It’s not anything new in media in general, but you do have to admit that it’s kind of satisfying to see something merged together in a result that is enjoyable in some way. One mashup that comes to mind to me pretty quickly are the music stages from Rayman Legends and how it seamlessly combined precise platforming and adorable covers of popular music into something pretty endearing. While the game itself was fantastic as a whole, I always looked forward to playing these stages because they’re just so damned charming.
Indie developer Atelier Mimina may not be doing covers of Black Betty here, but their attempt at taking a large-area adventure game and throwing in rhythm elements is not something you see often in a lot of games these days. Combine that with the cute aesthetic and fantasy setting, and I perked up at the idea alone in the hopes of an enjoyable experience. Published by PLAYISM, Giraffe and Annika releases on Steam, PS4, and Switch on February 18th, 2020. The Steam version was played for this review.
Before our heroine starts her adventure proper, the game opens with a quick cutscene involving Annika and her mother having some sort of spat. Suddenly, she appears as a cat-like human and finds herself on Spica Island where she runs into the fox-like Giraffe. Stricken with amnesia, Annika is brought up to speed that she’s tasked with obtaining three Star Fragments, and will require his assistance to gain access to the dungeons that hold them. Along the way, she’ll learn about the island itself and uncover the secrets hidden throughout.
Honestly, the plot here feels kind of weak and it’s a bit of a letdown. If you’ve exposed yourself to any sort of fantasy media, you’ll notice a lot of plot elements that are very well-worn in this day and age. You get your slowly unfolding magical mystery, tangling with a tenacious (and occasionally risque) rival who goes by Lily, and slowly finding out where the main character fits in to this mysterious environment.
While you’re out obtaining these Fragments, much of your time plot-wise is spent getting familiar with the inhabitants who help Annika on her journey. While you will get some flashbacks throughout, much of the story seems to want to focus on the gameplay.
While the plot does feel a bit on the barren side, the manga-style cutscenes unfolding like a motion comic is an interesting design choice given the near nonexistent voice acting, save for a few basic lines here and there. Things do unfold during these scenes, but it’s also a chance for all involved here to let their personality shine a little bit. Annika is a plucky and excitable girl, Giraffe is a laser-focused yet personable guy, and everyone else are generally likable characters despite even a modicum of development from them. Sure, it’s a game aimed at kids. But it’s honestly a little strange to only get plot development at such a surface level, and there are other shows aimed at children that are easy to follow but are executed in a way that’s engaging and entertaining.
Make no mistake, splitting your focus can be a bit of a double-edged sword. Sometimes too much focus on one aspect of a game can work against another, which will result in a lopsided experience. Surprisingly, Giraffe and Annika seems to have overwhelmed themselves with their own ambition, and it will show throughout your playthrough. Especially when one of the driving mechanics of the game is asking around and doing a fair amount of exploring to figure out progression throughout.
Most of the game is focused on player character Annika obtaining Fragments, but the pattern of progression is largely the same throughout the five dungeons you discover. You engage in what amounts to busywork to get to the dungeon in question, have Giraffe open it up for you, navigate it and basically dodge most of the way to the end (save for an on-rails shooting segment later on), and tangle with the boss for that area in a rhythm game. Besting the boss will give you basic abilities to further explore Spica that are otherwise standard in similar games (jumping, swimming, dashing, etc), and engaging in the busywork gives items that also help with island exploration. Sometimes this is contingent on whether or not it’s day or night, but you can use rest points change to the appropriate time whenever.
The busywork in question is nothing super complicated. It’s mostly just rounding up mission-specific items or arranging things in the right way to achieve the goal at the time. Giraffe does guide you along the way, but I wish there was more conveyance than that as it’s pretty barren outside of that. Not to mention that environments inside and outside the dungeons are so vast that getting from point to point really slows things down (up until you get the dash later on). Things do get a tad trickier later in the game, but it’s hard to look past these slow segments to hook anyone in.
Dead time is one thing that really bothers me about playing through this. More often than not, you’ll be doing a lot of waiting. The Metroidvania approach to “lock things behind abilities and keys” is present here, but it doesn’t do much to offset the bland stage design. I’ll give that Spica Island is pretty, but you’re not doing much here except the most basic of tasks. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a kid play this and get bored with it pretty quickly. It doesn’t even fall under the category of a chill game like Shenmue or Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, it’s just slow and basic in gameplay.
