Review: Paws

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I thought Might and Delight had already mastered the art of the cute video game with the first two Shelter titles, but Paws, a standalone spin-off to Shelter 2, somehow ramps the cuteness quotient up to a whole new level of make-you-wanna-cry adorable.

Paws is a Homeward Bound story of a lynx cub trying to find her way back to her family. The game begins similarly to Shelter 2, with a mother lynx cuddling and quietly purring away with her four cubs inside their den. The difference here, of course, is that the events are viewed from the perspective of one of the baby cubs (her name’s Inna by default, but you can change the name if you like) under the guidance of her mama, frolicking with her siblings, being fed, and learning how to hunt. Shortly into the game, something happens that causes Inna to become separated from her family, and she must learn to fend for herself in order to come of age and make a happy reunion.

In a lot of ways the game feels like a blend of concepts from both of its predecessors, flowing in a linear, scripted, level-based fashion more like the original Shelter, while also featuring larger environments that at least provide some semblance of Shelter 2‘s open-world design with hints of off-the-beaten path exploration and secret areas. So it’s the best of both worlds for the most part, though I imagine some returning players might see the narrowed focus as a step backward from the previous game’s free-roaming structure. While the world itself is smaller, the effective use of scaling makes you feel like a tiny lynx cub lost in the wilderness–for example getting caught up in the middle of a pack of wolves hunting a herd of deer, running amidst the stampede while the other animals tower over Inna like she isn’t even there.

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Where Paws veers away from both of its predecessors is in the overall tone of the gameplay. Playing as a mother badger or lynx in the Shelter games is about survival and the parental responsibility and tension that comes with protecting your young from the uncompromising dangers of the wild. A couple of tense moments notwithstanding, Paws is a lighter adventure platformer where progression revolves around running, jumping up ledges, and tracking the paw print trails of Inna’s family through a series of environments. You can hunt small critters like birds, frogs, and butterflies, but there isn’t a mandatory survival mechanic this time that forces you to hunt and feed to stay alive, nor is there any growth or seasonal progression (though there are variations in time of day, scenery, and weather for each level). Hunting, as well as running through puffballs, is basically just something to do as an energetic lynx kitten (and to pick up related achievements).

The game’s adventurous, playful spirit only grows over time. Roughly halfway through, Paws evolves into a playable episode of ‘Unlikely Animal Friends’ when Inna comes across a stranded bear cub. The two strike an immediate friendship, and after recovering its strength (with the help of Inna’s hunting and gathering skills to find food) the bear follows along as an AI friend, eating berry bushes to clear blocked pathways and serving as a piggy back stepstool for vaulting Inna up to higher ledges, where she can then push down fallen trees to create ramps for the bear to follow.

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Really, though, the bear’s primary purpose is to provide a needed source of companionship, making Inna less lonesome, and her journey less dangerous. Maybe I’m just a crazy animal lover, but I took great pleasure in constantly tapping away at the meow button to prompt the bear to grumble and growl in reply (or to chat with the other cubs and annoy mama lynx early on), creating a sense of friendly conversation as I played along. (Yes, I admit at times I may have even narrated my own dialogue over their sounds.) Watching the two best buds snuggle up for bedtime at the end of each level is about as sweet and touching as can be.

The only low point in an otherwise beautiful and heartwarming experience is a general lack of polish. Between animals sometimes clipping through each other, odd bear AI behaviors, occasional instances of wonky jump/ledge detection, invisible barriers that stop or restrict movement, and a random animation glitch here and there, the game feels just a little rough around the edges. When I first started playing, more serious problems like frequent crashes and bugged collectible and achievement tracking were prevalent, but thankfully those issues have been resolved through updates, so right now the concern is mostly minor cosmetic blemishes.

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Depending on how you play, Paws can either be completed in less than an hour, if you sprint through without bothering to take in the scenery and truly savor the experience, or, if you spend time to hunt and find all of the collectible elements (rare items, memories, and spirit scenes), it can take upwards of three hours or so. The story has two possible ending outcomes as well, and each hits on a different narrative note, so you’ll want to at least play through twice to see them both. If you have a keen enough eye to spot them, a number of other subtle visual cues and background elements that can be hard to catch make additional replays worthwhile. I’ve played through the game four times now, and each time I picked up on some extra little detail I hadn’t seen before that added another punch of emotion.

Short and simple though it may be, Paws has a depth of storytelling far beyond what its humble mechanics and production values let on. Through evocative use of symbolism, animal sounds, visual interactions, the occasional line of poetic verse, tonally spot-on music (Retro Family never disappoints!), and its signature abstract storybook art direction, Might and Delight manages to tell a powerful, bittersweet tale about the bonds that tie nature together–the unbreakable bond that connects Inna with her family even from afar, as well as the unlikely bond that builds between Inna and the bear cub, and fosters a will to survive within them both. Paws is off the charts cute and tugs hard on the heartstrings in all the right ways.

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Pros:
+ Quite possibly the cutest game ever
+ Minimalistic yet emotionally impactful storytelling
+ Playful platforming gameplay is a nice tonal change of pace for the series
+ Wonderful wilderness ambiance and music

Cons:
– A little rough around the edges
– Scale and survival mechanics dialed back some from Shelter 2

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Might and Delight
Developer: Might and Delight
Release Date: 3/24/2016
Genre: Adventure/Platformer
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by developer

Buy From: Steam, GoG, Green Man Gaming, or Indie Game Stand

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!