The approach to the puzzle genre can take many different forms, from abstracted block-shifting games like Tetris to characterful, intricately designed worlds which absorb the player. Norwegian studio Henchman & Goon’s brand new Nintendo Switch co-op game Pode is definitely in the latter camp, with a sumptuous visual design and soothing procedural soundtrack, creating a relaxing experience with only a few occasional challenge spikes.
The two main characters are the adorable Bulder and Glo, a rock-like creature and an orange glowing fallen star. While the game can be fully experienced in co-op with one Joy-Con controller, it’s got some smartly designed controls for its single-player experience as well. Bulder and Glo’s geometrically basic designs have a range of expressive animations and arm movements, despite the fact that they are visually over-simplistic; this seems to be by choice, because Pode’s environments are contrastingly eye-catching.
Part of the experience of playing Pode is discovering the different mechanics available to Bulder and Glo, and each level is structured in such a way as to slowly add mechanical complexities to the character basics. For instance, each character has an ability mapped to the right trigger which causes them to radiate a sphere of light. When Bulder does this, switches activate and rock formations swirl out of specific areas, and Glo can use it to float, compel plants to grow out of dirt, and illuminate hidden paintings on walls. There are many different uses and surprising environmental restorations you can summon with these powers, from activating moving platforms and hidden wind-gust seams to some creative teleportation maneuvers.
As with everything in the game, though, there is a combinative aspect. When holding the left Z-trigger, Glo and Bulder will seek each other out if separated, and if you use their abilities simultaneously while they are close together, they radiate a unified glow which activates both plant and rock elements at the same time. While most areas start off looking rather plain and polygonal, by the end of each level they will be thriving terrariums of bouncing red mushrooms, yawning jungle flowers, and elaborate lattices of quartz crystal.
The puzzle design is quite consistent throughout and comparable to similar 3D puzzle-platformers. Although some traversal can be tricky or a little bit fiddly, the platforming portions tend to be forgiving, making spacial awareness-type problem solving more important than quick reflexes. Even falling off a cliff simply causes a character to gamely bounce back up in a nearby spot, and the absolute darkest the game ever gets is when a character approaches the exit to an area alone — they stop in their tracks, turn around, and beseech the other to join them with a sad wave.
That’s just one example of Pode’s wonderful expressiveness, where characters cutely doze off when not in use, wave their arms, and gurgle a pleasant-sounding made-up language when awoken or bumped into. It’s hard not to be totally drawn into their relationship, and despite the fact that the story is generally underplayed and minimalist (Bulder is helping Glo, a fallen star, return to the sky), there remains a confident and poetic narrative about companionship that is thematically vital to the experience.
Assisting those themes is the soundtrack, which is similarly understated but creatively concentrated. The music constantly shifts as you play, subtly affected by the location of the player and what they are doing, and even absorbs the sounds of each character’s musical language in a way that feels intentional. It’s hard to say whether the soundtrack itself is memorable or not, but it functions as part of the game’s synesthetic texture and enhances the tranquil experience of playing it, even when you’re stuck on a puzzle.
While I encountered a few very minor bugs — occasionally, one of the characters got stuck behind a piece of the environment — the game has a convenient level select that is always accessible with a push off the minus button. This method also allows players to return to earlier areas and search for hidden collectibles, light paintings, or just to try their hand at another puzzle if the current one proves too taxing. These considerations to the player help secure Pode’s relaxing feel, making even the menu design and options consistent with the calm soul and sensibility of the game.
Pode is holistically peaceful and charming, with enough “a-ha!” moments to stimulate players who enjoy puzzle games to feel satisfied completing its levels. The real pull, though, is the mesmerizing art design, and the way it slowly absorbs the player into a feeling of serenity. Strangely, that feeling might even feel slightly compromised by playing alongside another person, making it the unusual case of being a co-op game that might be better recommended for its single-player experience.
Pode is available on the Nintendo Switch eShop today for $24.99.