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Review: Carto (Sunhead Games)

I have been a huge advocate of indie games throughout the years and when a game like Carto comes along it's easy to see why, sure there are tons of terrible indie games and tons of good ones and from time to time you get some exceptional ones. Carto is a wonderful map-based puzzle game, layered with themes of family, nature, and new beginnings bundled together in a charming tribalistic aesthetic. It is a heart-warming indie gem that I loved every minute of playing, however short the experience may have been.

The phrase ‘it's not the destination, it’s the journey’ often comes to mind when reflecting on Carto’s story. A young girl in search of her grandam is nothing new, but on your quest you will encounter all manner of imaginative, endearing, and detailed characters. The story is not solely about the quest, it is about the small favours you do along the way and the friends you make in return. It makes the world feel alive as you become part of their small slice of life feeling as if you have made an emotional impact on these characters. The art style is reminiscent of primitive cave paintings or a children’s picture book. Its bold, blotchy, and pastel-watercolour visuals lend themselves to a calming, mellow atmosphere. The simplistic design is part of what makes this game so delightfully charming. The music too is great, again echoing the tribalistic themes with its rhythmic beats and accompanying woodwind tones, it is quite magical and transports you directly into the world of Carto. Despite what might seem like basic design this is in no way a flaw of the game; the simplicity works wonders for the game. There is nothing wrong with straightforwardness if it is polished to perfection.

Sunhead Games’ innovation is what makes Carto so special it is an incredibly refreshing hook for a game, and I think Sunhead Games have crafted nothing shy of a mini-masterpiece. The gameplay consists of connecting map pieces to solve puzzles and travel the islands. It is a steady learning curve understanding how the game plays and follows a set of rules like no other. Puzzles take patience and planning, rewarding you for taking your time. It also pays dividends to read the dialogue, as that’s where you’ll be finding most of your clues, if you think you’ll be button-mashing your way through the speech, your journey won’t last long past the tutorial. The characters are all well written enough that it does not come across like a chore to invest in their story. When introducing new fresh ideas, it is easy to get carried away and flaunt your impressive repertoire of complex puzzles from the get-go, luckily for Carto, this is not the case. It does not barrage you with a hundred different ideas instead it shows restraint, letting you grasp the game at your own leisurely pace. Your learning and progression are directly tied with the main character, you grow together and by the end become master cartographers fully comprehending the game’s mechanics. It is hard to put into words the extent of this game's innovation and I think it is much better experienced than read in a review.

Carto is one of the most polished indie games I’ve had the pleasure of playing this year and if wanting more of the game is the only downside well, that’s just my greed yearning for more of the already fantastic experience Carto offers. It may be a short and concise experience, but Carto does one thing well and it nails that idea with incredible effect. It is currently available on all platforms and sits at a comfortable price point of around fifteen pounds which is a fantastic value proposition for the quality of game you get.

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