Developer Too Kind Studio has taken an interesting twist on the standard platformer formula in Pankapu. Part graphic novel, part action scroller, the game tells a narrative within a narrative. The real life story of Djaha’rell contains horrors that pollute into his dreams. His world has been shifted into a nightmarish slant, and he only sees heroes in his dreams. Pankapu is a miniature warrior who slays the dark matter that rules Djaha’rell’s existence.
The frame story of Djaha’rell surrounds the tale of Pankapu, the character you possess in the gameplay. The larger narrative is communicated through graphic novel excerpts placed at pivotal junctions of the hero’s journey. The gameplay unfolds in a contained fairytale that is read to Djaha’rell on particularly stormy nights. The game reveals exposition through both storytelling methods, and the result is a tale told primarily in interactive flashbacks.
Pankapu has all the classic elements of 90’s platformers, with some minor innovations. Auto-scrollers, boss battles, and unified enemy design are all here. The weaponry and abilities offer unique paths to complete levels. With three classes, which are called Aegises, come various subclasses called Nebulas. As the game progresses, you will start frantically switching between your skillsets to appropriately counterattack the enemies lying ahead.
The greatest deviation from the platformer formula is how the game incentivizes defensive gameplay. Pankapu’s shield is not just an adornment; the barrier becomes the only path to success. The level design demands you to decelerate and sometimes engage in stealth maneuvers. Certain enemy spawn points even require you to take almost a critical amount of damage to proceed to the next checkpoint.
The shift from fast paced unilateral movement to meticulous level management gives Pankapu a breath of originality. The upgrades in the game are well calibrated, and later chapters not only require a hefty tool bag, but an inventive application of the tools. With the progression system being so gradual and the level design requiring restraint over aggression, it would be surprising to see a speedrun community grow around the game. With platformers being the genre of choice for speedruners, a forewarning seems necessary here: The game is littered with unskippables.
Whether textboxes, cut scenes, or suppressive enemies, Pankapu slows you down to either expel exposition, or to avoid tutorial, throwing you into a sticky situation with a new weapon set. The time spent reading inconsequential dialogue is rough to swallow, and the frame narrative of Djaha’rell’s world flashes across the screen spliced and void of context. This storytelling technique does not elicit mystery as intended, but merely introduces a disconnect from the thematic development of the story. Pankapu’s adventures remain as the only touchpoint of interest, and the greater narrative is reduced to a handful of memory fragments you collect on your journey.
The art design changes gears rather ruggedly as well with hand-drawn graphic novel depictions interlaced between the bulk of animated gameplay. The tonal shift between the two mediums is jarring, and not in necessary an effective way. Yet with these creative missteps, the gameplay stands out. Underground levels play with light and claustrophobia, and river levels introduce satisfying mid-air attacks. The game opens up the more you experiment with your combat. Pesky enemies are reduced to minor speedbumps when particular input combinations are locked down. For a platformer, Pankapu excels in offering robust fighting possibilities.
The collectables scattered throughout the levels will add another avenue of fun for those completionists out there. Some levels demand several passes to unlock every item, and thus bolsters the game’s replay factor. Overcoming particularly challenging enemies or platforms contains an immense amount of satisfaction, which is the highest praise for A to B games like Pankapu. Various boss battles were easily exploited, but even those moments offer the player a nice chuckle.
Pankapu breathes new life into a storied genre, and flips tried and true mechanics on their heads. Slicing through all obstacles, your small hero gains liveness with every hurdle crossed. A refreshing twist on the left-to-right monotony of some of its ancestors, Pankapu carries you on an expanding journey of growth and parables. The biblical heights of morality ingrained in the game suffer to lackluster writing, but the action bends your mind to solve intriguing dilemmas. Pankapu provides a fanciful joyride of desperate measures against an invasive evil.
Here is the Pankapu Launch Trailer:
Pankapu is now available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC and Mac (Steam).