The rhythm portions don’t seem to be much better in execution. You do get to choose the difficulty before you begin, but if you’ve played your fair share of rhythm games you won’t have much trouble here. The boss will toss notes and holds to hit on the left or right, and you’ll hit the A button to the chart. Missing notes will cause you to lose health, but competent playing will keep you out of the dead zone like you would be in something like Dance Dance Revolution. I played most songs on normal difficulty and breezed through despite having to wrestle with my display calibration in-game for it to work properly.
The best way I can think to describe this difficulty is that it’s obvious it wanted to be accessible with the song charts, and it definitely shows. What would come across as beginner or normal charts in more traditional titles is passed off as a little more difficult here. Not only that, but these portions are honestly the best part of the game but are reserved for boss battles. Navigating to the end of the blandly designed dungeons was a slog, but I managed to enjoy myself a little bit with these parts despite the simplicity of the note charts.
One strength that Giraffe and Annika has is that it loves to wear its cute aesthetic on its sleeve. While the titular characters are human/animal hybrids, Spica Island is home to humans and anthropomorphic animals alike. Character designs for the most part are pretty cute, and it’s hard to frown when you have a large and artistically frustrated bird sending you out to take pictures to spark his inspiration. Interactions with these characters are generally cute in nature, even if the gameplay muddles that a little bit.
While the island itself isn’t exactly the most engaging in level design, it is pretty to look at as you play. Beaches look like they’re supposed to, foliage looks appropriate, the houses are actually kind of cute, and the rock formations that command the island don’t look awful either. Dungeons are artistically designed decently enough even with the bog-standard fire, water, and cave aesthetics making appearances here. Granted, you can only do so much with the fantasy environment being the aim here, but it can still be disappointing to wade through yet another fire dungeon in a video game.
The manga-style cutscenes are an interesting, but unsurprising aesthetic choice for an indie developer. Most of the personality of the cast is shown here, and they are appropriately detailed given the direction. It might not be super-detailed, but it’s not like we’re dealing with the very basic illustration style ONE gave us in his early webcomics either. This also helps shoulder the bulk of the dialogue (most other interactions in-game are text-based) as a result, which does remove the need for voice acting for the most part.
Given the distinct lack of any real voice acting, it doesn’t surprise me that they take a very light Zelda-like approach to things with Annika. Most of the time it’s just quick affirmations and cute grunts of acknowledgement commonly found in Japanese anime dubs. Sure, this is nothing new in video games, but I’m okay with this decision given the choice to use motion manga approach to unfolding the story.
There’s nothing memorable about the soundtrack, either, which is kind of disappointing given how laid-back and cutesy it is. Though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t let that laid-back approach lull me to near-sleep on a couple of occasions. It leans pretty hard on the “this is cute and somewhat bouncy” angle, but leans equally hard on the “slow and relaxed” end of things as well. I’m not expecting The Sound of Music in terms of sweeping score here, but I do wish that the soundtrack had a bit more individuality to flesh out its identity.
Mired in Mystery
I really, really wanted to see this game succeed. When executed in the right way, games with a simplistic goal in mind and the right focus can be a good time all around. We’ve seen other games that pull off the cute (and occasionally weird) aesthetic well enough to make it stand out in the crowd and grab the public’s interest. I really can’t say the same here, and that’s a big letdown for me given that the art direction and mashup of adventure/rhythm game mechanics initially piqued my interest.
The biggest sin that Giraffe and Annika suffers from is a distinct lack of focus on top of grandiose ideas that don’t quite land in the way that one would hope. It suffers from the problem of trying to do many things, but not doing any of them well enough to stand out in any meaningful way. Most everything I can say about this game can be traced back to how bland most of it is. Level design, gameplay, and some aesthetic choices are uninteresting and slow. While it does nail a few things given their goals, it ultimately stumbles the landing. That’s the most disappointing thing, because it could have been so much more.
Review copy provided by PLAYISM for Steam. Screenshots taken by reviewer.