes it worth playing, though.
The gameplay is certainly not contributing in that regard. Your only abilities are jumping and kicking things, so the options for puzzle-solving are quite limited, occasionally devolving into mere fetch quests. It’s never frustrating, at least – most tasks are fairly straightforward, and the physics seem to be tweaked to work in the player’s favor. The inclusion of speechless two-player co-op levels is rather bewildering, however, as they suck out most of the handmade charm of the campaign in favor of an emergent equivalent, with levels featuring unwieldy vehicles and players tethered together. It’s all generally agreeable, but it’s no substitute for a well-told joke (except the ability to kick your partner across the screen; that’s comedic gold).
“Why would they bother with that?” was a recurring phrase while playing. Pikuniku has a serious problem with unused space – hidden nooks that feel like they should totally contain little secrets dot the landscape, and co-op levels often contain alternative paths with nothing in them. But the largest unused space is where the overarching plot was supposed to be. At first, there seems to be a recurring theme of fixing your own mistakes, but that disappears after the initial village. All press material for the game hints at an underlying darkness, but unless you’re unaccustomed to stories having antagonists, that angle is profoundly underwhelming. Sacrificing the concluding exposition for another joke was also rather ill-advised.
Pikuniku constantly reminds me of Animal Crossing, despite being a completely different game. It’s that same sort of aimless feel-good experience that’s meant to be played between more “serious” works. It says a lot that most of its problems manifest merely as disappointment with what could have been, rather than frustration at what there is. It’s not going to win any awards, but if you just want something to put a dumb smile on your face for a day or two, it’ll get the job done.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A review copy was provided by Devolver Digital.
Pikuniku is simple, silly, and ultimately kind of pointless. That being said, if you're looking for a short, feel-good experience, it might be up your alley.