A charming map tile-shifting puzzle game with a memorable personality.
Carto is a new video game from Humble Games and Sunhead Games that is hard to explain. This narrative-driven single-player puzzle game involves moving around map tiles to help others and make your way through the world. While it’s by no means a board game, the interaction with the overworld reminded me of one of my favorite aspects of Carcassonne where you lay out map tiles to create a unique countryside. That playful, creative aspect of Carcassonne is on full display in Carto, as using the map tiles in clever ways is the focus of the gameplay. Pair that with enjoyably cute writing and you have yourself an enthralling and chill 5+-hour adventure.
Players control Carto, a young girl who is separated from her grandma and tries to make use of a unique power to move map tiles around to get back home. Moving these map tiles changes the very structure of the world, making new paths accessible, unlocking new areas, or leading characters back to where they belong. Essentially every area introduces a new mechanic or twist and then iterates on that idea in numerous crafty ways. These concepts range from laying out tiles in a way that a new one appears in an empty spot to rotating forest tiles to make your way out of a maze a la the Lost Woods in Zelda games. It’s all smartly laid out in a way that regularly stumped me but never frustrated me. The only sour spots are a few puzzles that felt a little too subtly hinted at in a way that felt like I had to randomly stumble upon the solution. Regardless, the game regularly encourages out-of-the-box thinking constantly and that makes Carto a blast to play.
To complement the dynamite puzzling gameplay is the gorgeous visual presentation. The hand-drawn art style is vibrant, making all the locales and characters memorable. The chill music helps to evoke the overall relaxed vibe. Yes, the drive is to figure out a way home, but Carto helps everyone out along the way. Each chapter plays out as a Dragon Quest-esque vignette, where you enter a new area, meet new characters, and help them out in a time of need. The characters are all endearing, with some of my favorites being the helpful bear in the forest and the Storytender running the Story Chalet, which is a place where everything you’ve done is weirdly being written as you do it. Credit goes to Nick Suttner, who also worked on the story for Celeste and Guacamelee 2, for the charming writing.
Carto’s creativity is constantly on display in ways that surprised and delighted me essentially at every turn. It’s a tightly packed shot of brilliance that manages the balancing act of spending just the right amount of time in an area and on an idea. I was left satisfied but still wanting more at the end of the adventure. The blend of soothing puzzle gameplay and optimistic story makes Carto both a top-shelf Switch indie and a welcome respite for this year.