Right at the very top, let’s address the elephant in the review: from the moment you select Shio’s icon on the Switch’s menu screen, Celeste will probably be playing on your mind. Although Shio first appeared on PC last year – well before the other platformer’s debut – it, too, presents a determined character battling self-doubt and testing their limits by negotiating increasingly complex obstacle courses on a 2D journey of self-discovery. What a pleasant surprise, then, to find that Shio holds its own and manages to blossom in Celeste’s considerable shadow.
You begin at a lakeside home in China and control a masked figure with a past clouded by anxiety and fragmented memories. Navigating through four chapters, you’ll stumble upon letters and objects that accumulate back at the home and uncover more about the family who lived there. Hitting ‘ZL’ opens a diary enabling you to access this material at any time and learn more as redacted details are gradually revealed.
Your move set is limited to a simple jump on ‘A’ or ‘B’. However, your character carries a lantern on a stick and can swing it mid-air. Doing so beside other lanterns throughout the environment activates a swooshy (technical term) double-jump and chaining these together is key to getting around hazards. Later you’ll encounter walkways that heat up or crumble as you run over them, gusts of wind and toxic gas to be used or avoided, grabby plant life and special platforms that momentarily appear when you strike lanterns.
In the spirit of Super Meat Boy, an acknowledged inspiration, developer Coconut Island describes the difficulty as ‘brutal’. After the title screen, you answer the question ‘Where wake up?’ – the first of several awkward translations that inadvertently compliment the dreamlike tone. You choose between ‘Shallow Dream’ or ‘Deep Sleep’; the former offers an easier time with more generous obstacle layout and save points but locking hidden challenge levels.
Chapters are split into smaller courses with checkpoints. Hitting ‘X’ at a start post brings up a sketched map of the upcoming section but we rarely checked the map, preferring instead to leap into the timed gauntlet and rely on our incredible ‘flow-state’ consciousness to see us through the fireballs and spinning saws. Failure leads to a puff of smoke and an immediate respawn at the last post.
Of course, the difficulty soon ratchets up and winging it becomes a less reliable strategy. That didn’t stop us trying, though, because controls are tight and the generous arc and whip-snap of the lantern feel great. The sense of inertia while swinging around gravity wells and narrowly avoiding spikes is immensely satisfying and there’s room for expression whatever your playstyle – methodical and calculated or flying by the seat of your pants.
Those instant restarts help mitigate the frustration of failure. Each section has a timer and a set time to beat, should the challenge take your fancy. Standing still and pressing ‘ZR’ enables you to skip directly to any previous section from any chapter, so you can return to specific areas, practice and trim down your overall completion record.
Everything looks lovely, too. We’re suckers for a spot of parallax scrolling and the painterly 2D aesthetic works beautifully on the TV, with a softer but still attractive look in handheld mode. Animation is smooth, and the environments are clean and readable. There are hidden areas and some circuitous routes to collectables, but each chapter is a relatively straightforward run from A to B.
Story-wise, it’s a touching little family narrative about identity, expectation and the blurring between dreams and reality – nothing particularly new, but it’s told effectively through sporadic dialogue from NPCs, plus the aforementioned diary entries and letters. Alternatively, all that touchy-feely guff can be skipped. Occasional typos, small text and awkward formatting take the shine off the presentation a little. The localisation is generally strong, which only highlights the odd awkward phrase. An ambient soundtrack fits the setting perfectly. You won’t find anything to whistle along to, but it suits the contemplative atmosphere.
With its timers and the start posts, running through Chinese villages and across boardwalks can feel a little parkour-like. The mechanics are apparently inspired by kung-fu films and that balletic ‘flow’ you sometimes achieve is addictive, although we imagine that the advertised ‘brutal’ difficulty might put off some players. Your mileage will vary but we beat it in around five hours, which included some frustrating sections – most notably the precision platforming of chapter four – but certainly nothing worse than we bludgeoned through when we scaled Celeste.
Shio is a lovely surprise which offers up a precise and beautiful platforming experience. Although it lacks the level of polish as something like Celeste, if you’ve already conquered that mountain (or – sacrilege! – you’re not a fan of its pixel aesthetic), this is a tightly crafted, technical platformer in a similar mould that’s well worth a look.