Review: Pankapu Episode 1

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I like the idea behind episodic gaming. Having an ongoing storyline to follow over an extended period of time, like a favorite TV series, is an intriguing concept in theory. The main problem the format struggles with, unlike episodic television dramas and sitcoms, is that far too much time often passes between episodes, to the point that you lose interest or forget key plot points or both. Combined with individual episodes typically only offering around two hours of gameplay or story, each episode flies by in a sitting and leaves little else to accomplish in the meantime. But not any more. With the Steam launch of Pankapu, Too Kind Studio has set a new benchmark for content and quality in episodic gaming.

First things first, Pankapu is NOT an adventure game, as the vast majority of episodic experiences tend to be. It is a 2D action-platformer that’s sort of like Rayman Origins / Legends crossed with Dust: An Elysian Tail. It’s a surprisingly meaty experience, too, its 22 levels lasting somewhere in the ballpark of three to four hours, plus additional hours needed to find the hundreds of collectibles and earn all of the achievements. (It took me over six hours to achieve 100% completion.) The experience is fleshed out to the point where abilities are given time to grow and become fully developed, like a traditional video game. Honestly, if I wasn’t told beforehand that this was one episode in an ongoing series, I would have thought it was a complete standalone game.

Pankapu‘s story unfolds on two fronts. The tale opens by introducing Djaha’rell, a young child who has suffered some sort of trauma and is now plagued by terrifying nightmares. To help quell his child’s fears, the father tells a bedtime story about Omnia, the World of Dreams, a tranquil place of hope and harmony now endangered by nightmarish creatures called Hya’Nagis. Birthed from Dream Matter, a guardian named Pankapu is entrusted with cleansing Omnia of this dark corruption. This story unfolds through gameplay from the perspective of Pankapu, as the player character, inside the dream world, while memory fragments discovered throughout Omnia hint at events with Djaha’rell in the real world. Cutscenes are presented as a sort of hybrid between comic-style artwork and text and the pages of a fairytale storybook. Collecting all of the fragments reveals a fully animated memory sequence at the end of the episode.

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On a macro level, the game closes in episodic fashion, with story threads still to be unraveled as the adventure continues in future installments. However, on a micro level there’s still a sense of closure to events contained within this chapter. The ending leaves you eager to see where things go next, but it doesn’t just cut off and leave you dangling with an anticlimactic cliffhanger. I felt fully satisfied, as if I’d played a standalone game ending with a teaser for a sequel.

Pankapu’s quest treads familiar action-platforming ground, split equally between combat and acrobatic traversal. The platforming side of the game consists of genre standard elements of jumping over deadly water pits with poisoned balls spitting up into the air at timed intervals, running from boulders as they roll down from an above ledge to crush you, and hopping across series of platforms that appear and disappear based on proximity or drop out from underneath you immediately upon contact. There are spike traps, walls and ceilings lined with thorns, hovering platforms that move and rotate in different patterns, platforms that must be ridden like a boat along a river of obstacles, and dark caverns lit only by the glowing aura around the player character until environmental light sources are activated to temporarily brighten the entire area.

While running and jumping through Omnia’s lovely forests of crystal and flowery meadows, gelato blobs, bat-like Upaki, clawed Zoldates, and other creatures of the nightmare world must be slain or avoided. What differentiates Pankapu from the countless other 2D platformers is its real-time Aegis transformation mechanic. Pankapu’s starting Aegis, Bravery, sees him outfitted with a sword, capable of a basic three-strike combo as well as a jump into a downward thrust, and a shield for blocking projectiles. In Bravery form, he’s built for melee attack and defense but not so much for agility. Eventually the Ardor Aegis is acquired, equipping Pankapu with a bow and arrow for ranged attacks, as well as abilities to double jump and dodge through attacks rather than physically block them.

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Each Aegis has unique special abilities as well, used at the expense of an energy pool of Anima Points, which are regenerated by blocking/dodging attacks, providing a unifying link between the offensive and defensive mechanics. The Bravery form allows for a boomeranging sword throw and a charged area-of-effect attack, while Ardor lets you lay down traps and charge up a volley of three homing arrows. The Aegis abilities can be further modified with elemental attributes through Nebula. This first episode features two Nebula, one that adds fire and explosive properties to attacks, and another that imbues weapons with the force of nature, turning traps into root snares or adding to the third combo sword hit a wave of thorns that spikes up from the ground for a wider range of damage. Certain enemies even react differently to each Nebula, so there is a subtle strategy involved with choosing the right power for the moment at hand.

