Take a peek at some recent Wii U releases and you may see a painterly pattern forming. That's right; what with Art Academy: Atelier and Splatoon splashing some colour onto Nintendo's home console this year, it's almost like an artistic renaissance is upon us - just with more squids.
On the surface, Canvaleon carries the look and feel of a fairly basic 2D platformer. You'll jump around, collecting items and avoiding enemies, before moving on to the next level and doing it all again. There's more here than meets the eye, however, so let's wipe away the camouflage and reveal what makes this eShop exclusive so unique.
Our hero Canvas is a young chameleon unlike any other, as he lacks the ability to change colours by himself. Trapped in a constant display of gleaming white, he's been labelled as an outcast and is constantly teased by the rest of his village - the poor blighter. Luckily, his only friend Doodle is a talented artist that sees that white coat as an opportunity, not a curse. With paintbrush in hand, he's able to add colour to Canvas himself, helping him to blend in against any environment by extracting pigment from butterflies.
This bittersweet tale not only sets up the plot, but informs the game's main concept - creating camouflage. A brief prologue level takes place on a supply run to some nearby ancient ruins, as Doodle leads the way in what could be considered the game's only direct tutorial. Collecting butterflies and navigating platforms is all well and good, until aliens attack and drag you into a quest to save all those lovely...umm..."friends" of yours. Doodle previously demonstrates how sneaking past enemies is the only way to beat them, but now you'll need to perfect the art if you hope to make it to the end credits.
You'll spend quite a bit of time in the game's hub area, where Doodle can 'pimp your hide' and create new camouflage loadouts to bring into levels. Creating, tweaking, selecting and equipping a huge variety of these camos is as pivotal to success as your platforming skills, requiring a contemplative approach to traversing levels. It isn't immediately apparent, but you're very subtly encouraged to spend time taking in your surroundings, memorizing the different colours of each area, and creating camouflage to suit the situation.
Unfortunately, as you can't create camouflage on the fly this makes for a lot of backtracking and repetition. The freedom to choose from a variety of levels right from the beginning is fantastic, but it's woefully constricted by the constant return trips to Doodle's studio whenever you need to make a change. Whether you're buying preset designs or creating your own from scratch, grinding levels for butterflies is pretty much a requirement if you want the right colours. On top of this, effective camouflage takes a real eye for detail, with certain enemies being particularly able to see past a sloppy design. Drawing with the GamePad works great, but every brush stroke takes thought and time.
The levels themselves are fairly short, but packed full of secret paths and a hundred different ways to punish impatient players. Pacing yourself is what Canvaleon is all about, even when old habits kick in and you end up making a mad dash for the finish. Canvas can only take one hit before calling it quits, and with no checkpoint system in place you'll absolutely need to take things slowly to stand a chance. One hit from a keen-eyed alien and you're right back to the beginning of the level.
We can't fault a game for offering up a challenge - in fact it's often more than welcome - but the difficulty is inherently off here. The repetitious nature of perfecting your camouflage doesn't always mesh with how satisfying they feel to use, particularly when some designs only work in a handful of situations. Relying on an inconsistent percentage meter to check how effective camo is in practice makes for some frustrating moments, and while it's great that you can always switch to another level, essentially you're just repeating the same cycle of 'start-stop-return to Doodle-start-stop' with a different background. It's tiring, instead of rewarding.
Visually, the game pulls off a simple aesthetic quite well. The scenery all has a very chunky, fantasy feeling, with environments ranging from candy lands to neon cityscapes. Character design is fantastic, whether it's Canvas' cutesy animations or the bizarre and memorable cast of aliens, and this charm carries through to references and jokes based on Mario and the similarly stealthy Metal Gear Solid series. We really liked how underwater levels took the time to surround butterflies in air bubbles, and even provided Canvas with a scuba mask for good measure. Music is generally pretty nice too, although some panic moments managed to produce a downright unearthly chorus of metallic screeching and overlapping sound effects.
Off-screen play is available, and we found the GamePad controls worked fine in controlling our slippery hero, though more precise jumps will take a few attempts. Powerups, soundtrack CDs and hidden chameleons can be found in each level, with the latter repopulating the village hub and adding an extra incentive to explore.
Canvaleon is a wonderful burst of innovation for the 2D platforming genre, full of character and colour with a wholly unique idea at its center. The camouflage system is perfect for the GamePad's touch input, and there are sections where the stealth gameplay works really well.
With that said, the underwhelming implementation of all these good ideas unfortunately cuts short our enthusiasm for the game. We really wanted to love Canvaleon, but grinding for resources, one-hit deaths and some wonky design choices makes this an uneven experience. It's a fresh idea that needed a better execution, but could prove to be a hit with anyone who can look past its flaws.