Owl be darned
It’s been a little over six years since Super Meat Boy got released, and while it wasn’t the first platformer that focused on difficulty and speedrunning, it was easily the most popular. The popularity inspired a shift in platformers. The simplicity was there, but the colorful and more relaxed nature of Marios and early Sonics was left in the background. About a year after Super Meat Boy, Rayman Origins was released. Rayman kept the tight platforming but expanded the levels and offered stronger focus on exploration and collection. It’s not as fast as recent games, but the memorization of yesteryear platformers returned. This is important information going into Shu, because it’s really hard to separate the time I spent playing Shu without comparing the mechanics and feel to the Rayman style platformers of recent years. There are 2D characters over the top of 3D backgrounds, scored amounts of collectibles at the end of each level, and a secret item to find everywhere. While the game makes some of its own strides, if it weren’t for the gorgeous graphics, Shu would have a hard time creating its own identity.
Shu’s storyline is simple. A village of Owl folk run into a darkness threatening to swallow up their world. Villagers are scattered across the world and it’s up to Shu to make it from point A to point B, rescuing their people and using their special skills to further progress. Gameplay is simple get from left to right. Shu is only armed with a jump and float skill, but other characters give extra features to mix up the gameplay. There aren’t any enemies to attack, just traps and obstacles to get across, which works perfectly fine for the style of game. The last level of each world generally involves a chase from the darkness, and all worlds contain six baby owls, aka “babbies”, to find and rescue.
There are six worlds, most containing an average of three levels. The life system is interesting. Rather than giving a set amount of lives for each level, it gives Shu five lives per checkpoint, which sounds like a lot, but worked great as a balance for particularly tough sections. Each world introduces a new set of characters with special skills to vary the gameplay. There’s a character that gives Shu a stomp, another which allows walking on water, one that can wall jump, and a couple more that work on specific game mechanics. It’s not like Mega Man where you can call up each skill when you need it. Each character sticks around for the time the game allots and at the end of their segments they’re whisked away by air balloon or vacuum tunnel. I can’t imagine having the whole skillset at my command when 90 percent of the time they’d be unnecessary, but the variety can feel a little forced, especially in the last stage where every set of characters shows up.
While I wouldn’t call Shu and easy game, the difficulty is relatively manageable, even for completionists. There’s a sense of pattern to where the babbies are hidden, as well as a giveaway jingling sound to notify of a nearby secret collectible. I’m not complaining; it’s nice feeling like I could manage to find and collect everything without having to look up any walkthroughs or guides. The chase parts were the most challenging portion of the game, and they leave little room for error. The darkness is so damn fast that one misstep and you’re toast. Shu alleviates this by sticking checkpoints throughout and spawning you far enough ahead of the darkness to figure out how to get through. It works surprisingly well and gave me a lot more motivation to go back and try levels multiple times.
As mentioned before, the graphics really hold the game together. The character and level designs are top-notch. Every level has its own lush color palette and all the characters have enough personality to separate which one does what skill. This is easily the biggest selling point of Shu, and it helps give the game its own personality.
The game doesn’t have a ton of levels, but that adds to the accessible nature of Shu. I was never overwhelmed and there was a clear end point. I managed to collect all the babbies, every mural piece, and finish the game in about seven hours. It isn’t quite 100 percent, but I felt satisfied with what I got out of the game.
Much of what’s been said so far has been a mixed bag, but a lot of the trivialities are easy to ignore. The difficulty is such a sweet spot for making the game accessible to all audiences. I can see kids and adults alike breezing through the game at their own pace and being able to finish it. I never got frustrated with the game, even in areas where I’d die multiple times. The collectibles never unlocked anything but achievements, which some may see as a downside, but that means other players won’t miss out on the experience or get a “bad” ending. I don’t think Shu is the top of its genre, but I do think the game is really good and still manages to get a recommendation, especially if you’re a fan of the Rayman series or looking for an introduction to the genre.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 4, Vita, PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Coatsink; Developer: Coatsink ; Players: 1; Released: October 4, 2016; Price: $11.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Shu given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.