Switching between Aegis and Nebula is all done completely–and intuitively–in real time like an instant costume change, opening up many opportunities to seamlessly cycle in and out of different forms depending on the situation, enemy, or hazard presented at any given moment. Even though the levels are all self-contained environments, the maps are laid out with alternate routes and hidden areas that can only be reached by returning later when the necessary abilities have been acquired. The progression of growing in power and revisiting previous areas deftly extends gameplay without feeling like blatant padding or tedious backtracking.

Collectibles also abound. Cute beings of hope known as Mudjin can be found throughout Omnia’s environments by the hundreds, many tucked away behind overlapping foreground foliage or hiding in tricky areas that require a sharp eye and higher level of platforming skill to reach. Collecting fragments of Lutanite or Nagito extends Pankapu’s health and AP bars following the usual video game math of four fragments adding up to one extra point. Every 25 Mudjin collected comes with the reward of a Lutanite fragment, so there’s a meaningful reason to catch ’em all. Finding secret Itopian Forges upgrades the attack power of the Aegis artifacts. Even just exploring the world and killing certain quantities of the different enemy types is a form of collectible hunting, as information about each creature, character, location, fragment, and artifact is logged into the pause menu storybook journal for reference at any time, alongside the world map level select and settings. The one annoying thing with the collectibles is that they aren’t auto-saved at the point of collection, which means if you fall before reaching the next checkpoint, you have to re-collect everything since the last checkpoint. This can be frustrating in spots where you pick up two or three hard to get Mudjin between checkpoints, only to die and have to go out of your way to gather them all up again.

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My only other complaints have to do with some buggy elements as well as other little imperfections. Of greatest significance is a bug I encountered at the end of the game. At the very moment of defeating the final boss, the camera zoomed in on the center of the level and just froze there, preventing me from being able to continue through to the ending cutscene and credits scroll. I beat the final boss three times and got the same thing, but thankfully on the fourth attempt, made in a last gasp of desperation, whatever screw was loose suddenly tightened up so I was able to finish–even though the scene still froze for around 30 seconds and sort of glitched out, so I’m not certain that I saw exactly how the final boss moment was intended to play out.

Another bug that set me back earlier in the game resulted in a mysterious loss of progress. I reached a certain point in one session before quitting out, and then the next time I booted the game two levels that I had previously completed were no longer highlighted on the map, forcing me to replay those stages to get back to where I actually left off, collectibles included. The game auto-saves after each level (yes, there’s an icon that pops up in the corner of the screen to let you know when it’s saving), so I’m not exactly sure what happened there.

Of lesser importance, I’ve noticed some glaring inconsistencies in the cutscenes between the voiced narration and the speech bubble text of the storybook imagery (perhaps that was intentionally done for effect, to represent the father personalizing the story as he reads it?), and that resolution and controller settings don’t save beyond the current session, so they need to be reconfigured each time. Oh and as a completionist, I’m also rather peeved by one last achievement, for finding every Mudjin, that won’t pop even though I have indeed collected all of them, according to the journal stat menu.

[Update–9/22/2016] Since this review was originally published, the developer has released a quick first patch that appears to have addressed the end boss glitch, the issue with configuration settings not saving, and the achievement bug, so scratch those off the list of things to worry about.

After Pankapu‘s glorious debut, my expectations for what an episodic game should offer will forever be elevated. Yeah, okay, so it still sucks having to wait until early next year (Q1 2017 is the current schedule) for the release of the next installment–that’s just the nature of episodic gaming, I hate to say. But the volume of content, depth and breadth of gameplay mechanics, exquisite audiovisual fidelity, and gorgeous art direction and animation that’s stuffed into this single $5 episode is impressive to say the least.

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Pros:
+ Episodic game with the scope and scale to stand on its own
+ Interesting dual front storyline
+ Tight, responsive combat and platforming controls
+ Cool real-time Aegis transformation mechanic
+ Luscious, gorgeously animated visuals
+ Dreamy music

Cons:
– A few bugs and areas lacking in polish
– Having to wait for the next episode

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac/Linux (also planned for PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, NX)
Publisher: Plug in Digital
Developer: Too Kind Studio
Release Date: 9/21/2016
Genre: Episodic 2D Action-Platformer
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: The first episode is on Steam for $4.99, or in a bundle with an episode two pre-order for $9.99.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!