Thursday, September 4, 2014

Pikmin 3 (Wii U) Review

Pikmin 3 is a garden of delights. It is an experience that evokes both a sense of childlike imagination and natural beauty. These are attributes which could also be applied to the previous two Pikmin games, however Pikmin 3 refines old elements and adds new ones and emerges as perhaps the best in the series. The improved processing power of the Wii U also lends to a more beautifully realized natural world than ever before. This review will focus primarily on the main story mode of Pikmin 3, so most everything I say is in regards to that aspect of the game. I did spend some time with Mission Mode and managed to earn at least a bronze medal on every course (I also got a few silvers and one platinum, if you’re curious). Mission Mode is actually quite a substantial side dish with some decent DLC (that adds several unique new environments to explore) and is overall a cool bonus for those looking for a pure, focused strategy experience. I haven’t had a chance to play the multiplayer Bingo Battle mode with friends, but I did check it out by myself just to get a feel for what it was about, and it actually seems like it’d be an intense competition and a lot of fun with some buddies around. Also, Mission Mode and Bingo Battle have some of the game’s most interesting environments (especially if you get the DLC for Mission Mode), and you’ll never see most of them if you only play the story mode.

Pikmin 3 caught me off guard when booting up the game for the first time because after the initial load-up screen, the story began immediately. There were no menus, nothing to break the immersion, just an immediate dive into the story. I was greeted with a view of outer space and a planet as a narrator began to tell me about the plight of this world, which is known as Koppai. Due to ill planning and resource management, Koppai had exhausted its food supply. After a series of probes were dispatched to find nearby potential sources of food on other planets, one scout came back with results: a mysterious, wild world dubbed PNF-404 seemed to provide a possible source of nourishment for the Koppaites, and so three explorers (or “captains” as I’ll be calling them, as they are the captains of the Pikmin)—Alph, Brittany, and Charlie (A, B, and C…get it?)—set off the explore PNF-404 and try to rescue their home planet.

The planet Koppai
However, something goes wrong upon arriving at the massive, imposing planet and the S.S. Drake (that’s the name of our protagonists’ spaceship) experiences a rough entrance into PNF-404’s atmosphere before the three explorers are ejected and crash land in different regions of the planet’s surface. The early parts of the game follow one protagonist at a time, starting with Charlie, who quickly finds himself in a terrifying situation. Next we meet up with Alph, who goes about trying to find his lost friends. These early stages and the narrative surrounding them makes this Pikmin game stand out from its predecessors both from a narrative standpoint and a gameplay one. This introduction made me feel engrossed in the Koppaites’ plight and made the progression of the game feel more natural than the traditional formulaic Pikmin approach (which the game eventually does fall into; not necessarily a bad thing, just a point to note). Thanks to Pikmin 3’s main mechanic of having to harvest giant fruit in order to make juice in order to keep surviving, I felt more directly connected with the story than ever before in the series; the game brings back the sense of urgency from the original Pikmin, but with a more forgiving twist: as long as I keep gathering fruit, I’ll be able to keep surviving, instead of there being a set number of days from the beginning.

Pikmin 3 also does a wonderful job of easing the player into its mechanics, which could potentially be overwhelming for new players (they were for me at least when I first played the original Pikmin), such as how to efficiently manage switching off between the three captains in the game in order to make the most of each day. To start, the game makes sure the player is comfortable controlling one captain, than introduces a second one, and eventually gives the player command of all three captains at once. One early level teaches the player how to effectively use two captains by tasking Alph and Brittany, separated on opposite sides of a region, to work together and use Pikmin to build a massive bridge that will allow them to reconnect with each other. This “tutorial” portion doesn’t feel overbearing or pandering, and doesn’t really feel like a tutorial at all, thanks to the pressure to continue to collect fruit and survive and the way new mechanics and Pikmin types are measuredly introduced.

I enjoyed the narrative in Pikmin 3 quite a bit. The central plight of the three captains works well enough and their personalities are fleshed out through optional interactions in the S.S. Drake in between each in-game day, coupled with charming gibberish “voice acting”. But besides this, there’s also a mystery surrounding the heroes from the earlier Pikmin games, slowly detailed through memos scattered throughout the environments that hint at the fact that another adventure is simultaneously going on with our old friends Olimar and Louie. Eventually the paths of all of these characters meet, which leads to some surprising twists and unexpected moments. All this culminates in a bizarre finale that is unique, intense and surprisingly creepy. 

