Most nineties throwbacks, we could do without: gushers, acid wash, VHS, and Hugh Grant, to name just a few [EN: I, personally, enjoy this song]. But, a 2D platform-adventure game à la Donkey Kong or Metroid? With elements of roleplay? Yes, please.
Equal parts nostalgia and artistry, Pankapu has a distinctly Nintendo feel. The gameplay and soundtrack harken back to earlier times, when Duke Nukem was all out of bubblegum and Sega faced off against Nintendo in the war for console supremacy.
Interesting but Lopsided: A Nested Narrative
Dual narratives interweave to create a story within a story. While you play as eponymous Pankapu the Dreamkeeper, your quest is told as a fable by a father to his son (Djaha’Rell). What appears to be a parallel story could in fact be a parallel universe, because as Pankapu roams the dream world of Omnia and wards off invading nightmares, he finds memoliths: fragments of Djaha’Rell’s memories.
Djaha’Rell is peripheral, for the most part. Your main objective as Pankapu is to stem the tide of Hya’nagi. Crafted from dream matter by Iketomi, God of Dreams, it’s both your duty and destiny to defend Omnia from the encroaching darkness. As you progress through the chapters, you’re pulled deeper and deeper into nightmare territory to discover the root of the threat, as well as battle the big bad: Gangreyn, nightmare incarnate. Along the way, you encounter a cast of delightful characters, including a magic spider crafted in the vein of Link’s Navi. Would it truly be a nineties throwback if there wasn’t an obnoxious sidekick?
Djaha’Rell’s story overarches Pankapu’s quest, but in some ways, is also secondary to it. I do think the ‘real life’ storyline could have been more present, because to some it will feel extraneous. On the other hand, the occasional reminders of Djaha’Rell’s reality felt like waking up in a half-sleep before drifting back into the realm of dreams.
Overall, it’s a cleverly written story with legs. In fact, the plot unspools over a surprising fifteen hours of gameplay, something I didn’t bargain for when I sat down, determined to play Pankapu in a single sitting.
Pankapu is a platform-adventure that borrows liberally from classic RPG favorites like Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda.
What starts out feeling — and looking — like Mario cruising through the Mushroom Kingdom gradually integrates elements from other genre traditions, and eventually takes on a life of its own.
Just as you begin to master one kind of obstacle, another is introduced. By integrating fresh challenges at a measured pace, Pankapu avoids the redundancy pitfall that platformers often fall into. The effect is addicting and unfortunate for my sleep schedule, but excellent for player engagement. Too Kind Studios could not have done a better job with the variety: A+, gold star, Mr. Perfect achievement unlocked (read: Megaman).
However, while the level design was varied and well-paced, the Aegis system was not. And that’s what really sets Pankapu apart: your ability to shift between Bravery, Ardour, and Faith. You know the drill: rock, paper, scissors; warrior, rogue, cleric; melee, ranged, magic. What’s unique about Pankapu is that you swap classes in real-time, in mid-level or mid-air.
Bravery charges through with a sword and shield, crushing foes and destroying impediments. Firing with a bow and dodging any enemy that comes too close, sly Ardour enables ranged attacks and double jumping. Instrumental to your success but gimped in combat, the Aegis of Faith brings the gifts of slow fall and crowd control.
Again, these elements are introduced gradually, maybe too gradually. The first few levels you play through with only the Aegis of Bravery available. It isn’t until long after you’ve mastered this form that you acquire the next. In fact, I’d entirely forgotten about the Aegis system by the time Ardour rolled around. There are fun transition periods where you have to learn how to switch between forms and juggle abilities, but the stretches between acquiring Aegises makes the system seem less pivotal than it actually is.
The title is gorgeous. Stylized, oneiric, and otherworldly, Pankapu’s art is a blanket of dreams in which you want to wrap yourself.
Striking color palettes and charming character design mingle to create a distinct, immersive fantasy world. It’s also horribly, terribly, overwhelmingly cute. The overload of adorable eases the frustration of dying. Maybe I just have poor jump timing — or take pixels on a screen too seriously — but, if it weren’t for the soothing soundtrack and endearing animation, Pankapu would have been on the receiving end of many more expletives. It’s hard to be upset when your enemies are little balls of bat. Death by globule. Death by briar rose. Death by angry onion house.
The game manages to be challenging and darling. That’s a delicate balance for anyone to strike. How many people do you know who are simultaneously adorable and a pain in the ass? We tend to fall into one camp or the other. Like all the other in-game creatures, “Mudjins” make no such distinction. These rescuable spirits of joy are scattered throughout zones in hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. They are, essentially, the opposite of a ‘curmudgeons.’ And when you try to collect them, you’re probably going to die.
The Verdict: Excellent
Too Kind Studios set out with very specific goals and they hit every wicket. Pankapu is an action-platformer successfully fused with roleplay elements. Sidescrolling collides with thoughtful storytelling, while carefully curated levels coalesce with nonlinear exploration. The game is simultaneously traditional and innovative with a soundtrack that echoes nineties but is reinterpreted for the modern ear. Gameplay waxes nostalgic and wanes experimental. Pankapu the Dreamkeeper is an artful balance between retro favorites and contemporary design.