Wot I Think: Bokida – Heartfelt Reunion

Originally a student project, a sort of half-finished playground, Bokida – Heartfelt Reunion [official site] is now a fully formed and utterly stunning exploration-puzzle-me-do. Here’s wot I think:

Bokida is outrageously beautiful. Its conflation of a minimalist presentation with intricately delicate architecture is one of the most effective and hauntingly engaging designs I’ve seen. Combine that with some sublime movement and carefully understated puzzles, and you’ve got a game that can only spoil a small part of itself by wittering on with a nonsensical story.

The story aside, where it should have been put, this is a game about exploration and experimentation. As you progress through its four or five hours, you’re gradually given new skills and abilities, but each is a gentle idea, a new way of calmly exploring the near-monochrome world, and solving the puzzles within.

You begin with the ability to build. You can place turquoise cubes onto most surfaces within the world, and then build outward from them. One of my favourite things about Bokida is that, despite essentially having this Minecraft-like beginning block, you almost never need to use it. You can! You could go build elaborate structures until the game ran out of RAM (the devs have thought of that – there’s a button to destroy all the blocks). You can use them to build routes to reach higher ground if you don’t fancy the longer walk. Or you can mostly ignore them, just popping them as notches when trying to climb up the inside of a particularly tall tower, and otherwise focusing on them for their primary purpose: filling in empty archways then smashing them, to create new doorways into the world’s impossible architecture.

The land of Bokida is intricately woven with impossible paths and looping routes. Terrifyingly wide open areas cunningly reveal that they loop in on themselves, meaning falling off a ledge could have you land on the spot you fell from, without a cut or visible cheat as you plummet. Corridors can lead back to the other side of the room you left, or the other side of the island, and it never feels wrong or tricksy when they do. This is a world where space isn’t aligned as you might expect, and learning how is a real joy.

As your abilities grow you can jump and glide, and then use a distant block to magically propel yourself toward. Combining all of that imaginatively can get you damned close to flying. And gosh, what a treat that is. Flying done well in games is so often splendid, but to be able to bodge your own version of it by adapting and manipulating your skills feels even better. The world of Bokida is a reasonably big place, and working out ways to speed your way around is very rewarding.

As are the puzzles. The essential aim of the game is to – well, I shan’t say, because so much of Bokida is about discovery, and I already feel bad about saying so much of the movement stuff. But it’s safe to say that there are a number of towers/monoliths dotted around the area, and each contains a bespoke set of puzzles to solve. And each set feels like something that would have warranted its own game. There’s one puzzle, completely unexplained but yours to figure out using shapes on four facing tablets and your blocks, that I desperately wish could be a full game entirely on its own. Such smart ideas, some of them original to my experience, so casually used and discarded – that shows a lot of confidence.

Although funnily enough I woke up this morning with the game on my mind, thinking about the chopping mechanism. It’s another skill you’re given where you can release a sort of flying blade of light into the world, that carves slices off blocks you’ve made and very particular other items. My thought was – and I don’t often wake up pondering a game mechanic I must say – having used this skill really only a scattering of times in the game, how it seemed a bit underused.

So yes, there’s a fine line between boldly throwing great ideas over its shoulder, and not quite letting that great idea have its day. But still, always better when a game errs on this side than on the side of frustrating flogging.

And then there’s the story. Its delivery is a peculiar mix of unavoidable and ambivalent, opening and closing with truly spectacular black and white animations themed on a sort of fractally infinite dive through a yin-yang symbol, while a subtitled Japanese monologue delivers absolute guff. And the airy nothingness prevails throughout, in messages that appear when looking at symbols scattered throughout the game world, which all appear to have been written by The Sphinx off of Mystery Men. (Update: I’m told some are quotes by Lao Tzu – please feel appropriately outraged.)

“For one gains by losing, and loses by gaining.” – No, pretty sure one gains by gaining, that’s how it got the name.

“The highest renown is to be without renown.” – Noooooope, the highest renown is being known lots and lots.

“Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water. Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better, it has no equal.” – May I introduce: bombs.

Your tolerance for such airy utterings will clearly vary, but for me it required a conscious effort to not let it undermine the utter beauty of the rest of the game. And, most importantly, that worked.

I gasped so many times. I hammered at my poor screenshot key (although static images just don’t do it justice). I said aloud, “Ooh that’s clever!” on at least three occasions. And the game only lasts about four hours for your first play through.

After it’s over you can go back in and be more of a completist. There are sixty-something “echos” to gather, black dots hidden around the world, often in out-of-reach places, and to finish the first time you’ll need to have gathered 30 of them (pretty unavoidable while playing, I’d say). It’ll then charge you with re-entering the world and finding 40, and presumably so on and so forth. I’m not especially drawn to do this immediately, but it’ll certainly be a great incentive to return soon.

I think some might find the ambiguity of direction frustrating – it doesn’t tell you where to go, what to do, and I think that’s one of its strongest features. But that’s also because I was happy to wander about, just soaking in the beauty. And why wouldn’t you be, when you build a wall of blocks, then spectacularly shatter it, switching the world to slow motion, and glide through the explosion of colour? Or gasp as the blue and green fish swim through impossible water around the outlined walls of a castle?

The only problem we have left is the price. The better part of £14 for a four to five hour indie game is at the top end. Worth it? That’s on you.

This is stunning. It’s just so utterly beautiful, its bucolic scenes hiding extraordinarily lavish and enticing buildings. It’s smart but so modest about that, bulging with brilliant ideas. Movement is amazing and refreshing. And despite the guff, the place itself is fascinating to wander. What a treat. Just a slightly expensive treat.