You'll need to split tasks between the captains to get the most out of each day
Pikmin 3, like its predecessors, can be quite a stressful game at its core: it relies on strict time management, keen strategizing, and a quick mind in order to properly command an army of hundreds of tiny creatures against hordes of gigantic and fearsome creatures while also solving problems and adding to an ever-growing fruit supply needed for survival. There are few things in video games that I’ve found more distressing than having a situation in a Pikmin game spiral out of control, and few sounds more disheartening than the cries of tons of tiny Pikmin meeting their demise. Thankfully, most of these situations can be avoided by careful planning and strategic thinking. There are some situations in Pikmin 3, however, that I have trouble avoiding even with strategic thinking, often brought about by the annoying design decision that has persisted throughout the series to have idle Pikmin automatically perform certain actions such as carry or attack nearby objects and attack certain enemies against my will, which can lead to confusion and unexpected consequences. I’d rather have full control over everything my army of Pikmin does, so I can effectively strategize. These instances can be very annoying, but luckily, with a quick toot of the whistle to call the Pikmin back, I can usually avoid any serious damage and thus these circumstances are a nuisance, but not too detrimental to the experience. Despite this gripe, I found that by using the in-game map to plan ahead, dividing labor between captains, and trying to get the most out of each thirteen minute day, a sense of supreme satisfaction can be attained after a particularly fruitful day, the likes of which few other video games have been able to provide for me.

Pikmin 3 employs several control schemes, but the one that I would recommend is a dual scheme of using the Wii remote/nunchuck combination and the Wii U GamePad. This setup, which requires juggling two controllers, is certainly awkward and far from ideal, but I find the Wii remote pointer controls to be the best way to play Pikmin and unfortunately if I want to view the area map and a plethora of other important information, I have to use the GamePad because there is no option to display any of this information on the TV screen. This is a silly and aggravating decision on the developers’ part, and one that makes me think Nintendo simply stubbornly wanted to shoehorn GamePad functionality into the game, as they could have easily mapped the information on the GamePad’s screen to any of the numerous unused buttons on the Wii remote (in fact, they did exactly this in the Wii version of Pikmin 2). I found that by placing the GamePad on a small table to my side that I could easily glance at the map when I needed to, while using the Wii remote and nunchuck for all my main actions. This method works, but is very cumbersome, especially when I find myself frequently putting the Wii remote and nunchuck on the floor to pick up the GamePad for a few seconds to scroll through the map for a moment, before putting it back down and switching controllers again. In addition to housing a map, the GamePad mirrors a device that the three captains use in the game called a “KopPad”, a personal portable computer of sorts which stores memos, tips, and a thoughtfully written (with some hit or miss humor) fruit file detailing all the edible matter the player finds in the game. An option to use the GamePad only is also available complete with off-TV screen play, where a player has the option to use the traditional face buttons, or (thanks to an update) use the stylus and touch screen to control almost every action. Finally, the Wii U Pro Controller can also be used and at least in Mission Mode, this option also requires the use of the GamePad if I want a map (as of this writing, I am not sure if this also applies to story mode, but I’d say it’s a safe bet). These control methods all work decently, but not as well as the Wii remote and nunchuck, which allows the player to precisely and fluidly aim and throw their Pikmin. While having the GamePad serve as a hub of information is a nice idea and being able to always glance at a detailed area map is nice (if you can find something nearby to prop the GamePad on), if I want to have the optimal control experience with Pikmin 3 I unfortunately need to handle two different controllers at once. This issue doesn’t ruin the game by any means, but I would have greatly appreciated an option to be able to bring the information on the GamePad up on the TV screen with the simple press of a button. The whole point of pushing all the menus and maps and so on to the GamePad’s screen is to make things more convenient for the player (see: The Wind Waker HD), but there is little that is convenient about the way Pikmin 3 uses the GamePad if the player chooses to use a Wii remote and nunchuck to control the game.

