I started this year with a bunch of lengthy RPGs. Opening up 2022 on Persona 4, Wildermyth, and Disco Elysium was a lot to take in all at once. When I wrapped up those games, the short, lighthearted photo game Toem was the perfect pick me up. I needed something relaxing and low stakes to recharge my batteries before I started diving into more involved games again. Toem tells a simple story about a kid who sets out on a trip to see a supernatural phenomenon called Toem. They pay for their trip in favors to community using their camera. The puzzles are simple and the mechanics straightforward but the appeal of the game comes in the charming presentation and quirky characters. While it wasn’t the sort of game that I normally consider to be up my alley, I played it at just the right time.
I’ve been hearing good things about Chicory: A Colorful Tale for a long time. Multiple journalists I follow had it on their game of the year lists and I have friends who have talked about how much they love the game. Folks really seemed to resonate with the story in a way that drew me to the game; I’ve had Chicory on my to-play list for quite some time as a result. But while Chicory seems cute and charming in a manner similar to Toem, I think this time I am playing a low stakes and relaxing game when that’s not the experience I’m looking for.
Chicory opens on a dog named after your favorite food (my character is named Pasta, so I’ll be using that throughout the article). Pasta works as the janitor at a tower that serves as the home to the Wielder, an artist with a magical paintbrush responsible for bringing color to the world. It doesn’t take long to learn that Pasta looks up to the current Wielder, Chicory, a great deal. While cleaning up a particular room the colors inside suddenly drain out. There is a funny moment where Pasta thinks themselves responsible (“I cleaned too hard!”) before realizing that the color has drained out of everything, everywhere. When Chicory is nowhere to be found but her magical brush is lying in the hallway, Pasta takes it up and heads outside to bring the color back on their own.
From a mechanical standpoint, bringing the color back involves actually coloring stuff in the environment. Each area and the characters within it start out black and white. Using the right stick (on Switch, at least) you can move the brush around the screen, which leaves a trail of paint when ZR is pressed. If R is pressed, it erases color. Pressing the L button changes the current color equipped while ZL changes the brush size. When holding the paint button down, the color spreads over an area and fills in all the space within a border. While using the brush, Pasta can walk around independently with the left stick. These basic abilities get expanded over time, but the core set of skills Pasta possesses are the basis of the game’s puzzles.
Puzzles vary depending on the area of the game. In town for example you might meet folks who want their homes to be painted certain colors or who want to see you wearing certain outfits. Out in the wild, you may have to color or uncolor plants to get them to grow or shrink. Certain surfaces serve as platforms that give you a bounce so you can launch across a short distance, getting you somewhere you can’t reach normally with Pasta’s movement. One puzzle in chapter two involved leading someone along a safe path by painting them a line to follow so they could avoid trouble in a tight space filled with bugs. They’re good simple puzzles that don’t break the low stakes, relaxing vibe of the game.
Now while I have emphasized Chicory’s cuteness and simplicity up to this point, I will say that there are some elements that promise a darker tone in the future. Chicory, the true wielder, is struggling with depression pretty seriously, and while I’ve had no meaningful interactions with her at this point the presence of optional content warnings in the options menu suggests those conversations may get heavy in the future. Additionally, chapter one ends with a boss fight against a relatively creepy, eldritch-seeming force of darkness that is essentially a series of floating eyeballs trying to kill you. Battles are still low-stakes – taking enough hits to her defeated doesn’t actually take you out of the fight and you can enable a command to skip boss fights entirely if you wish. But controlling Pasta and the brush separately, dodging attacks with the left stick while trying to rub paint in a monster’s eye with the right, has definitely been the most eventful part of the game so far. I’ll be curious to see how other boss fights manifest as the game goes on.
So far my favorite aspect of Chicory has been the characters. Pasta is endearing and funny, their parents are quirky and sweet, and most of the townsfolk have fun little interactions that change a bit as you talk to them repeatedly. But it isn’t as if there is no antagonism in the game. Pasta’s impromptu Wielder status is not well received by everyone and they meet resistance from other aspiring Wielders who see Pasta as an unworthy upstart. In chapter one you also spend some time with a brooding, mysterious former Wielder who is quick to tell you that you’ve made a huge mistake by ever taking up the brush. Chicory’s cute but the more I play, it seems like there’s a darkness beneath the surface I’m going to slowly uncover over time.
At this point early on, it is that potential darkness that keeps me interested in Chicory. I don’t have a problem with earnestly happy games – I’m glad they exist, and Toem really resonated with me when I played it. But the place I’m in right now, I want a different gaming experience than coloring. My hope is that the boss battles and puzzles will get mechanical enough to keep me going until I hit the point where the story really kicks in. If not, then maybe the wise thing to do would be to put Chicory down until I do need a game that’s light and easy.