So on Console and on Steam the platformer genre has become somewhat of a crowded field, with pretty much every Tom, Dick and Harry indie studio looking to leave it’s mark on the genre, somehow, with their own unique offering. Sometimes they manage it, sometimes they don’t.
Shu is another such attempt, and though I can’t say the game really blew me away it also isn’t a throwaway title by any means.
In it you play the eponymous hero of the game, Shu; a small, seemingly anthropomorphised woodland critter of some kind, who wears what I can only describe as somewhere between a raincoat and a poncho as he attempts to progress his way through levels. You progress by using your platforming skills to move through the levels, using timing, jumping and the few abilities Shu has (as well as some allies, who I’ll mention almost next) to overcome the obstacles you encounter, obtain points and collectibles, and complete each new level as quickly as possible.
Levels are grouped around a world theme – with the game split up into regions/areas that each have a distinctive visual style, certain gameplay gimmicks unique to that world type and also specific allies that only pop up in that group of levels.
Each world has two such allies, and each gives you a different ability to assist Shu in traversing those levels. Initially Shu will explore a world by himself, and you will have to just use Shu’s innate abilities to traverse the obstacles you encounter; however once you encounter an ally they will automatically tag along with you and confer some sort of special ability onto the player, activated usually by either the A or B buttons on controller. These abilities can range from you being given the ability to walk on water to being able to slow time for a few seconds, and do help to add a bit of character to each of the five worlds.
So what does Shu do well?
I think Shu’s greatest strength has to be its simple art style; the game has beautifully rendered 3D backgrounds, across which you will lead your party of 2D sprites. Everything is clean, colourful and sharp; with each world having it’s own distinctive look and feel. Though there weren’t any really huge set pieces that made individual levels really stand out for me, I did very much feel as though the different regions of the game had their own unique sense of identity. The game’s characters do have something of a cartoonish style to the way they’re drawn – they actually reminded me of characters from the Powerpuff girls cartoon back in the day, given the way that the characters all have exaggerated and often physically impossibly drawn features, though I’d say this again isn’t necessarily a bad thing so much as part of Shu’s charm as a game.
It’s also worth noting that as well as each world/region looking visually distinctive they also have their own unique gameplay elements – both in terms of the types of obstacles that are put before you, because of the theme of the levels, but also because of the unique allies that each region gives you. For example, in one world later on you are pushed further and further ahead whilst having to avoid the constant threat of pieces of the scenery falling on you as you make your way through a dilapidated castle; where as in another of the worlds you have to move from one little bubble of light to another little bubble of light, each forming a safe zone from the fatal lightning strikes that seem to blight that world as you progress through the dark of the levels.
Allies likewise each offer a new ability that you’re briefly able to take advantage of – allowing you for example to walk on water, slow time, bounce off of wallflowers, command lifts to move or even punch through glass walls. This whole sense of internal coherence between the individual worlds/regions and how they fit into the game as a whole is probably one of my favourite parts of the game – everything fits internally and makes sense.
I think the biggest problem I had with the game was that it was just too short. I finished the game in a little over two hours, which doesn’t seem long to me. I’m not one to trophy hunt so I can imagine that would add a bit of time, but even so I can’t imagine a completionist taking more than about 5 hours or so in total to get through all the content. Aside from the challenge there’s also not much replay value in the levels – you don’t really have paths or different outcomes dependent on how you play, it’s all relatively static. So it really is just that short.
I think the best example of this is just how small each world/region is in the game. The game itself is split into worlds/regions (I call them worlds as each has a unique visual style and design but they’re presented as regions on the in-game map), 5 in total; each having between 2-3 levels to complete (aside from the final world which has 4), but each of these levels can be completed in a little under 5 to 10 minutes for the most part (assuming you don’t die multiple times.)
This means you can start a world, get through the levels and be onto the next world in less than half an hour, so even though you may be impressed by the visuals and gameplay quirks of a particular region’s levels you don’t have nearly long enough to enjoy it or to feel as though you’ve really had enough of that unique environment. I feel like 5 levels to a world would’ve been the bare minimum for me to feel as though I was getting a decent amount of content, and closer to 10 levels would’ve been ideal but as it is it just doesn’t feel like enough.
I also have issues with the final level in the game. The final world/region, as I say, has 4 levels rather than the 2 or 3 of the other regions, and this is because the first 3 levels are much like the levels in the other worlds. You have simple platformer sections, interrupted by you gaining a pair of new allies and using their abilities to progress through new challenges before you are forced into a chase sequence with the big bad of the game. The final level is basically one of these chase sequences but with (spoilers) you teaming up with every pair of allies you’ve had in each world in succession – with each team helping you progress through a series of obstacles before being whisked away and replaced in due time by the next set, as the puzzles and timing get progressively more difficult.
Now the challenge offered by these sections itself isn’t bad – the game does a decent enough job of ramping up the difficulty slowly through the worlds, it’s that this increased difficulty is combined with a level that felt about 4 times the length of any earlier level and there’s no change at all to the way the respawn/lives mechanic works at the same time. Why does this matter? Well, the way the game works is that you get 5 lives to get to each new checkpoint, if you make it to the checkpoint that’s fine, your lives are reset back upto 5; if you don’t, then game over and you have to restart the level. Now this isn’t so bad in the shorter levels, they’re relatively easy and because they’re short you don’t lose much progress if you do get a game over screen. In the final level though it just doesn’t work, as it’s so much longer than any of the other levels you can lose 10 or 15 minutes of progress just because of one stupid miss-step. I’m really not sure if this was intended by the developer or not, but to be honest it does feel sort of like an artificial difficulty spike to make the game feel longer – in much the same way old-school platformers would force you to replay them over and over again to finish the game, even though there was maybe an hour of content to total, because there was no saving between levels and you had only so many lives before you croaked and it was game over.
Although not a huge problem, compared to the other things I’ve mentioned, I do think the fact the characters are so flat is another important factor in why Shu doesn’t quite hit the mark. The most we’re given in terms of character development is a brief intro cutscene, of flashing slides, in which we see Shu’s community attacked by the game’s antagonist and the group scatter across the land to escape it; there is no dialogue, no narration. We’re pretty much just left to guess at the plot and the characters from there, as within the game itself aside from the brief end of level scenes where the characters group together to fend off the big bad there’s no interaction between the characters, no reaction to anything they’re doing.
I think that’s somewhat more of a minor quibble compared to the other things I mentioned though, in terms of Shu as a platformer.
I don’t want to sound too dismissive of Shu, overall I’d say Shu is a beautifully made platformer, with a lot of heart put into it, but it does suffer from problems of length and lack of depth. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but if you like platformers and find the art style of the game at all engaging then I’d say it’s definitely something worth picking up in the sale.