Independent games have been making and impressive splash for the last several years, and with the rise of Nindies on the Nintendo Switch, it’s hard to think of a better or more convenient time to be a fan of indies. I’ve been clamoring to get my hands on Pode, a Norwegian game developed by Henchman & Goon, ever since I first got to glimpse it during at Nintendo Direct. I’ve since poured many hours into this adorable and challenging puzzle game, and find it nearly impossible to put down.
Pode tells the story of a fallen star who is trying to return to the sky, who finds an unlikely companion in a passing rock. Both characters are incredibly cute, simplistic but still incredibly expressive, and each has their own, unique playstyle. This co-op game is filled with stunning beauty, brain-bending puzzles, and a delightful, innocent, and engrossing tale of friendship. Together, often hand-in-hand, Rock and Star explore the caverns of Mount Fjellheim, slowly ascending towards its peak, and awakening life and beauty inside otherwise barren crags with every step.
Each character has their own set of unique abilities, which can be combined by ‘holding hands’ to unlock some stubborn puzzles. Star can glow, radiating light which both causes plants to grow, and reduces its weight, allowing it to float for short periods of time. Rock can magnetize things, allowing him to pull switches, open stubbornly closed flowers, and cause stunning crystal formations to bloom. Of course, those are just their basic skills. As your friendship grows, so do your abilities, allowing Star to blink to different locations, while Rock is able to scoop Star up, carrying it inside it’s blocky body and focusing Star’s light in one direction.
The physics of each character have a huge impact on gameplay, and helps make each character feel distinct. Star is so light that it actually skates on top of water, while Rock sinks to the bottom. Rock and Star both have the same basic jump range, but Star is able to flitter much farther whenever it glows, and Rock’s bulk will actually press down on switches and weaker leaves which Star simply perches upon. This, combine a few brief but adorable cutscenes and the unique sound each character, creates two distinct and incredibly endearing little creatures that I quickly fell in love with.
Pode is, at its core, a co-op game, where two players work together, one taking control of Rock and the other Star. If you find yourself frustrated by Rock’s clunky jumping, or Star’s habit of being blown away by strong winds, switching characters is as easy as pressing a button; this game was made to be shared and enjoyed, savored and studied with someone whose company you enjoy.
It’s equally easy to play solo; switching characters is, once again, as easy as pressing a button, allowing you to leave one character waiting while the active one does some exploration. This can result in a bit of a trudge across some of the bigger chambers, but very rarely did it ever feel like much of a chore. That was partially due to the fact that Star and Rock’s powers each cause different things within the cavern to bloom; Star may cause breathtaking leaves and petals to unfold wherever it walks, but finding a hidden crystal flower, or a towering mineral spire while wandering about as Rock is no less delightful. You can also cut longer treks in half by simply having one character hop on top of the other’s head; this easy piggyback mechanic is not only cute, lets you move both characters at once.
While entirely wordless, the game does a great job of introducing the basic commands to even the most novice of players. I sat down with a friend whose gaming experience doesn’t extend much beyond Sudoku, and she was able to master the basics, and together we cleared the first several puzzles, and rooms, in the span of ten minutes. The gameplay is also quite forgiving. puzzles start out simple and ramp up steadily in difficulty, but don’t be fooled, some caverns may hold simple puzzles, but you’ll have to look carefully and think outside the box if you want to unlock every secret waiting there.
There is no hard failure, death, or game over. If you get stuck, you can simply turn the game off and return to the reset cavern at any time. While there is no soft reset button, you can always reset puzzles by walking into the previous room, then returning again. If you fall off a cliff, your character just hops back up a short distance away, ready to tackle the puzzle again. It’s an incredibly positive and uplifting experience, while still being challenging enough to keep the interest of veteran puzzle gamers.
I really can’t say enough about how beautiful this game looks and sounds. The music is soothing, the art style is unique, strongly inspired by Norwegian mythology, and I’ve found myself gasping on more than one occasion as once-barren caverns come to life with blooming flowers, sprawling leaves, sea anemones, clams, and spikes of sparkling minerals. If I have one complaint, it’s that it feels like Rock’s powers are a a slight disadvantage, due to the fact that the crystals which it grows can make a surface slippery, making it so that, occasionally, I can no longer jump off a previously solid platform. It’s never actually interfered with my ability to scale a wall or solve a puzzle, but it often felt like it might. That said, that’s literally me reaching for something less-than-positive to say about this gorgeous, sweet, utterly charming game.
Pode is breathtakingly beautiful, and a must have for any lover of puzzle games. The characters are simple but expressive, each with their own mechanics, physics, and skills, wandering a barren mountain which comes to life before your eyes. A co-op title at its core, Pode can be played in single-player with the same level of fun, and overflowing with puzzles that are fair and approachable while still offering plenty of challenge.