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€.