The past year has been particularly busy for video games. With a new console generation, countless triple-A releases and the endless ongoing churn of games as a services releases, it can be hard for smaller, independent releases to stand out. Fortunately, every now and again a game like Carto comes along with a genuinely original concept that compels me to check it out.
Carto is a colourful, puzzle adventure game that tasks players with altering the world around them by changing a magical map. Playing as Carto, you travel the world and unlock new pathways by discovering new map pieces and arranging them in the correct order. This fantastic mechanic is backed up by a gorgeous world that sees protagonist Carto visit a number of unique islands.
The main bulk of gameplay is spent figuring out how to traverse the islands that Carto and her travelling companion visit. Using a map based on square grids, you can change and move blocks of the world to create new paths or layouts. Characters within the game world will provide hints on the whereabouts of items or people of interest you need to find, but then it’s on you to figure out which way the map should sit.
You can unlock new areas of the map by placing your current tiles in the correct layout, or you can find new map pieces throughout the world. The act of placing the tiles and figuring out which way unlocks the path forward is a lot of fun. It’s a simple mechanic that’s executed masterfully.
What makes Carto’s mechanic so fantastic is how it encourages players to make logical conclusions. One puzzle early on had me trying to make a forest out of three tiles using the outskirts of wooded areas on them. Place them correctly and you will unlock the woods at their centre. The game is filled with these great moments and it really makes you feel like you’ve been a bit of a clever clogs for solving them.
I’ve also got to commend the team for how well the mechanic fits in with gameplay. Switching from exploration to the map and back out feels seamless, especially considering you are often completely changing the layout of the world. I’d have liked to see a little more integration with the characters of the world, as they mostly seem pretty oblivious to their surroundings constantly changing places.
Visually Carto has a scrapbook-esque vibe to it with a pastel themed colour palette. Its bold visual design fits the cartography mechanic incredibly well, bringing each island you visit to life. There’s also some brilliant visual design elements in Carto as well, with sounds visually represented on screen during puzzles and in-game events. It’s a small touch that not only brings you closer to the world, but it’s also a significant move for accessibility. The character designs are all colourful and cute, with sprites having an almost Pixar look about them.
It’s just a disappointment that the narrative doesn’t do more with the mechanic. While the character’s and places you visit look great, it doesn’t really explore how Carto’s map could have affected these people. The narrative simply doesn’t match up to the excellent world-shifting mechanic, which is a shame as an equally fantastic story would have elevated Carto into something really special. The game does also suffer with some repetititon in later areas, as it never fully explores the map shifting mechanics to their full potential.