A fair few ‘applications’ have made their way to the Switch, usually just stuff like YouTube, Calculator,
Netflix, that sort of thing, but now we have a full-blown digital art program in the form of Colors Live. Far from just being a clone of MS Paint, it also has an ace up its sleeve in the form of the Sonar Pen, which we’ll talk about more in just a moment. But can the Switch really provide a suitable hardware environment for such a piece of software?
In a nutshell, Colors Live is a fairly simple and straightforward art creation suite, and a follow-up to Colors! 3D on the 3DS. You have brushes, a rubber (or eraser, if you prefer to measure butter by volume), and honestly that’s about it as far as usable tools go in terms of actually affecting the canvas. Blending modes, polygonal tools, textures, gradients, none of these are present meaning it all feels rather ‘back to basics’.
This simplicity initially felt like a massive limitation at first, but after a short while we were surprised at how far we were able to get without them. In a way the lack of tools forced a different kind of creativity from us, and made us have to think more like we were using traditional media.
You’re not stuck without digital quality of life improvements entirely, though. There’s a pleasingly robust layer system that supports 10 layers in total that can easily be switched between on-the-fly, the expected undo and redo buttons, zoom, opacity sliders for each individual layer, all wrapped around a surprisingly generous 2560x1440 maximum resolution canvas (as viewed through the Switch's 720p screen, of course). You can even watch back the entire drawing process of your artwork in video form, allowing you to see the creative process from start to finish.
So things are looking pretty fine right about now, although one thing that isn’t fine is the lack of a bucket tool. The inability to quickly fill in an area feels like a huge gap in the already limited toolset, and one that we realistically can’t think of a reason to be omitted. It’s true that you don’t have such luxuries with any traditional media, but you also don’t get the other additions we mentioned above, making the exclusion all the more perplexing.
But digital tools be damned, what about this physical tool we mentioned, the Sonar Pen? Well, in short it’s a stylus with a clear, conductive disc on its tip that allows you to have relative accuracy (and see what you’re doing) on the Switch’s touch screen. This technology has been around for a while, but where things get really interesting is the big honking cable coming out of the top and plugging into the headphone socket, and as a natural result of this there's no audio in the entire app, so you might want to whack out some smooth jazz on another nearby device to give your ears something to do.
Through clever trickery, the Sonar Pen is able to use sound to gauge the pressure you’re exerting on it, and communicate that with the application appropriately. The end result is that the pen is pressure sensitive, which is something most people wouldn’t expect from something on a games console, but it works far better than we would’ve expected. Palm rejection is also employed, and whilst it worked for the most part it’s clear that just like the pressure sensitivity it’s only possible due to a workaround. It’s laudable, but it doesn’t have the reliability of its pressure-based cousin, so we ended up using the tried and true hover-hand technique to get by.
The main controls act as hotkeys for the various features on offer, which can speed up the workflow extremely well. What’s more, everything can be mapped for right-handed or left-handed users, and even completely remapped to whatever you so desire. It’s a small inclusion, but one that gets top marks from us from an accessibility standpoint. The pen itself also has a button on it, but in truth it feels rather cheap and can be strangely tough to press, meaning we spent most of our time relying on the console buttons instead.
In terms of modes, you’re essentially stuck with just two, one of which is going to surprise many of you by just being the bog-standard painting mode. The other, called Colors Quest, gives you a series of challenges to overcome in an artistic sense. Sometimes you’ll have a limited colour palette, a limited toolset, or even just a theme and a partly-created picture that you’ve got to finish. It’s a nice little inclusion, but what’s baffling is that it actively locks you out of any subsequent challenges you might want to complete for a full day upon completing just one. You can adjust the date on your console to get around this but it’s not something you should have to do if you want to complete more challenges.
On a brighter note any paintings you create can be uploaded to Colors Live’s own server and gallery, letting you share it with the world or simply export it as an uncompressed PNG to any device with an internet browser (and the ability to download images). You can use the system’s screenshot functionality, and whilst it is more convenient, it’s also going to reduce the resolution of your artwork and make it crunchy and riddled with JPEG artefacts, so don’t do that.
Oh, and if you try docking it it just runs as standard but without any meaningful way to control anything.
All in all Colors Live is a useful art application with some strange limitations. The Sonar Pen and layers are absolutely welcome in our eyes, but the lack of a bucket tool, restricted brush styles, and many other staples left us a bit wanting. Having said that people have already been creating tremendous artwork showing that any medium is only as powerful as the artist’s skillset. We’d have liked to see a more complete digital art package, but for someone who already owns a Switch and wants to try doodling on a screen with something more than their finger, Colors Live provides a simple and easy entry point.