Managing two controllers at once isn't the best thing ever

On a more positive note, the feel and atmosphere of Pikmin 3 is one of the areas where the experience truly excels. I can practically feel the textures on the lovingly detailed fruit models in the game, as well as taste the juice from newly acquired fruit when it cascades into a tiny container before being sealed in with a satisfying “Thuke!” The visuals, set pieces, sound effects, and ambient musical score create an atmosphere that is unrivaled, except for the previous Pikmin titles. Thanks to a fully realized, high definition natural world, Pikmin 3 captures the feeling of being a tiny character in a huge environment better than ever before. A new ability to use the GamePad as a camera to look at one’s surroundings and even up at the sky only adds to this feeling and puts a new perspective on the world of Pikmin, although I’m not sure how to feel about the blurry and muddy-looking flat images used for the skyline when in camera mode. But I do love taking pictures of the environments in the game and posting them on Miiverse; after The Wind Waker HD and Pikmin 3, I feel like every Wii U game should have a camera function, at least those of the adventure variety. I love chronicling my journey, especially in a game like Pikmin 3 where each region is a lovingly crafted garden that invites players to thoroughly explore it. Climbing onto overturned flower pots, investigating drainpipes jutting out of ruined brick walls, exploring caverns filled with luminous mushrooms, and travelling on a lily pad down a stream in an autumn wonderland is delightful for a nature lover such as myself, as well as for someone like me who loves appreciating the finer details in one’s surroundings that often go unnoticed. Like Pikmin 2, Pikmin 3’s regions take players through the four seasons in all their beauty, while focusing even more on organic sights this time around (although the remnants of a long extinct human civilization can still be spotted here and there, half buried in the dirt, or being embraced by vines and plants). The ambient soundtrack, just like in the previous Pikmin titles, is used in conjunction with realistic outdoor sound effects to compliment these environments perfectly and is used to great effect to evoke both a sense of peace and a sense of urgency when appropriate (and occasionally a sense of apprehension and dread, such as in the game’s eerie final level).

The Pikmin series, and thanks to its even more life-like world Pikmin 3 especially, draw up a childhood wonder in me that stems from my long fascination with and love for tiny worlds. When I was a child, I would look at something like a garden or a patch of grass and imagine it as a forest, a miniature realm, a world full of life and tiny inhabitants that most people simply walk past without ever noticing (actually, I still do this). On warm spring and summer days, I would turn on the garden hose and let it run, creating a miniature bubbling brook that cut through the grassy jungle, carving out streams in the landscape. I would use small toys as avatars and act out a journey in my head as I made them roam down long planks of wood and through the interior of my grandfather’s house, imagining these environments as levels from a video game in my head. The Pikmin series draws on this creativity of mine and delivers a real video game tailor-made for my imagination. In truth, the Pikmin games are stressful experiences for me to play and my own personal struggle with anxiety doesn’t help matters. I’ve also never been much into strategy games, but the payoff and satisfaction of having a successful day in a Pikmin game make everything worth it. Pikmin is a dual kind of experience, a contradictory experience even, because even though it is stressful, it is also peaceful, feeding both my imagination and my love of natural beauty, merging my love of nature and my love of video games with beautiful harmony. It’s a fascinating blend and makes Pikmin an experience that is very special to me.

A beautiful experience

Pikmin 3 is a beautiful video game on many levels. The game’s concept is so charming that the actual end product doesn’t even seem to matter, but it just so happens that this is also a fleshed-out experience. It is also delightful enough from an aesthetic perspective, but the fact that there is a balanced, satisfying, and engaging game here is an extra bonus. I know that throughout this review, I’ve admitted that much of what makes Pikmin 3 great was present in the previous two entries in the series, and it’s true that Pikmin 3 doesn’t necessarily evolve the franchise in a ton of significant ways, but it refines and polishes, and brings the world of Pikmin to life like never before.  In fact, thanks to a streamlined design that cuts out tedious elements from the past two Pikmin games and adds smart new features, a visual presentation that captures the vision of the Pikmin series better than ever, and a merging of ideas from the past two Pikmin games in addition to several original ones, Pikmin 3 might be the definitive Pikmin experience (although Pikmin 2 will always hold a particularly special place in my heart). I definitely think it is the most accessible Pikmin experience, and I mean that as a positive; the game isn’t dumbed down, it just feels much more intuitive and streamlined, and does a terrific job of teaching players its mechanics without being pandering (my only complaint in this regard are the boss hints that ruin the discovery of finding out a foe’s weakness for oneself, but I suppose players can choose to avoid picking up these notes if they wish, and ultimately they don’t really detract too much from the experience anyway). I recommend Pikmin 3 to both those who have enjoyed the previous games in the series and those who have never touched a Pikmin game alike. When Shigeru Miyamoto first unveiled Pikmin 3 at E3 2012, opening Nintendo’s press conference with a montage of Pikmin scampering about the real world (and even ending up in Miyamoto-san’s jacket pocket), he playfully warned that players might start seeing Pikmin all around them after experiencing the game for themselves. He was right, as I find myself looking at small gardens and patches of flowers and imagining Alph, Brittany and Charlie roaming these environments with Pikmin trailing behind them. I see an overgrown garden and think of how it could be a level in Pikmin. I also found myself with a particularly strong craving for fruit while playing Pikmin 3. This is the strength of this game’s imagery and tone. This sense of the game carrying over into the real world and captivating my imagination on a day to day basis is also something that many of my favorite gaming experiences end up doing. When I can’t stop thinking about the game, I know the experience is something truly special indeed.

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