Of all the moves Nintendo has made over the last few years, from the baffling but brilliant to just plain baffling, an announcement regarding a new Nintendo Direct has become arguably as anticipated as a showing at Gamescom or E3. While expos are opportunities for players to get their hands on the games themselves, Nintendo embracing the 'direct' approach allows information on new, upcoming or specific titles to be announced both regularly and with little notice. Directs have become something that fans constantly and consistently predict and anticipate.
With the release of the Nintendo Switch the emphasis has been spread across the system's spectrum, from tentpole titles like Super Mario Odyssey or third party big hitters such as Skyrim, to the brace of 'Nindie' showcases that have outlined strengthening Indie relations. Most recently, as well as Nintendo revealing the surprise 1-2 punch of Bethesda's DOOM and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, the Japanese Direct also showed off a little indie title that was released immediately after the presentation.
PAN-PAN, from Swedish developer Spelkraft, is a cute and quirky environmental adventure game, with the emphasis on exploration and observation to navigate terrain and solve puzzles. After crash landing on an almost desolate planet (the name comes from radio communication terminology expressing the need for assistance), the objective is to repair your spaceship by collecting various mechanical parts.
Presented and often played isometrically, it's relatively simple to manoeuvre the nameless yet adorable protagonist, with only a contextual action button required early on. In addition, sometimes just manipulating the camera by either panning or zooming can fully realise the simple yet beautiful charm of the world, and there's always the allure of what's waiting around the next corner or behind the next door.
The initial experience can be lonely, confusing and obtuse, but the instant likeability of the various local inhabitants, combined with the pleasant pastel hues and shades of the seamless and varied planet, will be difficult to leave behind. It's very important to 'stick' with PAN-PAN, because trekking and backtracking may seem aimless at times, but everything eventually falls into place rather nicely. There aren't any explicit instructions or narrative exposition, so you'll have to look for visual cues, which compliments the gorgeous minimalist landscapes and soothing music. Whether you choose to don a decent pair of headphones in handheld mode or dim the lights and play on a big screen, PAN-PAN's audio is an absolute delight, courtesy of sound designer and composer Simon Viklund.
The ambient soundtrack ranges from ominous to tranquil with the use of creaks, footsteps and delicate percussion to alien language, bird chirps and water flow. It's constantly absorbing and adds another layer to the overall atmosphere.
The puzzles themselves range from redirecting energy through terminals in order to open doors, to manipulating bridges to unlock new areas. There are some puzzles which rely more on paying attention to your surroundings, and there are tiny details that are easily missed or symbols to be misinterpreted; this might lead to a lot of mindless trial and error and frustration. It's easy to get caught up and be distracted by an area because there are red herrings and tantalising pathways, with no signposting to speak of. If you get stuck, it's best to not consult a guide and to instead freely wander around to allow for a new discovery or fresh approach, as there is a loose sequence to your progression.
There is a balancing act with the environmental puzzles and the absence of storytelling, and in this respect PAN-PAN falls just short in its early stages; that unfortunately does affect its initial flow. However, if you are looking for a beautiful, relaxing world to explore free of threat and dread, Pan-Pan has challenge, open space and more than enough charm to satisfy. While its non-explicit nature won't suit everyone, the game is worth your persistence and the deeper you go the more resonant the experience might become.
PAN-PAN is a lovely little game to get sucked into - oozing with charm and a handful of quirky characters to meet along the way. There's admittedly little replay value other than to re-explore the lush planet and solve the puzzles in a quicker, smoother manner, and while the environmental puzzles might range from frustratingly obtuse to organically wonderful, the planet rewards your time and exploration. Once the credits roll and after everything you've achieved, it will be almost impossible not to reflect positively on your short but sweet journey.