This week on “indie games are called the darndest things;” telling everyone I’m reviewing Shu and then having to explain I’ve not undergone a sudden lifestyle change to become a fashion critic without sounding too exasperated. Shu is, of course, the name of our plucky picidae protagonist, and just to be clear has nothing to do with Deliveroo CEO Will Shu or the Scoville Heat Unit, despite what Google will have you believe (though this game certainly delivers (sorry)).
The opening cutscene of Shu, in simplistic, clean, charming storyboards, imparts what little plot is to be had; Shu’s grandparent (or unrelated old person who just looks like them, you know what they say about assuming) informs Shu that an unrelenting storm is coming that will flood the land, and to prevent this weird bird statues that make the sun come out need to be turned on. I think, it’s all implicit – and much more amusing to assume that Grandpa Shu owes the Storm money and is making this all up. Either way, as if on cue said Storm arrives – and would more accurately be described as “terrifying amorphous purple mass of arms and teeth” – if storms looked like that no way in hell would I be living in Wales of all places.The Storm squishes Old Bird (which is by far one of the most undignified ways to die), destroys the village, scatters the villagers and sends our hirundinidae hero plummeting into the floodwaters. Shu must rescue the villagers, find sanctuary and, as the game’s publicity is very excited to point out, “OUTRUN THE END OF THE WORLD” in all caps.
And what a world it is, too. Given the quote-unquote “plot” is all about the juxtapositioning of the Storm and the bird-persons, the visuals certainly fit the bill. Super-imposed on top of detailed, varied and oftentimes gorgeous backgrounds is Shu, hyper-cartoony and flat as a pancake, making them stand out like a lion in a library – which as well as looking good is a godsend for fast-paced platforming. Because of this, the developers have been able to make Shu’s character quite small on the screen without losing them, so you can really see a lot of this pretty world – again, aiding the gameplay.
I really do like a lot of Shu’s design in general – all the individual pieces of visual design, sound design, game design interlock and compliment each other more than an £8 indie game really has any right to. Shu being tiny makes the world feel lonely and decaying: only enhanced by how the villagers you rescue work. Shu’s only inherent ability is a useful but somewhat unwieldy glide, but each anxious, adrift avian you meet grants you another ability, whether it be opening and closing flowers to make platforms, a double-jump, and similar. But of course, every couple of levels these helpful friends get rescued, leaving you once again alone and without the freedom of movement you had come to enjoy – it’s a really clever way of infusing the “feel” or “atmosphere” (or other airy-fairy game design words) directly into the gameplay itself. This is all topped off with a traditional, hopeful, but ultimately stark and desolate soundtrack to make for one of the most polished indie experiences out there.
I’ve alluded to the gameplay above but the short version is, and I hope I’m not blowing any minds with this: it’s a platformer. If you like platformers, you’ll enjoy this; if you don’t it doesn’t do anything revolutionary that’s going to change your mind. The best comparison is probably the two recent Raymans (and even being mentioned in the same breath as those games is high praise indeed if you ask me) in that the game is fast-paced and knows it. You’re allowed to hone your skills with your new companions in a mostly safe, even explorative environment, but once the Storm and its complimentary heart-attack-inducing “RUN” message show up, you’d better be an expert or you’re going to be purple-blob food. It’s a natural-feeling, rewarding difficulty curve to compliment some tight, responsive controls.
“Aaron, you’re doing it again. You’ve been nothing but complimentary for 700 words yet I saw from the thumbnail you gave this game an 8/10, what gives.” Hush, strange disembodied voice, I’m getting to it. The main issue I have is with the collectibles, oddly enough. The “secrets” are cool and the butterflies at least aid the platforming, giving our leaping lepidopterist an indication where to land over blind jumps, but the “babbies” are just jarring from a design perspective to the point of irritation. It’s not just the fact that they do nothing – other recent Switch-bound indie platformer Celeste demonstrates pointless collectibles are fine if they’re fun to collect with its strawberries – but the baby birds are either just placed sort of out of the way without a huge amount of thought, or put in Storm sections where you’ll zoom past them, so you have to actively kill yourself and drag your heels the next time through, the complete antithesis of those parts of the game. If feels like they’re there because indie platformers are supposed to have collectibles and for no other reason, but they stand out in a game so otherwise thoroughly well-designed. Asides from that, some of the button choices on the Switch feel questionable – the improved glide ability using a different button to Shu’s glide takes some getting used to, for instance – and some of the obstacles feel a little cheap the first couple times you get mushed into a feathery paste by them.
For the price though, there’s not much that can compete with Shu; the two comparisons I’ve made for instance, Celeste and Rayman Legends, both cost more than double Shu’s wallet-comforting £7.69. There are cheaply made, shoddily-ported mobile games on the Switch charging almost that much, whereas Shu is a finely crafted gem that runs a treat both docked and undocked – much better than I manage to run from horrific purple storms.