Carto delivers a certain flavor of indie game that’s thoroughly pleasant. It has something to say. It doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’ll put aesthetics first and focus on exploring a few ideas well, rather than burying itself in mechanical ambition. It brightens your weekend. Offering a sense of place and a sense of accomplishment in equal measure, it’s there for you when you need a pick-me-up.
The new release from developer Sunhead Games and publisher Humble Games, Carto is an exercise in literal world-building. You guide a young girl through a series of environments, moving closer and closer to meeting her grandmother and heading home. You’ll do this by solving puzzles and helping people you meet along the quest.
How? Well it feels like the team at Sunhead had an epiphany during a play of Carcassonne. The world is broken into square tiles, and you reposition these on the map (matching the environments on each side) to reconfigure your paths. We won’t spoil the more complex puzzles in the late game—they essentially are the game—but an example may help understand how this works. Perhaps a villager says to meet someone at the “north dock,” but there’s nothing but forest up there. Rearranging and rotating the pieces of the island, and making sure you have a pathway to get there, can create a north dock. Once you’ve done that, your new pal will suddenly appear there.
Carto describes itself as “a chill adventure game,” which is accurate. This game doesn’t put any time pressures on you, or force you to make quick or skillful movements. You’ll ask around for hints at what to do next. You’ll pull up the map and think about what your pieces can assemble. You solve it, get another map piece or two, and work on something new. Each world builds to a certain level of complexity and a decent number of pieces, but then you wrap that up and move on. (We will say — again, no spoilers here — that the later levels do some unexpected things with puzzles that deliver that elusive “a-ha” moment.)
A lot of Carto has been built to appeal to those who love subtle, heartfelt narrative. It’s definitely a “wholesome game,” through and through, so there’s a lot more hope and a lot less stress. This doesn’t mean it’s without strife. There’s loss, there’s yearning. But these stories are thought-out, and you’ll generally leave knowing things will be okay for all of the people you meet, and that feels intentional and purposeful. The Story Chalet, a location you’ll reach before you spend too much time in the game, serves as a hub for your adventures. There, you can read more about the worlds you visit and the characters you meet, and it’s in this context that it feels optional in a way that makes it more enticing.
Carto also has a distinct vibe. The art style is bright and vaguely abstract in a way that works for a small dev team and still feels different from anything we’ve played before. Each world leans hard into a color palette, so every chapter feels distinct without a lot of effort to set the scene. It makes sense, then, that your language is world-building itself. Your young protagonist, also named Carto, replies only in emoticons, letting her actions do the talking. It lets her show personality without overriding your authorship! And also a game can only get so serious when you’re spouting ASCII smiley faces at people.
It’s hard to imagine someone who would play Carto and have a bad time. It’s that committed to low-stress, just-engaging-enough fun and a world you’ll like traipsing about for a couple of hours. It doesn’t transcend to something that will be many players’ all-time favorite, but few games do. As it is, maybe you want a game that restores just a bit of your faith in community. That bolsters your hope that things will work out. That makes you feel like you are going to multiple different places that are not your home. Carto is great for that.
Carto will release worldwide on October 27, 2020 for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. It sports a $19.99 price tag.