Puzzle games are a tried and true formula that have persisted for as long as games have been around. That being said, there’s a lot of repetition and mimicry in the genre, not that it is normally a bad thing. Every so often, a new game comes around that throws the concept of what a puzzle is meant to be on its head, and Carto is one of them. Overflowing with charm, Carto is an exploratory puzzle game in which you manipulate the world around you in order to solve puzzles, make friends, and go back home. This is nothing short of one of the most delightful puzzle games I’ve ever played, and feels like a breath of fresh air to play.
Carto starts off very mildly with a bit of silent worldbuilding. While it is a simple story, it doesn’t make it any less impactful. After your grandmother makes a magical map, Carto (the character) accidentally uses it to brew up a storm, and falls out of the airship she and her grandmother were riding in. As she awakes, she realizes she needs to get back home, and finds the magical map that will make that possible. Again, the beauty is in the simplicity, as the world around you is meant to be wholly explored, and there is plenty of storytelling to be done around you. The characters you meet are mostly generic NPCs that build to the story of the island you visit. They offer hints to puzzles, as well as build towards the overall lore of the islands. As an outsider, Carto is a subject of interest, but everyone still treats her kindly.
Carto is a beautiful game, with a painted aesthetic that I completely adore. Everything from the NPCs to the environment has a painted look to it, and the bright color scheme adds to how jolly everyone is. Simple but fluid animations make the game feel incredibly smooth to play, and the snappy feel of the map mechanic makes the map puzzles and movement fluid and not frustrating. The main issue I’d have with most puzzle games is present in Carto, however. The main mechanic ends up enveloping all the gameplay, and there isn’t much to add to it aside from collecting more pieces. While there are many innovative ways of using the map for travel, walking around tends to take up most of the time, with minimal puzzles outside of moving the map around. Usually these are predicated by hints, allowing new areas to appear on the map or finding hidden items, but beyond that it’s mostly just walking around and collecting new map pieces. While it can get a bit tedious, Carto is more about the adventure than rushing it through. I thoroughly enjoyed relaxing and playing around with the map, even though I fully understand that it can get boring.
The gameplay is the biggest hit and miss with Carto, but it absolutely shines more than it fails. The moving map mechanic is incredibly innovative, and feels really fun to play with. While it can seem complicated to rearrange a map in its entirety, it is actually really intuitive and very simple. While at a glance it looks like you can get turned around and lost very easily, the best part is never feeling lost. In the most literal sense you can never get lost with your map, and while it isn’t a major “jump at you” feeling, it’s that comforting thought of “I know where I am at all times”. It’s hard to explain, but it feels much better than being lost in a vast open world with absolutely no direction of what to do. While it might be a bit hard figuring out a puzzle in Carto, you always have all the utilities to complete it. This, coupled with the fact that there’s absolutely no rush and you’re free to explore how you want is incredibly calming, and the game feels very nice to just take at your own pace.
Carto is one of those games that is absolutely perfect for a bit of a game session before bed. The music and environments are calming, the gameplay is fun and not stressful, and you get to choose how quickly you want to progress. There isn’t an ounce of rush in the game, and exploration is a reward in its own. This is easily a game that feels more about the journey than the destination, and surely that’s what the developers were going for. While there is a bit of tedium, I can wholeheartedly recommend Carto as a charming, chill puzzle game to play this winter.
Score: 8 out of 10
Reviewed on Windows PC (Steam)