Review: Pocket Kingdom

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Review copy provided by publisher

Story is a bit of an optional feature in puzzle games. Some of my favorite puzzle games have none at all, and even classics like Professor Layton keep the plot and puzzles almost entirely separated. Pocket Kingdom surprised me because on the surface it looked to be an assortment of very pretty puzzle rooms and little else. But those rooms are populated by an entire society of characters ready to explain the history and workings of their little world. You’ll be getting equal parts brain-teasers and world-building here, and you’ll need  to be paying attention to both to get the most out of this challenging title.

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Burly adventurer-for-hire Tim Tom has taken a job to bring back photos of the mysterious Pocket Kingdom, a floating island of legend. Turns out the easy part is finding it, because Tim plants his airship into the side of it and now has to find a new way off. But no one who lands on Pocket Kingdom leaves again, thanks to some mind-bending enchantments the slumbering god Yumo placed on the place. No matter which direction you go, you end up back where you started, so most of the folks that ended up here decided to stay right where they are. Not everything is so cut and dry in the kingdom, though, and there may yet be a way back home for Tim if he can penetrate the many mysteries of gods and men to be found here.

None of that is exaggeration, mind you, and the many NPCs you meet will helpfully explain it all. Pocket Kingdom (so-called because it is said to exist in “Yumo’s pocket”) is an array of a hundred or so rooms connected by doorways, ladders, and portals. Any other means of egress, like stepping or falling off the edge of the screen, just loops you back around to the other side. This is both a major plot point and gameplay mechanic, and I have the utmost respect for any game that intertwines the two. Right from the start the characters you meet explain both the rules and the setting, building it up as a fully-functioning society you’re trying to escape with different figures and factions to deal with. It almost feels like Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky except populated, which is something I’m surely not alone in wanting for ages.

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Interactions with NPCs are pretty simple dialogues, though you’ll need to keep track of who offers what items for trade and who sends you to do what. Your map and diary are both useful for this, with the former marking key item locations (and allowing instant travel after a certain point) and the latter spelling out all the important plot beats. That leaves you free to focus the majority of your brain power on the puzzles, which you will surely need and then some. The mechanics of Pocket Kingdom mean you’ll have to approach puzzles from more than just a 2D perspective, keeping in mind how the screen wrapping will affect you, the crates you push, and the traps you contend with. As if that wasn’t enough, the game also introduces gravity flipping and switch-operated platforms early on, which multiplies the complexity to an incredible degree.

Pocket Kingdom is the kind of game that can easily get too tricky to finish, depending on how well you acclimate to the mix of mechanics. It doesn’t appear to be a long game, around three to four hours, but getting stumped on a puzzle or two can balloon that out or put you off the game entirely. There’s a wonderful story to unravel here, set in a picturesque fantasy world of warm pixel art and soothing music, but you’ll have to tackle some devilish rooms to see it all. For my part, the setting and richness of the experience is more than enough reason to get lost in this one, and as long as you’re aware of what you’re getting into, I’d encourage you to do the same.

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