Bokida: Heartfelt Reunion is out now for Windows via Steam for £13.59/$18/18€.

14 Comments

  1. fuggles says:

    Bad timing to come out at the same time and price as the humble bundle. Wait for sale then.

  2. The Bitcher III says:

    Yep, looks a bit spesh. Absolutely my jam.

    It has been an expensive month, a situation that isn’t going to get any better in the next two weeks (Steel Division, The Long Journey Home, Endless Space 2, Tokyo 42) – but after that the release schedule calms down. May is always like this.

    I’ve put off buying an awful lot of stuff this year, and had a couple of genuinely unexpected ‘refund pls’ moments – so this is a no-brainer for me.

    Put it in context – I had been toying with the idea of £70 and signing up for MS’s awful store arrangement for the full Forza Horizon 3. I know which purchase is more pleasing to my conscience, and which game will make for better dreams.

  3. Veraticus says:

    The quotes you mention weren’t written by the Sphinx, but instead Lao Tzu! They’re all from the Tao Te Ching. For example, the last one can be seen in full here: link to schrades.com

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      Harlander says:

      Lao Tzu is also terribly mysterious.

    • Crane says:

      John Walker, ladies and gentlemen!
      Tolerant! Liberal! Calls the teachings of a major religion “absolute guff” and “airy gibberish”!

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        John Walker says:

        Happily. As I strongly endorse the rights for others to criticise, lampoon or condemn the texts of my own faith.

        I did google a couple of them to check and found no results, but not the water one admittedly. It remains a nonsensical statement in this context. And I would imagine for anyone for whom such texts are meaningful, it’s as insulting to have it appear out of context in this game as it is to have such words printed as platitudes on cushions.

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          MajorLag says:

          I haven’t played the game, but perhaps it isn’t that the quote is out of context so much as you’re just not fully aware of the context. The Witness felt like that to me at first.

        • Veraticus says:

          The Tao encourages being made fun of! One of my favorite translations of it, by Ursula K. LeGuin, states: “It wouldn’t be the Tao if there weren’t jokes about it.” link to books.google.com

          And honestly the quotes are definitely mysterious, platitude-y, and just vaguely improbable. But to quote that same translation of the Tao again: “All greatness is improbable. What’s probable is tedious and petty.”

          Either way, jokes are totally fine — you have the permission of this lapsed Taoist. I just wanted you to know it had a source aside from “Hang In There” cat posters. ;)

      • Rumpelstiltskin says:

        There’s no single rule about religion in the liberal paradigm. For instance, it’s perfectly fine, and, in fact, encouraged to criticize Christianity. It’s not fine to criticize Islam, even its views on LGBT. Other religions are a bit of gray area I think, mostly situational with regards to other tenets of liberalism.

        • Scripten says:

          Great, here we go with this again.

          Most liberals don’t have a problem with criticizing Islam. It’s when those criticisms are made as dog whistles to justify bigotry and political policy that oppresses people based on their (actual or assumed) religion. The Western world is majority Christian and most Western countries have varying levels of integration between Christianity and state, therefore the activism of Western liberals revolves around mitigating that power structure. If you actually did some research, you would find that similar activism is being done in Muslim-majority countries, by those who live there.

          But you knew that, I’m sure. This is the same kind of mental gymnastics that goes into rationalizing any form of specific bigotry. It’s very transparent.

          • Rumpelstiltskin says:

            well you pretty much confirmed what I said, even explained why it is like that (Christianity = the main rival as the dominant ideology, ok to criticize; Islam = the enemy of my enemy, not ok to criticize)

          • punkass says:

            I know it’s probably not a great idea to engage with someone who reads, “Most liberals don’t have a problem with criticizing Islam.” and replies, “well you pretty much confirmed what I said… Islam =… not ok to criticize”, but here goes.

            The way I’ve seen it, amongst most people who’ve actually thought about it, is that it’s fine to criticise intolerant, hateful versions of religion, but stupid to reduce any religion followed by a billion or so people down to one interpretation.

            If someone goes, “All Muslims are violent and hate gays/freedom/yadah yadah” then that’s so obviously false, it’s as ridiculous as someone saying, “All Christians love guns and hate gays/diversity/blah blah blah.”

            Some Muslims do, some Christians do. The fact that not all do, shows it’s a problem with their belief structures in their entirety, and not just their religion.

            Of course, there are just as many liberal idiots as there are right wing idiots, so some people have taken a nuanced view and made it nonsense.

            In conclusion, John’s fine to have a go at what he finds vacuous phrases, but if he had said Taoists are all idiots then I think most people would have a problem with it.

          • Rumpelstiltskin says:

            “liberals are ok with criticizing Islam” in theory only, but it doesn’t matter since in practice there’s liberal agenda that seeks to undermine Christianity and sees Islam as an ally. so if you ask a liberal about Islam they might say “ok yeah some of its teachings are a bit harsh and uncool”, but no one will do it proactively since it’s not part of the current agenda.

      • bill says:

        Where did this weird idea that liberals are supposed to be tolerant come from? It keeps getting repeated by conservatives and it seems to be based on some strange fantasy.

        Either way, criticizing some flowery phrases in a video game != criticizing the teachings of a major religion. (wherever those phrases happen to come from).

        I am wondering if it was really Japanese though, if the phrases come from a Chinese philosopher. It may well be though.