A Simple Adventure for All
For those of you that aren’t old enough to remember, there was once a mysterious video game feature called “local co-op” that dominated every gaming system known to man (except PC). For a long while, family and friends could bond by sharing a couch and enjoying the finer aspects of jolly cooperation. Then the internet happened and it seemed like the ways of local co-op would be lost forever to the ravages of time. With the rise of internet co-op, precious few video games even bothered to include the option to play with a physically present friend. In the midst of local co-op’s Dark Age*, a beacon of hope signaled that some developers still revered the old ways. Frima Games’ Chariot champions local co-op, emphasizing teamwork and creative problem solving. In fact, if it has one major drawback it is that such an emphasis is placed on the local co-op that playing through Chariot in single-player can feel a bit hollow.
Chariot is a platformer that relies on increasingly complex puzzles built into its levels. Creatively making use of deceptively simple mechanics is required to progress. Players can sling a rope to either side of the chariot with one button and pull it forward or let the line grow slack with two others. Combine the rope mechanics with jumping and that constitutes the core of the player’s puzzle-solving arsenal. To further complicate matters, these mechanics are applied in different ways depending on the various environments players will encounter. The introductory caves give players a great opportunity to grasp the basics, but each new area, like the frictionless ice caverns or the lava-filled magma grottos, present their own unique challenges.
Each level is fairly open and allows for a great deal of exploration. Intrepid players will be rewarded with valuable loot as well as precious item blueprints. Blueprints allow a friendly skeleton merchant to create useful items and upgrades for the chariot. Certain blueprints, like the royal lantern upgrade, are required to make progress into other areas of Chariot. To find the most powerful items and rarest treasures, players will need to grab a friend to play by their side. Many will be impossible to obtain for solo players.
Co-op is the soul of Chariot and it is only when playing co-op that the full potential of Chariot shines through. There is no online co-op option; players will need to be physically present with each other. While it is possible to complete the game alone, it will be less frustrating to tackle the core story with a friend. During my solo time with Chariot, there were numerous instances when I wished I had a co-op buddy to provide backup on some of the trickier platforming challenges. When I was playing co-op, everything seemed to fall into place and, while there were still a number of falls and slip ups, everyone seemed to have a great time.
I have mixed feelings about Chariot’s enemies. Called Looters, the small pool of antagonists don’t constitute a direct threat to the player; they’re only interested in stealing treasure from the chariot. At worst they pose an annoying inconvenience. Each player has an attack that can be used to fend off the attackers, either a sword or a slingshot depending on the choice of character. The problem is that Looters almost feel obligatory, as if Frima felt they had to include enemies because a platformer needs them otherwise it isn’t a real platformer. I can see why they might want to include enemies as a way of amping up the tension in tricky areas and to make the two characters feel distinct. It would have been a bold decision, but I think Chariot would have benefitted from a complete lack of enemies. The combat itself isn’t thrilling or complicated; most situations where enemies appear can be solved by standing on the chariot and mashing the attack button. These instances felt forced and broke the sense of flow that I had derived from the Looter-less sections. It wasn’t a huge problem, but it was a source of irritation.
On top of satisfying exploration and mechanics, Chariot tells a simple story about a princess who, along with her fiancée, seeks to inter her father’s remains in a royal sepulcher**. The problem is that her father’s ghost haunts the wheeled coffin, aka the titular chariot, and demands a more suitable resting place as well as a hoard of treasure worthy of his kingly station. Chariot does a number of really refreshing and interesting thing with its simple premise. It is a welcome change of pace to see a leading lady in a platformer. This is clearly important given that I had to spend five or six minutes explaining to my six-year-old nephew/co-op buddy that the main character was, in fact, a woman. That really shouldn’t have to be so alien a concept as to invite a child’s incredulity. Chariot also succeeds in being an amusing, if not laugh out loud, experience. The voice acting for the king is perfectly petulant and demanding and, while it can get grating after repeated platforming failures, generally left me with a smile on my face. I’m somewhat tempted to dig into an analysis of Chariot’s messages regarding death and acceptance, but that can wait for an article all its own. Suffice it to say that there are more complicated and interesting things going on beneath Chariot’s surface than its friendly and cheerful exterior would imply.
Chariot’s aesthetic perfectly complements its content. Though the premise, to be perfectly blunt, is to find a place to bury the protagonist’s dead father, Chariot manages to sidestep how potentially disturbing that could be by implementing an aesthetic that feels friendly and inviting. Colors really pop and every environment feels distinct. It has a painted, fairy-tale feel, as if it was adapted from a children’s bedtime story. The layered score lulls players into a state of zen as they make progress and roll the chariot on toward the next sepulcher.
Chariot is a great indie title that is best enjoyed with a friend or on a date night with a significant other. It emphasizes teamwork and problem solving with a minimum of violence. It is a great game for kids and adults alike as the challenges require some brainpower, but not to a frustrating degree. It also raises some introductory themes that deal with death and could lead to interesting conversations with children old enough to tackle such issues. I’m always a fan of games that take relatively simple mechanics and use them in stimulating ways. Chariot does this exceedingly well. It is a lovingly crafted, beautiful platformer that can be appreciated by all ages.
* Fun fact: I’m guilty of perpetuating a common misconception regarding the time period that people have frequently termed Europe’s Dark Age. In fact, it was not nearly as devoid of activity, learning, or progress as people tend to believe (see beginning of The Importance of the Middle Ages). Or, for those of you with less patience for academic writing, here is a Cracked article.
** Chariot deserves credit for teaching me that I have been mispronouncing ‘sepulcher’ for years.
Is It Fun?:
Solve physics puzzles and platform using your dad's coffin
Simple, lush visuals make levels easy on the eyes
The comfortable music is an open invitation to play
The pacing shifts between very fast and very slow
Parents and their young kids for enjoyable co-op
Chariot was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and is currently available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Review originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 10/13/14