If you could only pick one genre that Nintendo systems have nailed down during their history, it would probably be the platformer. With the hat flinging, overall wearing mascot going on his own three dimensional odyssey at the end of this month, the Nintendo Switch has had a slew of top drawer 2D side scrollers to keep fans jumping for joy, whether it be the pixel art masterpiece and genre love letter Shovel Knight or Ubisoft's talismanic Rayman coming late to the hybrid's platform party.
While it wouldn't be fair to suggest there is no more room for anyone else to bring a new IP along for the ride, it is both a critically and commercially daunting task to stand up and rub shoulders with some of the best examples of the genre, not just on Switch but in general.
Pankapu, from French developer Too Kind, is the most traditional of 2D side scrolling platformers, and the game fits right into the console's library in terms of its aesthetics.
What is immediately striking about Pankapu is its glorious, hand drawn art style and vivid colour palette. Golds and purples in particular positively burst from the Switch's handheld screen, complimented by lighting effects and character animations that wouldn't look out of place in any top class anime. The first hour or so with the title, then, is an admittedly beautiful if slightly cliche affair. Drawing inspiration from the aforementioned sprites and environments, mechanically it also takes a few cues from some legacy titles. From being accompanied by a floating side kick constantly demanding your attention, to collecting health fragments and unlocking special sword abilities, to a giant tree at the centre of the opening area, there is more than a hint of influence from a certain little Hylian adventurer early on in your quest.
The game unfolds as the quest of warrior Pankapu on a 'save the world' affair, told as a bed time story to a young boy called Djaha'Rell by his father to help him sleep. Travelling across the dreamworld realm of Omnia, you will slay enemies in order to reach antagonist Gangreyn and find out what can be done to stop the nightmares before they invade humans.
Throughout the game the player will find items that will, in turn, reveal the narrator Djaha'Rell's own story. Panpaku himself is a silent hero, aided by your best friend and golden arachnid side kick, Chii. Chii is your voice and - as well as offering advice and in some sections - can sometimes transform to help you across certain terrain.
Controlling Pankapu himself is pretty solid, but juggling abilities are a bit inconsistent - timing jumps while slashing your sword can be clunky, while charging an attack takes a little too long and affects the flow of the game. Felling standard (and the limited variety of) enemies reaps no financial or experience based rewards, so it's up to the three main abilities - called Aegis that are unlocked as you progress - to add spice to the side scrolling sauce.
As a warrior Pankapu wields a sword at the beginning of the game, gaining strength and courage from the Bravery Aegis, offering more of a melee based combat for close enemies. The Archer Aegis allows for long range attacks using a bow, as well as increased speed, and the Faith Aegis is more akin to a Mages skill set- being able to self heal, teleport and manipulate mechanical objects. The learning of these different skills, being able to switch on the fly and mastering their power prove vital in defeating Gangreyn.
Exotic alternative names for upgrades and characters aside, the progression through Pankapu's lush world also consists of collecting Mudjins - of which there are eleven in each level. These are cute, charming representations of positivity, and revisiting levels to collect them all uncovers secrets and treasure. There are loads of hidden paths and extra trinkets to find, and finding key areas and items will reward the player with backstory.
Although there isn't much variety in terms of enemies, and certain foreground landscapes can feel a little intrusive, overall the game offers decent level design and immaculate presentation, with colourful narrative storyboards and a suitably elegant soundtrack. The titular hero has a fluid, floaty movement to him, and holding A will allow for higher jumps. There's a pretty familiar moveset of jump and projectile based attacks to learn, and there are some frustrating sections - particularly where space is scarce and enemies are plentiful.
Regular checkpoints throughout the levels ensure progress is feasible, and from manipulating light sources to reveal your path to navigating the various caverns and outside environments, the experience is always visually pleasing. The difficulty does ramp up in the later stages, and boss battles are pretty albeit standard set pieces of observing attack patterns and slashing away to reduce an energy bar. At times the action flows and has a degree of satisfying kinetic energy that rewards the demanding precision, and this is where Pankapu shines, only to be halted abruptly by the occasional cheap surprise or cluster of enemies, which are easier to avoid than confront. Given the combat and ability system, that aspect of the game can feel a little conflicted.
If you need a 2D platforming fix you can't go far wrong with Pankapu. While the polished, crisp, beautiful presentation and gameplay are engaging enough, it is nevertheless slightly let down by a few elements that affect the beat by beat and overall flow of the game. The charming characters and parallel narrative are intriguing, and while the resonant themes, fantastical atmosphere and wonderful locales enchant and are especially vibrant on a big screen, the controls aren't quite tight or precise enough considering the challenging level design an enemy combat. An enjoyable game, if not quite as strong as it could have been.